The Crime of Wearing a Tallit

Empathy is never easy. As a man, I confess that I have struggled to be empathetic to the cause of the Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel). This group of women has been coming to the Kotel Hama’arivi (Western Wall) in the Old City of Jerusalem for close to a quarter century to pray in protest of the religious freedom they lack.

From thousands of miles away I have followed their plight after each Rosh Chodesh (new month) prayer service they conduct in the relatively small women’s section of the Kotel. In the past year or so I’ve read about the women who are detained or arrested for having the nerve to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) at the Kotel, which according to Israel law is to be treated as an Orthodox synagogue. While I took interest in their civil disobedience and was supportive of their efforts, I felt they were too focused on the Western Wall when in fact they were being allowed to hold their prayer services (women only or mixed) at the Southern Wall (Robinson’s Arch) which was historically more significant anyway.

Our group of male rabbis before heading down to the Kotel plaza

And then all that changed this morning. Together with about a dozen of my male rabbinic colleagues we woke up well before dawn and walked from our Jerusalem hotel to the Old City. I wrapped myself in my tallit, wound my tefillin (phylacteries) around my left arm and on my head, and joined my colleagues at the mechitza (dividing wall) next to the women’s section. Rather than holding our own separate service we joined the women in their prayers. Several of the women proudly wore tallitot and I even saw one woman wearing tefillin. It was exhilarating to watch the women begin to spontaneously dance during Hallel, the joyous, musical psalms for Rosh Chodesh.

Conservative Rabbis Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Debra Cantor at the Kotel 

Israeli police — both men and women — patrolled the women’s section. At first I thought this was to ensure their safety as angry protesters have thrown chairs at them in the past, but as I watched I could tell that one of the police officers was warning some of the women wearing tallitot. One female police officer videotaped the entire service, likely to prove that it was handled accordingly. A young man who works at the Kotel began moving shtenders (lecturns) and tables to separate us men from the rest of the men’s section, in effect creating three prayer areas.

At the conclusion of the Hallel service, I saw some people begin to exit toward the plaza behind the women’s section. I headed over there and saw two of the Israeli paratroopers who were in that iconic photograph at the newly reclaimed Kotel in 1967 after the Six Day War. The men were being interviewed by Israeli media and talking openly about how they liberated the Old City of Jerusalem so that all people would be free to pray there, not only the ultra-Orthodox. It was remarkable to see these paratroopers at the Kotel after seeing that powerful photo since I was a young boy. The Kotel immediately came to take on a whole new meaning for me. And a moment later I developed a much stronger connection to the plight of the Women at the Wall.

An ad hoc partition is created to separate our group in the Men’s Section

I turned around and saw two of my friends and fellow rabbis were being escorted away from the Kotel Plaza by a police officer. Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Rabbi Debra Cantor called me over as they were walking behind a female police officer. They told me that she had taken their passports and was going to detain them at the police station. Robyn asked if I would stay with them for as long as I could because they didn’t know what was going to happen. Immediately I began to feel concern for them. The officer wasn’t saying anything and wouldn’t explain where they were going. I was still wearing my tallit and tefillin and feeling guilty that my colleagues were getting in trouble for something that I take for granted.

Israeli paratroopers who liberated the Old City in 1967 with Anat Hoffman

Before coming to Israel, I traveled through Kiev, Ukraine with several rabbis including Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor. We spoke to Jewish people there who were forbidden from practicing their Judaism freely in the Former Soviet Union. They would have been arrested for being seen in public wearing a tallit during the Communist era. In Jerusalem this past Friday night we ate dinner with Joseph Begun, who was a Prisoner of Zion in the Former Soviet Union. He shared his amazing story with us, telling us of the years he spent in a Russian jail for the “crime” of being Jewish. This morning we met with former Refusenik Natan Sharansky on the 27th anniversary of his arrival to Israel. He has been charged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with coming up with a solution to this problem at the Kotel. Israel was intended to be a place of salvation for the Jewish people. It is the Jewish capital and no Jew should be refused her right to religious practice as our fellow Jews were in the FSU.

Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor have provided an important example of civil disobedience. To young girls about to become bat mitzvah, these rabbis have articulated why they shouldn’t take their Jewish identity for granted. They have demonstrated to me why it is so critical that women feel comfortable acting as Jews in Israel. I have tremendous respect for both of them and they should be applauded for their courage. After this morning, the Women of the Wall have my respect and my support. Religious freedom must be a priority for Israel. The alternative will have horrific repercussions for the Jewish people.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Domestic Violence is Real (Chukat)

In this week’s parsha, Chukat, Moses is once again feeling the stress of leadership. Tired and quickly losing hope following the death of his sister Miriam, the Israelites complain to Moses that they would have rather died in Egypt. They go so far as to wish they had died a horrible death along with those punished for joining Korach’s rebellion. They grumble that they were happier during their slave years in Egypt, where at least they had certain assurances compared to their current nomadic experience. They protest that they have been brought to a wretched place with no good food to eat or water to drink.

To produce water for the people the Lord commands Moses and his brother Aaron to assemble the community and order a rock to yield its water for the Israelites to drink. Rather than obeying God’s order verbatim, Moses takes his rod and strikes the rock twice producing drinking water. Immediately, Moses is condemned by God to die in the wilderness rather than being allowed to marshal his troops all the way to the Promised Land “because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people.”

This certainly seems a harsh punishment for Moses’s actions, but upon deeper examination there is much to learn from both the mistake and the punishment. Rashi comments that the double striking of the rock was unnecessary and proved insulting to the sanctity of God by diminishing the greatness of the miracle. A midrash explains that the sin of Moses was not merely the physical act of striking the rock, but also that he lost control of his temper during Israel’s rebellion. The commentaries of Maimonides and Samson Raphael Hirsch concur that the severe punishment was for losing patience with the Israelites and striking the rock twice in frustration. In the Talmud we find the lesson that “When a prophet (like Moses) loses his temper, his gift of prophecy abandons him.”

Several excuses can be made in defense of Moses’ action. Clearly the leadership of such a complaining nation in the hot desert grew taxing on Moses, raising his stress level and making it more difficult to reason with the Israelites. Further, he did have the best interest of the people in mind when answering their call for more drinking water. However, he allowed his emotions to get the better of him and resorted to hitting rather than speaking. While Moses hit an inanimate object rather than speaking to it, his action should alert us to a serious problem today.

Domestic violence occurs in Jewish families at about the same rate of 15% as in the general community. However, studies demonstrate that Jewish women tend to stay in abusive relationships two or three times longer than those in the general population. The misnomer that domestic abuse is not a Jewish concern further exacerbates the problem by discouraging abused women from reporting the abuse to others.

Rather than speaking to each other about difficult issues within the relationship, many partners (mostly men according to statistics) resort to violence. Oftentimes, men blame their abusive actions on stress from work and they allow their emotions to impair their better judgment. Regardless of how demanding one’s life may seem with weighty responsibilities at home and at work, resorting to abuse is never acceptable. The lesson of Moses aptly demonstrates this for us. His punishment was indeed severe, but so is the message it sends to our community. It is always better to use words than to hit.

For more information on domestic abuse in the Jewish community, visit www.jcada.org.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Michigan Rep. Lisa Brown Talks About Her Kosher Kitchen and Her Vagina on House Floor

The title of this blog post would seem odd unless you are familiar with Lisa Brown’s speech on the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives yesterday. Somehow Brown, a State Representative from West Bloomfield, Michigan, managed to segue from a personal account of her kosher observance at home to mention that her vagina was not to be a topic discussed by her congressional colleagues.

For mentioning the word “vagina,” Brown was blocked from speaking on the state House floor today as punishment. Her speech yesterday was addressing a controversial bill that would have further regulated abortions in Michigan. At the end of her speech, Brown said, “Finally Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.'”

So today, the Speaker of House censured Brown, refusing her to participate in a discussion of a school employee retirement bill. The Speaker’s argument was that Brown’s use of the word “vagina,” which is the technical, medical term for a part of the woman’s anatomy was a violation of the Michigan State House’s policy on decorum.

What I found more interesting than Brown’s rejoinder to her Republican colleagues across the aisle that her vagina was off limits was Brown’s description of her kosher observance and a cogent explanation for Judaism’s treatment of abortion.

Rep. Lisa Brown referenced the talk by her colleague from Holland, Michigan who spoke about religious freedom. She then went on to speak personally about her own faith.

I’m Jewish. I keep kosher in my home. I have two sets of dishes. One for meat and one for dairy, and another two sets of dishes on top of that for Passover. Judaism believes that therapeutic abortions, namely abortions performed in order to preserve the life of the mother are not only permissable but mandatory. The stage of pregnancy does not matter. Wherever there is a question of the life of the mother or that of the unborn child, Jewish law rules in favor of preserving the life of the mother. The status of the fetus as human life does not equal that of the mother. I have not asked you to adopt and adhere to my religious beliefs. Why are you asking me to adopt yours?

Here is the video clip of Rep. Lisa Brown’s talk on the House floor yesterday.

Rep. Lisa Brown (a fellow Bloomfield Hills Andover High School and Michigan State University alum) gave a press conference today in Lansing following the House of Representative’s decision to ban her from speaking in today’s session. The video of her press conference is available here.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Hamas Chief Cool With Women Rabbis

One of the most common questions I get from Orthodox Jews is how I can defend the Conservative movement’s decision (from 1983) to ordain women as rabbis. I was too young to be a part of the debate concerning women’s ordination in the late 70s and early 80s, but from what I’ve read it was a very tense time at the Jewish Theological Seminary where students and faculty were split on the issue.

It has now been close to thirty years since women began studying for ordination in Conservative Judaism. Within the Conservative movement, women rabbis have become commonplace and it is no longer an issue for the majority of Conservative congregations. The conversation has shifted from a halachic nature (Can a woman serve as a rabbi according to Jewish law?) to a more social nature (Are women rabbis treated fairly in the rabbinate?).

Truthfully, I never understood how women rabbis are problematic from a Jewish legal standpoint since there’s no problem with women serving as teachers, which is the main function of a rabbi. However, in the Orthodox world, the issue of women rabbis is still in its infancy with a minority of liberal Orthodox leaders like Rabbi Avi Weiss advocating for female rabbinic ordination. The first woman to be ordained by Rabbi Weiss, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, has been successful in her rabbinate but is far from being accepted by most Orthodox Jews.

Over the weekend, I read of support for women rabbis from a most unlikely source. In fact, I did a double take when I read the Jewish Daily Forward’s title for this article: “Hamas Chief on ‘Noble’ Women Rabbis”. Did the leader of Hamas, a known terrorist organization, really come out in favor of the ordination of women as rabbis and call women rabbis “noble”?

It turns out that the Jewish Daily Forward sent the husband (“Rebbetzman”?) of Rabbi Diane Cohler-Esses to Egypt to interview Hamas chief Mousa Abu Marzook over the course of two days before Passover earlier this month. This could have been a great story (Dayenu!) if it were only about a Jewish journalist in Egypt meeting face-to-face with the ruler of a foreign oppressor and trying to get out of Egypt before the holiday commemorating freedom from Egyptian bondage.

But the story gets much better. Journalist Larry Cohler-Esses is married to Rabbi Diane Cohler-Esses, a Conservative rabbi who was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1995 and is the first woman from the Syrian Jewish community to become a rabbi (and the first and only person (male or female) from her community to become a non-Orthodox rabbi. She had to give her husband permission to fly to Egypt in the days before Passover to interview the Hamas leader. He was concerned about leaving home during the week of Passover preparation. She flippantly told her husband that he wasn’t much help anyway so he should go to Egypt.

In Egypt, during the two-day interview the two men discussed Passover in the 21st century:

Abu Marzook could not believe I was leaving Cairo so fast, or understand why I’d end up divorced if I didn’t. I explained about the Seder, and about Passover, when the Jews had to…well, leave Egypt really fast. He said, “But that was 4,000 years ago when the Pharaoh was trying to kill the Jews. No one’s trying to kill you now.”

“Actually,” I said, “kind of, you guys are.” And we were off on what ended up being a five-and-a-half hour discussion over those two days.

Surprisingly, what Mousa Abu Marzook was most fascinated with was his interviewer’s rabbi wife. When Cohler-Esses told the Hamas leader that his wife is a rabbi, Abu Marzook was astounded and asked, “There are women rabbis?” he asked.

Cohler-Esses explained to Abu Marzook that about one-half of all rabbinic students in the liberal American seminaries are actually women. He then explained his wife’s personal struggle in becoming a rabbi because of her roots in the Syrian Jewish community. The Hamas leader, whose Muslim religious beliefs treat women as second-class citizens, seemed dumbfounded that she hasn’t been accepted by her community. “She’s done nothing wrong,” he said. “What she’s done is noble.”

Obviously, the issue of women rabbis was only a side conversation in a long and serious interview by Cohler-Esses, who took a small dose of criticism by some for even meeting with a member of Hamas. But this story is amazing. Who would have ever thought that the most vocal proponent of women’s rabbinical ordination in the Orthodox movement might just be the leader of Hamas?

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jewish Dolls for Jewish Girls

For generations Jewish girls collected and played with their Barbie Dolls. Yes, both Barbie and Ken looked quite Aryan but I don’t believe many little Jewish girls were complaining about their dolls’ non-Semitic looks. Now, all of a sudden, there is a plethora of very Jewish looking dolls on the market. I know this because I was escorted through the American Girl Place in Chicago this past August by my own little Jewish doll. She grabbed me by the hand and dragged (yes, dragged) me past dozens of dolls to show me the elaborate display of American Girl’s answer to religious pluralism. And that’s when I met Rebecca Rubin for the first time.

Rebecca Rubin is not a stereotypical Jewish girl. At least not from this century! She’s a cute little brunette growing up in New York City in 1914 (think Fievel from “American Tale” but a little girl instead of a mouse). Rebecca Rubin now lives with our family. We’ve adopted her, but she’s maintained her Rubin sir name and Lower East Side Depression-era attire.

As if Rebecca Rubin doesn’t look quintessentially Jewish enough, my daughter can beJEWel her even more until this doll has been tricked out with the Jewy-ist accoutrements imaginable. For $68 (that’s not a typo), Rebecca can enjoy a beautiful Shabbat with “The Rebecca Rubin Sabbath Set.” (For much less than $68 I can feed my family a delicious Shabbat dinner, complete with brisket and wine.) The Sabbath set is advertised as featuring “everything Rebecca’s family needs to celebrate the Sabbath: A Russian samovar and tray for heating water and serving tea, a tea canister and a ceramic teapot, two glasses, pretend hallah bread and a scalloped cloth, a pair of Sabbath candles that the women in Rebecca’s family ‘light’ before sundown, and two blue candlesticks that were a gift to Rebecca from Mr. Rossi.” Based on the price of the set, I just assumed those candlesticks from Mr. Rossi were real silver and that I wasn’t getting ripped off too badly.

The Rebecca Rubin doll sells for $100. With all of her hyper-Jewish accessories, figure the total investment will be around $18,000 (and that’s before Rebecca Rubin even starts day school).

If the Rebecca Rubin doll is too Old World Jewish for your daughter’s taste then there’s a whole crop of more modern Jewish dolls on the market. I learned this from an email I received this morning from the Jewish version of Groupon called JDeal, which is offering Gali Girls at a 37% discount today. Not only are these Jewish dolls less expensive than Rebecca Rubin, their less expensive than her candlesticks!

Advertised as “Learn and play the Jewish way! Gali Girls gives young Jewish girls an opportunity to bring positive Jewish values into their doll play, and create a connection between the contemporary Jewish girl and her heritage. While the majority of dolls in today’s market focus on fashion and makeup, Gali Girls reinforces the positive Jewish values that have kept the Jewish people alive and growing for 5000+ years.”

Based on the description, it looks like each of the Gali Girl dolls even comes with a Shabbat kit (in addition to a Jewish star bracelet for herself and her new owner, and a Hebrew/English name birth certificate). Not only that, but the Gali Girl dolls’ clothing is compatible with American Girl dolls. And if your daughter still wants her doll to have the nostalgic immigrant look of Rebecca Rubin, there are Gali Girls options like Shoshana who lives in colonial New York.

If you’re looking for something more feminist and egalitarian for your daughter than either the Rebecca Rubin American Girl doll or the collection of Gali Girl dolls, might I suggest this post-modern religious Barbie doll created by Jen Taylor Friedman, a Torah scribe (yes, a female Torah scribe!) in New York. The Tefillin Barbie Doll can be purchased on her website and comes in various options including a computer engineer Barbie Doll wearing a tallit and tefillin. A Mattel Barbie with tallit, tefillin and book from the Talmud sells for $130 and Torah scrolls are an additional $40. If your daughter doesn’t want the standard looking blonde Barbie, you can send Taylor Friedman any Barbie Doll and she will wrap her in the traditional Jewish garb.

All I can say is, “Barbie… You’ve come a long way baby!”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Sarah Silverman on Being Jewish

This year I’ve given a handful of presentations on the topic of Jewish Humor. I talk about the Jewish comedians who have been making people laugh over the past sixty plus years. I show video clips of the legends of Jewish comedy from Sid Caesar, Jack Benny and Milton Berle to Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Andy Kaufman. I also talk about more modern Jewish comics like Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Richard Lewis and Seth Rogen.

There aren’t many female Jewish comedians in my presentation. I mention Sophie Tucker as the first major Jewish comic for her vaudeville performances. Of course I talk about the legendary Gilda Radner, who grew up in Detroit and attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor before becoming famous on Saturday Night Live. I also mention that over the years there have been several female Jewish comedians like Joan Rivers, Elaine Boosler, Rita Rudner, Roseanne Barr, Fran Drescher, Judy Gold, Susie Essman, and Sandra Bernhard. None of these female comedians however elicit the response I get when I talk about Sarah Silverman. People love Sarah Silverman (even if they’re uncomfortable when they laugh at her jokes).

With Rita Rudner after a performance in Las Vegas

Last week’s NY Times article by Jason Zinoman hit the nail on the head when it highlighted Sarah Silverman’s comedy as following in the tradition of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Silverman’s willingness to break the taste-taboo ceiling, as Zinoman put it, has led to her finding stand-up success in ways her female comedian forebears never did. Zinoman writes,

Comics like Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr and Sandra Bernhard were trailblazers, but if you had to pinpoint one joke as a breakthrough for this new generation of female comedians, it might be this one: “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” When I saw Sarah Silverman deliver that signature one-liner in a downtown theater almost a decade ago, the audience exploded with laughter followed by groans. Then came the anxious chuckles whose subtext seemed to be: I can’t believe I laughed at that joke. 

Sarah Silverman’s comedy is very Jewish and she pushes the boundaries like no other female comedian today (Whitney Cummings comes close, but she’s been heavily influenced by Silverman). Not since Lenny Bruce’s shtick about the difference between the Jewish God (in a mezuzah on the doorpost) and the Christian God (on a cross and in movies) has a stand-up comic been able to make theology so funny in such a provocative way. Her movie “Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic” riffed on religion in a way that oddly seemed to be both offensive and hilarious at the same time.

Sarah Silverman with ex-boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel and
her sister Rabbi Susan Silverman and brother-in-law Yossi Abramowitz

Sarah Silverman’s influence in the 2008 presidential election with “The Great Schlep” video was nothing short of brilliant when she encouraged young Jewish liberals to travel to Florida to convince their grandparents that it was okay to vote for Barack Obama even though he’s black. She has also promoted social justice work and eradicating worldwide hunger with her contribution to the American Jewish World Service video and her own “Sell the Vatican, Feed the World” video. And of course her famous video with Matt Damon was well… you have to watch that one for yourself.

Sarah Silverman and her sister Rabbi Susan Silverman discuss their Jewish identity

I’ve always wanted to hear Sarah Silverman talk about her Jewish identity, or as she calls it her “Jewy-ness.” A couple weeks ago Sarah and her sister, Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman, were interviewed together at an event at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University. Here’s the video of the interview (the first 7 minutes are introduction):

Watch this video on YouTube

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Branding Israel Through Technology

This is my recent “Jews in the Digital Age” column for the Detroit Jewish News:

Sally Whittle is a blogger in Lancashire, England. Her blog “Who’s the Mummy?” is one of approximately 4 million “mommy blogs” on the Web. Like many other young mothers she journals about her life as a mother and provides advice for other mothers around the world. With over 30,000 visitors a month, Whittle is used to receiving comments on her blog but she was surprised when she was offered a free trip to Israel with a handful of other popular mommy bloggers.

The group of mommy bloggers visited Israel this past July as part of VibeIsrael, a program of the apolitical non-profit Kinetis. The social startup seeks to generate domestic and global awareness of Israel as the capital of creative energy. Its founder and executive director Joanna Landau was recently in Metro Detroit to share her vision of how to brand Israel for the 21st century and how to market that brand as widely as possible.

Landau, a lawyer and start-up entrepreneur made aliyah with her family when she was five-years-old. Raised in a well-to-do philanthropic and Zionist home, she actively sought out a way to transition from her for-profit work into a non-profit passion. Her interest was piqued in 2004 when Israel’s Foreign Ministry launched the Brand Israel Project, which aimed to improve the country’s image abroad by downplaying religion and avoiding any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians. Landau incorporated Kinetis in November 2009 seeding it with some of her own money and got to work on her re-branding Israel project.

While in Metro Detroit, Landau was eager to learn how the state’s “Pure Michigan” campaign was working to improve its image. She quickly noticed the similarities between Metro Detroit’s desire to retain talent by keeping its young people local after college and Israel’s desire to have its children choose to remain in Israel following army service. “Brazil is known for ‘fun’ and Paris is about ‘romance’ and America is connected to ‘freedom.’ When people around the world hear ‘Israel,’ they automatically think about politics and the conflict with the Palestinians,” Landau explains. Israel is all about ‘Creative Energy.’ This is what differentiates Israel as a country and Israelis as a nation. It represents the essence of Israel’s offering and encompasses the nation’s relative advantages in the fields of art and culture, technology and science, lifestyle, heritage and the environment.

Landau argues there is a misguided belief among Israelis that if they can only convince the rest of the world of the legitimacy of its political policies, then the tide will turn and there will be increased travel, investment and love of the Jewish State. “People are not interested in Israel beyond the conflict because we haven’t given them a reason to be interested. Whenever Israel gets a chance to say something, all we ever talk about is this conflict.”

When asked if Landau’s Kinetis is a new type of Israeli hasbara (public relations) organization, she laughs. “Hasbara is what you do when you feel you need to explain yourself? Only when you have done something wrong or if you’re unclear,” Landau clarifies. “In Israel we have been so consumed by crisis-management and self-defense that we have been unable to think of a long-term strategy.”

Landau wants a paradigm shift that will change the conversation. She believes that Creative Energy is in the DNA of Israelis. She wants to highlight her country’s high global appeal through a hi-tech, arts and culture, lifestyle, and extreme sports. “The Jewish religion is a very creative religion. Curiosity is encouraged and conventions are challenged,” she says. . “What we want to do is celebrate the things that Israel has to offer that are interesting on a global level,” she says. “Branding is about giving people something to relate to and connect to on an emotional level.”

It is Israel’s imperative to tell her own story and under Landau’s direction Kinetis has taken full advantage of modern technology to control the message. Its Facebook page features a video of Warren Buffet praising Israel as a place in the Middle East that might not have much oil, but it has an abundance in brains, energy, integrity and imagination. At the top of the Facebook page, there is a message that anyone can submit “an inspiring image or video that encapsulates “Creative Energy” about Israel and it will be posted on the page.

In addition to the cutting edge and attractive Facebook page, Kinetis boasts an impressive website available in both Hebrew and English that outlines its many programs all with the goal of place branding Israel in the most positive ways. Drawing upon the success of the book “Start-Up Nation” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Kinetis offers an academic program for Israeli students and international students from around the globe. These students in the Start-Up Nation Awareness Program (SNAP) will investigate the sources of Israel’s creative and entrepreneurial spirit across numerous spheres. Ultimately, their connection to Israel will help develop Israel as a model to be taught in leading universities worldwide.

The VibeIsrael program provides an all-expenses-paid personalized experience of Israel like the one set up for the mommy bloggers. These groups of opinion leaders include bird watchers, digital photographers, women entrepreneurs, extreme sports enthusiasts, archeologists, members of the fashion industry, technologists, and gourmet chefs. Participants are offered a glimpse into real Israeli life by connecting them with their Israeli counterparts. Rather than spend a week touring all of the typical tourist locations, VibeIsrael participants travel the country with locals who show them places relevant to their interests. These thought leaders then return home where they publish a critical mass of posts, blogs and articles in the printed media and on the Internet which convey an authentic, unadulterated “buzz” about what Israel truly offers.

Israel is a thriving nation made up of citizens who are proud of its accomplishments and offerings. Landau is working to highlight Israel’s best assets to the rest of the world. Through place branding and exploiting new media, every day she is raising the awareness of Israel as the creative energy capital of the world. With the help of technology and drawing on the clout of those with loud voices in the digital age, Kinetis is quickly positioning Israel as a center of excellence in the fields of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

After returning from her visit to Israel with VibeIsrael, Whittle blogged “What I saw in Israel was an irrepressible sense of possibility. And going forward that means I will always approach any political story about Israel with that memory in mind – the memory of the people we met, the experiences we had, and the fun we shared.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Midrash, Manicures and Middle School Girls

I love reading about the creative ways in which my colleagues are bringing people closer to Torah. Over the weekend I read about one young colleague (a Conservative rabbi) who is using manicures to teach midrash in a Jewish day school. Yes, manicures!

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

The NY Times reports that Rabbi Yael Buechler of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Westchester, New York teaches her middle school students how to do their nails with designs inspired by the weekly Torah portions. 

It’s the Midrash Manicures club at Schechter, a Jewish day school here, where the weekly club offerings include math club, glee club, sports writing club and this one, in which Rabbi Yael Buechler teaches girls in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades how to do their nails with designs inspired by the weekly Torah portion. (The term “midrash” refers to the deep textual interpretation of the Bible, with every word examined for meaning.)

If the mix of acetone fumes and Torah study strikes you as unusual, you’re not alone. When Yarden Wiesenfeld, 13, first heard about the club, she wondered whether there was another meaning for “manicure,” one that did not involve the coloring of fingernails.

But Rabbi Buechler has been at it since college, when she seized upon the manicures “as a way for me to personally explore my own Jewish learning.”

“Re-envisioning education is what this is all about,” said Rabbi Buechler, 25, who was ordained in May by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and is the middle school student life coordinator at Schechter. “If I said come to a Midrash course, I’d have five or six students. But Midrash Manicures? Twenty plus.”

It seems to me that this is a wonderful example of how a rabbi who is a woman is embracing her femininity and using it to achieve the goal that all rabbis are striving for — teaching Torah. Rabbi Buechler, who’s father Rabbi Howard was ordained from JTS in 1985, is not trying to be like her male rabbinic predecessors. Rather, she is doing something that those male rabbinic predecessors could never have done. She brilliantly connects with these middle school girls in a Jewish Day School environment and makes Torah learning fun.

Prof. Jonathan Sarna, who taught Rabbi Buechler as an undergrad at Brandeis University, told the NY Times that “her Torah-inspired manicures were both innovative and in keeping with the Jewish precept ‘that we worship God with all of our bones and our muscles and, by extension, with our fingernails.'” I especially liked the quote from Rabbi Buechler’s boss, the school’s principal Nellie Harris (wife of my beloved Torah teacher Rabbi Robbie Harris), who described the manicures as “a modern tzitzit.”

Incidentally, this is now the second time this year that I’ve blogged about Rabbi Buechler, although the last time (March 2011) she was still a couple months shy of gaining the title. On this blog I referenced a very funny video Yael Buechler made for Purim at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York starring the Seminary’s Chancellor Arnie Eisen as Sesame Street’s “Ernie” and Professor Burt Visotzsky as “Bert”.

I certainly hope that her manicure curriculum takes off and that other Jewish Day Schools (including the one my own children attend) begin offering this club to their female students. Perhaps some day my own daughter will get a Torah-inspired manicure from Rabbi Buechler. I’m already very proud of my beautiful daughter who turns 6-years-old later this month and can already (pretend) to read from the Torah. Here’s the video:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Did Oprah Go to the Mikveh for Her New Show?

What has Oprah Winfrey been doing since ending her long-running afternoon talk show last May? If your only news source was JTA.org (the Jewish world’s version of the AP), you might think that she has embraced Judaism on the level of Madonna or Demi Moore.

A misleading title grabbed many people’s attention this week when the JTA published a news brief with the bold header stating “Oprah visits mikvah for new show.” My colleague in Israel, Rabbi Andy Sacks, re-posted the news brief on Facebook and wondered allowed: “Now I have heard of going to Mikveh for Taharaat Mishpacha (family purity), before Haggim or Shabbat, for dishes, conversion, etc. But this is a new one on me.”

Well, apparently Oprah did not embrace the Jewish ritual of immersion in a mikveh before launching her new show (that would have made more headlines I’m sure), but she did visit with two Chasidic Jewish families for an upcoming episode and toured a mikveh. The new series called “Oprah’s Next Chapter” will premiere in January on her OWN network.

Writing on the Forward’s Shmooze blog, Renee Ghert-Zand explained that Oprah stopped by Congregation B’nai Avraham’s new state-of-the art ritual bath while scouting locations to film segments for her new show. “The Shmooze is guessing that the visit to the synagogue’s new, has something to do with Winfrey’s plans to touch upon the halachic concept of ‘family purity’ and the related spiritual nature of immersion in ‘living waters.’ While a crowd of neighborhood people gathered around to get a glimpse of the highly influential mega-celebrity, mikveh lady Bronya Shaffer admitted to knowing virtually nothing about her or her work.”

If the mikveh ends up being showcased on Oprah’s new television show, the Jewish ritual of becoming purified after mikveh immersion at the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle could take off on a large scale. Just look at what effect Oprah had on book clubs!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rabbi Approves of Girl Inflicting Wounds for Modesty Reasons

A letter is sent from a college campus midrasha to an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi. The letter writer explains that a young Jewish woman on campus who is a counselor at a midrasha (מרכזת מדרשה) is becoming more devout, but her non-observant parents disapprove. She wants to wear long skirts for modesty reasons, but her parents have forbidden her from doing so. Ynetnews.com reports that the letter continued, “The young woman thought that if she inflicted wounds on her legs she could tell her parents that she is wearing a long skirt to cover the wounds.”

According to ynet news, the letter was sent to Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein, the son-in-law of prominent Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, for his opinion. Shockingly, Rabbi Zilberstein approved of the young woman inflicting wounds on her own legs so she could dress modestly, wearing the long skirts her parents have forbidden.

If this story is authentic, it is quite troubling on many levels. The young woman is in college and should be able to determine what she wears on her own, without her parents’ consent. [The ynet News translation was erroneous. It said that she was a college student, but the Hebrew explains that she was a counselor in a midrasha (מרכזת מדרשה), meaning that she is likely a teenager.] It should never have gotten to the point where she feels compelled to do self-harm in order to wear modest clothes.

While the commandment to honor ones parents is competing with the young woman’s belief in modest dress, there is precedent in Judaism for disobeying ones parents if it leads to adherence of the law in other cases. But above all else, it is in violation of Jewish law to inflict harm on oneself. Inflicting wounds on oneself is a transgression of Jewish law. It would be religious malpractice if Rabbi Zilberstein actually condoned this practice.

According to the article in ynet news, the rabbi responded to the questioner writing, “She is allowed to inflict wounds on her legs in order to dress modestly and evade sin.”

There is already documented evidence that young women are self inflicting wounds at a high rate. Reports of intentional cutting and self mutilation among teens, especially young women, is shocking. In a November 2008 article in the Huffington Post, Leslie Goldman wrote about the growing epidemic of troubled Jewish teenage girls who are suffering from eating disorders and body image problems that lead to cutting themselves. I would presume Rabbi Zilberstein was not familiar with this crisis when he penned his response.

Ynet reports, “In his reply, the rabbi commended the student’s initiative, saying ‘the blood from the self-inflicted wound will atone for the people of Israel,’ adding that the coordinator should allow the student to commit the act.” The rabbi’s opinion is odd. In fact, it even calls to mind the sacrificial system of a bygone era in Judaism. When I first read Rabbi Zilberstein’s response I couldn’t help but notice that he seems to draw on Christian symbolism.

If there’s truth to this story and Rabbi Zilberstein in fact opined that this young woman in college should continue to inflict wounds on her body so that she’ll have an excuse to dress modestly in the face of her parents’ disapproval, then he owes an explanation for his warped logic. I understand and respect those who feel strongly about modest dress, but there are boundaries. No person in their right mind would grant approval for such a horrible act.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller