Brett Cohen’s Not Famous (Or Is He?)

Who is Brett Cohen? He’s just a regular person who has become famous for pretending to be famous while not being famous. Did you follow that?

Brett Cohen was curious to see what would happen if he walked around Times Square looking like he was famous, complete with bodyguards, Paparazzi and a film crew. Guess what? It worked. Tourists posed for photos with him. Kids clamored to get his autograph. And when Times Square pedestrians were asked what they thought of Brett Cohen by the film crew, they acted like they were his biggest fans, raving about his work as an actor in a recent Spiderman movie and praising his latest song.

Regular guy Brett Cohen posing as a celeb in New York City’s Times Square

So this 21-year-old Jewish SUNY at New Paltz college student proved that anyone can pretend to be a celeb as long as you can play the part. The YouTube video (below) of Brett’s shenanigans is already going viral and his “experiment” has been covered by Mashable, the Washington Post, Reddit, and The Daily What. So, not only did Brett Cohen prove that he could fake fame, but he managed to get his 15 minutes of it along the way.


But Brett Cohen isn’t the only one parading around Times Square pretending to be someone he’s not. I was duped earlier this month when I thought I caught a glimpse of Snoop Dogg in Times Square. A man who is a spitting image of the rapper (now called “Snoop Lion”) was walking at a celeb pace with a large entourage. After taking a photo with the lookalike (below) I still wasn’t sure he was the real deal so I posted the photo on Facebook asking my friends if they thought this was actually Snoop Dogg or an impostor. Turned out that the majority thought it was really him.

With a guy who looks an awful lot like Snoop Dogg

It was when I overheard a member of his entourage ask for a small donation from a group of teens who wanted a photo with the supposed celeb that I realized it wasn’t the real Snoop Dogg. This apparently wasn’t his only night pretending to be Snoop Dogg. My cousin’s wife, Ashley Broad of “Hardcore Pawn,” had been similarly duped the week before in Times Square by the same Snoop Dogg lookalike.

So what does this say about celebrity and how we respond to it? Many Times Square tourists pay a good deal of money to visit Madame Tussauds New York and get their photo taken with wax models of their favorite celebs. Is that any different than getting a photo standing next to “Nobody Brett Cohen” or “Not Snoop Dogg”?

In the Jewish calendar we’re now in a period of personal introspection as we approach the High Holy Day season. What does Brett Cohen’s foray into faux stardom teach us? I wonder if Brett Cohen felt differently about himself during his hour of celeb status. Perhaps he got a taste of what it feels like to be a celebrity who can’t walk a few feet without being hounded for photographs and autographs. Perhaps he felt larger than life and enjoyed the feeling. Perhaps he was just trying to prove a point that we’re all too star struck to even realize that we don’t really care if the celeb is even a legitimate celeb.

One thing is for sure — our society continues to go ga-ga over the wrong celebs. The young entrepreneur, Nancy Lublin, who took her inheritance and started a non-profit for homeless women to get free business suits for job interviews will go unnoticed walking through Times Square and yet thousands will flock to catch a glimpse of a Kardashian sister. I’m glad Brett Cohen’s experiment worked because it will give us all something to think about. We’re all mega-celebrities in our own way. Thank you Brett Cohen!

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

Robert Downey Jr. Appeals For Mel Gibson’s Forgiveness

As anyone who was paying attention during the recent Yom Kippur services will tell you, one must seek repentance on their own. In Judaism, there are three ways to atone for sins: asking for forgiveness, praying, and giving charity. Nowhere in Jewish law does it say that a friend can ask for forgiveness on your behalf.
That’s precisely what actor Robert Downey Jr. attempted to do on Friday during the American Cinematheque Awards Friday in Los Angeles. Downey Jr. urged the Hollywood community to forgive Gibson for his recent troubles, which include anti-Semitic rants, racial tirades, and spousal abuse.

At the annual award ceremony occurring exactly one week after Yom Kippur, Downey Jr. (whose father is half-Jewish) paraphrased the New Testament when he said to the audience that “unless you are without sin…you should forgive him and let him work.” The two actors appeared in the 1990 movie “Air America” together. Downey continued, “I urge you to forgive my friend his trespasses. Allow him to pursue this art without shame.”

At least one rabbi has spoken out against Downey Jr.’s attempts to gain forgiveness from his Hollywood colleague. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier, said that only Mel Gibson can seek and receive forgiveness for his sins. “The sins between man and his fellow man can only be forgiven if the person who committed the sin asks for forgiveness from those whom he shamed and insulted and caused harm to,” Hier said Monday.

Hier even mentioned that Mel Gibson’s plans to make a movie about Judah Maccabee won’t help his cause either. “”You can’t ask forgiveness indirectly through a movie,” Hier said. “You can’t do it by saying, ‘Look at the part that I have. I’m producing a film about a Jew.’”

In September, the Anti-Defamation League has asked Warner Brothers to remove Gibson from the Judah Maccabee film. Abraham Foxman of the ADL released a statement in September saying, “We would have hoped that Warner Bros. could have found someone better than Mel Gibson to direct or perhaps even star in a film on the life of the Jewish historical icon Judah Maccabee. As a hero of the Jewish people and a universal hero in the struggle for religious liberty, Judah Maccabee deserves better. It would be a travesty to have the story of the Maccabees told by one who has no respect and sensitivity for other people’s religious views.”

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

Yom Kippur at Occupy Wall Street

Yesterday, hundreds of young Jews were on a 25-hour hunger strike at Occupy Wall Street. Okay, so it was actually a Yom Kippur fast.

Kol Nidre on Wall Street (photo: Damon Dahlen / AOL)

What was so meaningful about Friday night’s “Occupy Wall Street” Kol Nidrei services in front of Brown Brothers Harriman on Broadway at Liberty Plaza was how it stood in stark contrast to an earlier episode at Occupy Wall Street. Daniel Sieradski explained on his blog that two individuals (he didn’t use “individuals”) “were caught on video at Occupy Wall Street saying profoundly awful, stupid things about Jews, one of whom was consistently heckled and challenged by those around him.” Contrast that act of anti-Semitism to Friday night’s Kol Nidrei service across from Zuccotti Park attended by approximately 1,000 people. It was in the same place where the anti-Semitic comments were made days earlier.

The Rabbinical Assembly, of which I’m a member, donated machzorim (High Holiday prayerbooks) for the prayer service. It was led by Avi Fox Rosen (Storahtelling), Sarah Wolf (JTS), and Getzel Davis (Hebrew College), who are being assisted in preparations by Yosef Goldman (JTS) and Rabbi Ezra Weinberg (RRC).

Sieradski correctly complains that more media attention is being paid to the anti-Semitic comments than to the beautiful Yom Kippur prayer experience that took place in the same area. The young Jewish people who attended Kol Nidrei at Occupy Wall Street have been describing it as the most meaningful Jewish experience of their lives.

Here’s video footage from the Kol Nidrei service at Occupy Wall Street:

In his announcement of the Kol Nidrei service, Daniel Sieradski posted the following:

“Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”
–Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

This Friday night begins Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. On this day, Jews around the world refrain from all physical pleasures (eating, bathing and screwing, to name a few), and devote themselves to prayer and supplication, begging the Lord forgiveness of their sins so that they may be written into the Book of Life.

But is fasting and beating our chests really the best we can do to redeem ourselves?

As lower Manhattan erupts with thousands of protesters taking a stand against economic injustice, the words of the prophet Isaiah resonate more truthfully and appropriately than ever:

Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.

Thus rather than spending the holiday safe and warm in our cozy synagogues thinking abstractly about human suffering, perhaps we should truly afflict ourselves and undertake the fast of Isaiah, by joining the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park, and holding our Yom Kippur services there amongst the oppressed, hungry, poor and naked.

Not to be cliché, but as Rabbi Hillel the Elder said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

Kol Hakavod to all those who organized this so that the Occupy Wall Street participants would still be able to observe Yom Kippur. 

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

The Ryan Braun Yom Kippur Debate

When Hank Greenberg walked down the long aisle of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Detroit on September 20, 1934 on Yom Kippur, he received a standing ovation. That day, the Detroit Tigers faced the New York Yankees in a key game late in the season. Despite the pennant race, Greenberg sat out the game and went to synagogue instead. The Tigers lost.

Greenberg had played ten days earlier on Rosh Hashanah leading the Tigers to victory with his two home runs, although in his autobiography he describes how he sat out batting practice to mull over the decision. A rabbi gave him the go-ahead leading the Detroit News to run the headline: “Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play.”

After the Rosh Hashanah victory, the Detroit Free Press ran a banner headline that read “Happy New Year, Hank.”

While the Milwaukee Brewers star player Ryan Braun is sometimes referred to as “The Hebrew Hammer” just like Greenberg was and he even lived in a house once inhabited by Hank Greenberg, Braun is going to play in today’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Or to use the language of Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: Ryan Braun will not Koufax his teammates today. The game starts at 4:00 PM Central Time, which theoretically would give him a couple hours of playing time before the commencement of Yom Kippur at sunset. However, that is a moot point because Braun was never a synagogue-going guy. His father is Jewish, but Braun wasn’t raised Jewish (his mother is Catholic).

So what’s the debate about? In truth, there are three debates here. The first debate is about Braun playing on Yom Kippur. The second debate is about Braun’s Judaism. And the third debate is about why people care and have made this into a debate.

When I was contacted by NY Times sports reporter Richard Sandomir yesterday on this matter, I explained that the real issue is why Jewish people are so infatuated with Jewish baseball players and Yom Kippur. Professional Jewish athletes in other sports play on Yom Kippur without any fanfare. There’s something inherent in major league baseball that makes this an issue.

Second, I explained that the authenticity of Braun’s Jewishness doesn’t seem to matter to many Jewish people who otherwise wouldn’t consider him Jewish. I agree with that. It shouldn’t matter if only Braun’s father is Jewish or if he wasn’t raised Jewish. What should matter is if Braun considers himself to be Jewish today. No one is saying that he should be counted in a synagogue minyan (prayer quorum), but there is no reason not to feel Jewish pride that the “Hebrew Hammer” has taken his team to the post-season and is a candidate for National League MVP (Braun was NL Rookie of the Year in 2007).

It comes down to the difference between Judaism as a culture and Judaism as a religion. From a religious viewpoint, Ryan Braun is not Jewish. From a cultural viewpoint, he should be considered a Jewish ballplayer, included in sets of Jewish baseball cards, and eligible for induction in the Jewish Baseball Hall of Fame.

Here is the article from today’s NY Times:

For Braun, Stadiums Remain His Temple
By Richard Sandomir

If a player with Jewish heritage reaches baseball’s postseason, the inevitable question is: will he play on Yom Kippur or go to synagogue? It is not a query on the level of the Four Questions that are asked during the Passover seder. But it is one of those curious baseball inquiries — maybe on par with, Does a rising fastball really rise? — that pop up sometimes.

Why such interest in whether a ballplayer plays a game or worships on a High Holy Day? Call it the Greenberg-Koufax Yom Kippur Precedent: In 1934, Hank Greenberg went to temple rather than play a game against the Yankees during a pennant race. In 1965, Sandy Koufax declined to pitch Game 1 of the World Series out of respect for his religion.

They are still heroes to their faith. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Shawn Green sat out a critical game in 2001 to observe Yom Kippur.

This year, the question has been put to Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, who play the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday afternoon in the decisive Game 5 of their National League division series. The game begins just after 4 p.m. Central, and Yom Kippur starts at sunset at 6:23 p.m. In theory, Braun could put in five or six innings, then scoot to temple.

During Rosh Hashana last week, Michael S. asked on Twitter, with some ire: “Why did Ryan Braun even play last night?!?! He better not play on Yom Kippur!”

Except that Braun is not religious. Although his father is Jewish, his mother is Catholic, so he is not a Jew according to religious law. Braun played on Rosh Hashana and will play Friday. Perhaps it should not be an issue, but it has become one in some quarters, particularly on the Internet.

“The Jewish community is always looking for Jewish baseball heroes,” said Rabbi Jason Miller of Farmington Hills, Mich., who blogs about Jews and sports. “Braun is not considered a Jewish player, yet Orthodox Jews would cite him as their Jewish hero.”

Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers also has a Catholic mother but celebrated Jewish and Christian holidays as a child, according to Sports Illustrated. If he felt qualms about playing Saturday, he need not fret. Game 1 of the A.L.C.S. between Texas and the Tigers will not begin until after Yom Kippur ends at sundown.

Anticipating what Braun and Kinsler would do, The Tablet, a Jewish publication, said on its Web site recently, “Millions of Jewish boys and their mothers are watching.”

Ron Kaplan, the sports and features editor of New Jersey Jewish News, said he gets requests from readers wondering if a player is Jewish or if he will play on Yom Kippur. One letter he received this week advocated that Kinsler sit out Yom Kippur.

Kaplan said that Jews are excited to see Jewish ballplayers because there are not many of them. “Jews are so underrepresented,” he said, “so whenever there’s somebody who has any tangential relationship to their religion, we claim them as our own.”

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

Ryan Braun’s Yom Kippur and 60 Years Since a Jewish Baseball First

The Arizona D-Backs (managed by my boyhood hero Kirk Gibson) stay alive in their ALDS series against the Milwaukee Brewers after winning last night’s game 8-1 in Phoenix. The hero of the game was Paul Goldschmidt, who hit a grand-slam home run. Despite his Jewish-sounding name, Goldschmidt is not Jewish. D-Backs relief pitcher J.J. Putz, who got the save last night, is also not Jewish even though he has a Yiddish last name (Google it).

The Jewish connection in this Milwaukee-Arizona series is that if the D-Backs win again tonight it will force a fifth and final game Friday evening at Miller Park in Milwaukee. With a 5:00 PM start time, Brewers’ star Ryan Braun won’t have enough time to get to shul for Kol Nidrei. Braun, whose father is Jewish, has played on Yom Kippur in the past and certainly will should the series extend to Friday night. When I met Braun a few years ago (coincidentally in Phoenix), he told me that he never took his Judaism very seriously, but that he is proud to be Jewish. Braun’s interesting connection to Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg is that he lived in his grandfather’s home for a time during his childhood in the house that once belonged to Hank Greenberg.

While I’ll be cheering for Kirk Gibson’s team in this series (another favorite player from my youth, Alan Trammell, is the D-Backs’ bench coach), I’ll also be hoping that the Brewers win tonight so Ryan Braun will be able to take Friday night off — whether he goes to synagogue for Kol Nidrei or not.

While I’m already writing about baseball and Judaism, why not mention that this baseball season marks the 60th anniversary since a first in Major League Baseball. On May 2, 1951 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit (what later became Tiger Stadium), Philadelphia A’s pinch hitter Lou Limmer stepped into the batters box to face the Tigers’ Saul Rogovin who pitched the ball to Tigers’ catcher Joe Ginsberg. Limmer’s pinch hit home run of course made it into the box score for perpetuity, but what the box score for that at-bat doesn’t mention is that it was the only time in Major League Baseball that the pitcher, the catcher, and the hitter were all Jewish.

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

Do Politics Belong in Sermons?

Like every other rabbi around the world I am currently hard at work on my sermons for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I’ve always enjoyed writing and public speaking, so this exercise is enjoyable rather than stressful for me. However, finding the right words to inspire the congregation during this time of year can be challenging. The basic themes of the holiday haven’t changed in thousands of years: forgiveness, relationships, being charitable, and trying to become better people.

To what extent should sermons draw on the issues of the day? I’ve always tried to bring references to pop culture into my sermons, but I have traditionally shied away from getting into politics. Dennis Prager, a political pundit who moonlights as a High Holiday sermonizer, recently published an Op-Ed in the Jewish Journal of LA in which he rails against rabbis who preach about politics on the High Holy Days. Prager claims that every year around this time listeners of his show write him to complain that their rabbis delivered sermons which included political messages. As a conservative pundit, Prager is certain to include that “Invariably, there are two constants: The rabbi is non-Orthodox, and the sermons are left wing.”

What Prager doesn’t like is when liberal rabbis include their opinion about social issues such as the recent health-care bill, for example, and frame it in the context of social justice and tikkun olam. It’s not that rabbis aren’t entitled to their opinions on these significant issues, but Prager takes exception when the rabbis use the pulpit to frame these political issues as Jewish imperatives. I happen to agree. Let me explain.

I believe that rabbis should use the pulpit to teach Torah. Teaching that we have an ethical responsibility to care for the health of all human beings is an important message and one that is appropriate to be included in a sermon. However, moving that conversation into the realm of politics by endorsing a bill under discussion in Congress is not appropriate.

Personally, I steer away from politics when I deliver sermons. I remember as a rabbinical student I was heading to Houston as a guest speaker at a large synagogue. The Torah portion for that Shabbat was Yitro, the narrative of Moses’ father-in-law offering good counsel to him and thereby improving his leadership. I had the idea to talk about other political consultants and “right-hand-men” who weren’t the leader, but made themselves indispensable to the leader because of their trustworthy advice. I planned to talk about the importance of the Cabinet to presidents and focus on two figures who were known for their good counsel, Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell. One of my teachers at the Seminary convinced me to not focus on these individuals because it could be too politically divisive to the congregation. The Democrats in the synagogue would focus on the Republican credentials of these two presidential advisers and not on my message, he reasoned. Reluctantly, I agreed to leave out these famous Secretaries of State lest my sermon be perceived as having a political message.

There are times when my own congregants will encourage me to speak about a political issue they endorse, but I respectfully decline. I’m not a politician and I’m not a political commentator. My role is use the words of the Torah and the Jewish Tradition to teach and to inspire. I remember a story my teacher Rabbi Burt Visotzky told my class at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The late NY Times columnist William Safire’s rabbi asked him why he didn’t come to shul anymore to which Safire explained, “I don’t need to come to shul to hear what Bill Safire wrote in the Times.” In other words, we rabbis should allow the political pundits to be pundits and we should use the High Holidays to inspire and encourage repentance.

Prager isn’t the only one publicly railing against rabbis using their High Holiday pulpits to push a political agenda. In the Wall Street Journal, Tevi Troy explained that each year leading up to Rosh Hashanah the Obama Administration feeds political talking points to rabbis through its annual conference call. I’ve participated in these conference calls in the past and it is true that their purpose it to provide the Administration’s position on various issues in case rabbis choose to address them in sermons. Troy points out that in 2009, President Obama “invited a group of 1,000 rabbis to discuss his health-care plan and then preach about it afterward.” I was a participant on that call and the President did in fact encourage us to speak about his health-care plan. I chose not to call in this year because I knew I wouldn’t be talking about President Obama’s jobs bill or the declaration of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

Neither of those topics will inspire my congregants on Rosh Hashanah. If anyone wants my opinion, I’m happy to discuss it privately in the form of a discussion. However, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to use the holiday or my pulpit to endorse or reject the President’s jobs bill. I do think it’s important to get the unemployed back to work and to help find better jobs for the underemployed. As a rabbi I try to do both.

One of my colleagues who disagrees with both Prager and Troy is Rabbi Jill Jacobs. I have tremendous respect for Rabbi Jacobs and have learned much from her over the years. She has contributed greatly to the field of social justice in general and workers’ rights in particular. Writing in the Huffington Post, Jacobs, who is now the executive director of Rabbis For Human Rights-North America, titled her response to Troy “The Torah Is Political. Rabbis Can Be, Too.” Jacobs writes:

As one of the rabbis whom Troy criticizes (albeit anonymously), I want to respond to his charges.

Troy references a recent phone call for rabbis, organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional organization of Reform Rabbis, on which he and I were two of the five speakers. The call featured three experts on the current economic situation — Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Ellen Nissenbaum of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Troy himself. Rabbi David Saperstein, the Director of the RAC, offered homiletic advice for speaking about contentious issues, and I presented texts that might guide sermons and teaching sessions about the economy. (Troy and I have this in common: He was the political conservative on the call, and I was the Conservative rabbi.)

Troy writes, “When I suggested that we separate politics from spirituality, a third participant pushed back, saying ‘the Torah is a political document.’ A curious assertion in a crowd that would quickly denounce any invocation of the Bible in political discussions.”

I was this third participant. I do believe that the Torah is a political document. And I would not, as Troy assumes, “denounce any invocation of the Bible in political discussions.” In fact, I passionately invoke the Bible in political discussions.

I’m not sure I’d agree with Jacobs that the Torah is a political document per se. It has a vast amount to teach us about political issues. In fact, I can’t imagine a political issue that is not treated in the text of the Torah or Talmud. However, that doesn’t mean that rabbis should be speaking about divisive political issues in High Holiday sermons. Talking about how the economy has caused more middle-class families to struggle to make ends meet let alone pay for the Jewish day schools and Jewish summer camps is appropriate in a sermon, but dissecting the President’s jobs bill should be off limits. Encouraging congregants to travel to Israel, send their teens on Israel trips, and buy Israeli art is wonderful. However, getting into the political areas of Palestinian statehood at the U.N. and the policies of the Israeli government won’t make for inspirational sermons during the Days of Awe.

The bottom line is that we are spiritual leaders and not political pundits. I heard Dennis Prager speak on Saturday night before Selichot services. Recognizing he was there in a synagogue to address the congregation before the preliminary High Holiday prayers, he steered clear of any political messages. He is a political pundit in his day job, but he didn’t take use the pulpit to push a political agenda when it wouldn’t have been the right time.

And now it’s back to sermon writing.

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

Al Sharpton’s Apology As a Lesson in Repentance for the Jewish High Holidays

Last week about 20 rabbis from the Los Angeles area participated in a High Holiday sermon writing workshop called “Punching Up Your Holiday Sermons.” These pre-Rosh Hashanah sermon workshops for rabbis are nothing new, but this workshop had a twist. It paired the rabbis with Hollywood screenwriters who helped them come up with more engaging sermons.

It’s possible, however, that Rev. Al Sharpton has been more helpful to rabbis writing their High Holiday sermons this year than these talented screenwriters. His recent mea culpa may be the subject of many sermons heard in synagogues this High Holiday season.

Rev. Al has been in the news a lot lately. Just the other day it was announced that he will be hosting his own show on MSNBC to be called “PoliticsNation,” which will debut on August 29. Sharpton will become the network’s only African-American host.

This is good news for Sharpton, who made headlines recently when he wrote an apologetic Op-Ed piece in the NY Daily News in which he admitted to making mistakes during the racially fueled Crown Heights riots 20 years ago. Sharpton has long been blamed for inflaming tensions between Blacks and Jews in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1991. It all began when a car in the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade struck and killed an African American boy. Many argue that Sharpton incited the angry crowd leading to the fatal stabbing during the riots of Jewish student Yankel Rosenbaum.

In his apology Sharpton wrote, “Twenty years after the Crown Heights riots, the city has grown, and I believe I have grown. I’d like to share a few of my reflections about the choices I made, including the mistakes, with an eye toward advancing racial understanding and harmony.”

Sharpton concluded his Op-Ed with a reflection from an experience he had at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He wrote:

I would have shared a story about what happened when, as a young man, I was brought to the Jewish Theological Seminary by one of the civil rights leaders who had been an aide to Dr. King.

That day, I was introduced to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel had marched with Dr. King in Selma in support of the Voting Rights Act. For doing so, Heschel was attacked by some in his community who were very conservative and thought a theologian should stay in his proper place. He gave me a book and autographed it and, as we talked, I asked him about Dr. King — the man and the hero.

That’s when Dr. Heschel said to me: “Young man, only big men can achieve big things. Small men cannot fulfill big missions. Dr. King was a big man.”

Crown Heights showed how some of us, in our smallness, can divide. We must seek to be big. Next weekend, we will unveil the monument to Martin Luther King in Washington. I will speak at the ceremony along with members of the King family and the President of the United States.

I will continue to think about the value of the lives of Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum as I look up at the big statue of Dr. King. I will look towards the heavens and I will wink at Rabbi Heschel.

Not everyone seems to be ready to move on even if it has been twenty years since the Crown Heights riots. Last week, Sharpton was forced to back out from a scheduled panel discussion on the riots at the Hampton Synagogue after the synagogue’s rabbi, Marc Schneier, came under fire for the event by Yankel Rosenbaum’s family among others.

I think we should take Sharpton at his word. A cynic might say that he believed he needed to apologize for his role in the riots in order to get his show on MSNBC. However, after reading his apology I feel it is sincere. Many apologies by celebrities these days take place before the guilty individual has really had an opportunity to think about their mistakes, not to mention most of those apologies have been written by publicists. Sharpton had twenty long years to consider what he did and appeared contrite in his published apology.

What Sharpton did is what we call “teshuvah” (repentance) in Judaism and it is precisely what is called for before and during the High Holidays. Sharpton’s apology will be a fitting example for rabbis to share with their congregations on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rev. Al Sharpton restated what he did in the situation and then explained why it was misguided and why he won’t do it again. I’m sure twenty years ago Sharpton never thought he’d ever be able to apologize for his actions during the Crown Heights riots, but he just might become an example to the Jewish community for doing teshuvah. The two unnecessary deaths in 1991 must be remembered and mourned, but the time has come for the Black and Jewish communities to move on from the Crown Heights riots.

Black-Jewish relations have certainly improved in the two decades since Crown Heights. A recent video on the Funny or Die website demonstrates just how much commonality exists between Blacks and Jews. In fact, two of the artists mentioned in the song (the Jewish performer Drake and the Jewish biracial artist Lenny Kravitz) have collaborated on a new track called “Sunflower” for Kravitz’s upcoming album “Black and White in America.” Maybe Sharpton will have Drake and Lenny Kravitz perform on his new MSNBC show.

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

A Jewish Calendar Primer for Gabe Carimi

The Chicago Bears top draft pick is Gabe Carimi, a 22-year-old from the University of Wisconsin. The 6-7, 314-pound All-American is nicknamed “The Jewish Hammer.”

I’ve written on this blog several times about Jewish Major League Baseball players and the conflict of playing on Yom Kippur, but I’ve never discussed how the Yom Kippur decision affects NFL football players. This is likely because when there’s a Yom Kippur conflict in pro baseball it is often an important post-season game, yet, in college and pro football it’s only the beginning of the season.

Gabe Carimi, however, has brought the Yom Kippur holiday conflict to the NFL when he responded to a question about whether he’d play on Yom Kippur in a Chicago Bears game.  A self-proclaimed Reform Jew, Carimi fasted until an hour before the Big Ten opener in his freshman season for the University of Wisonsin when the game fell on Yom Kippur. When Yom Kippur again fell on a game day last season, Carimi fasted for 24 hours, but not according to the time zone he was currently in. Rather, he fasted according to the Israeli sundown so he could eat and take intravenous fluids right before game time.

Gabe Carimi was quoted as saying, “It’s pretty big in my life. I’m religious, but I try to tweak it so I can still do my job.”

At the NFL Combine this year, when asked whether he would play on Yom Kippur, Carimi told NFL scouts, “I already looked out over the next 15 years, and Yom Kippur doesn’t fall on a Sunday.”

So, here’s some information on the Jewish calendar for Gabe Carimi. First off, the Jewish calendar was fixed in 358/359 CE by Hillel II so that Yom Kippur will never fall on a Sunday. I’m pretty certain this wasn’t done with the NFL schedule in mind, but rather because if Yom Kippur fell on a Sunday, it would not be possible to make the necessary preparations for Yom Kippur, including candle lighting, because the preceding day is the Jewish Sabbath.

So, Gabe Carimi doesn’t have to worry about any NFL games that are scheduled for Sunday conflicting with Yom Kippur. Ever. And had he kept looking beyond the next 15 years, he would find that there are no Sundays on which Yom Kippur falls.

What Carimi neglected to look for are Yom Kippur conflicts on other days of the week since there are the occasional NFL games on Monday nights, Thursday nights, and Saturdays when Yom Kippur can occur.

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

Will Jewish Runners Fast & Then Try to Run Fast in Chicago Marathon After Yom Kippur

I’m not a marathon runner, but I know that most marathon runners will say that running 26.2 miles the day after fasting for 25 hours isn’t a walk in the park. But that’s precisely what Jewish runners in the Windy City will have to do if they plan to abstain from eating and drinking on Yom Kippur this year and then run the Chicago Marathon the following day.

While I don’t think the schedulers of the Chicago Marathon were attempting anything malicious against Jewish runners, I’m starting to question if Yom Kippur even appears on calendars in the City of Chicago. This past Yom Kippur, a Dave Matthews Band concert was held at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on the night of Kol Nidre, the solemn prayer service commencing the full-day Yom Kippur fast. I know a lot of young Jewish Chicagoans who saw the Dave Matthews concert as a quandary testing their religious convictions. Now, many young Jewish Chicagoans who planned to run the Chicago Marathon will face this conflict.

Marathon runners typically eat a lot of carbs throughout the day before the marathon so the typical eating regimen on Yom Kippur of abstaining from food or drink for a full 25 hours and then gorging on such Jewish staples as smoked salmon, egg souffle, bagels, and coffee cakes cannot be healthy preparation. My friend Dawn Sherr is a dietitian in Chicago who will no doubt be asked to consult several marathon runners concerned about fasting before the run. She told me, “Fasting before a marathon is a hard thing to do. In the days leading up to the big day getting enough carbohydrates, protein, and fluid are essential for peak performance. Trying to cram in the all the fluid and nutrition after fasting can be hard to achieve and after spending so much time training many runners may not want to risk a bad run.”

The Chicago Tribune reported on the scheduling conflict yesterday in an article appropriately titled “Hurdle arises for Jewish runners in Chicago Marathon.” The Tribune quoted an angry Jewish runner who has run in four Chicago marathons. Chicagoan Barry Stoltze said, “To Jewish runners, you’re forcing a choice. Either sacrifice your running and don’t do the marathon this year, or sacrifice your religion and cheat on the fast.”

Marathon organizers did not directly address whether they considered the holiday in their planning but said the scheduling process was years in the making. The marathon, generally held on Columbus Day weekend, is planned with city officials so as not to conflict with other events and to ensure that area venues, such as hotels, can handle the thousands of out-of-town visitors.

“It’s not a simple date change,” marathon spokesman Jeremy Borling said. “It’s really wheels that are in motion several years in advance pointing to that one date.”

Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said there would surely be some annoyed runners but steered clear of calling this a controversy. The JUF was asked by organizers to provide outreach for Jewish runners who could be affected by the fast, he said.

I was contacted by a friend who told me he wasn’t planning to run the Chicago Marathon this year, but was disappointed that the city would schedule it without regard for the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar. He was also outraged that the JUF wasn’t willing to advocate for the sake of the many Jewish runners who’s training and preparation would be adversely affected by the date of the Marathon.

No matter how many Jewish runners complain, it doesn’t look like the date of the Chicago Marathon is going to be changed. So, my advice would be that Jewish runners continue to train for the marathon (Judaism promotes exercise), but take this year off from the marathon rather than put their bodies in a dangerous situation. They should also exercise their right to protest by complaining to the marathon organizers, the JUF, and especially the Chicago Marathon sponsors. Hopefully, in future years the Jewish calendar will be considered before scheduling such a big event.

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

Judaism and Sports

Last week I received a call from the producer of “Mojo in the Morning,” a popular morning radio talk show on 95.5 FM here in Detroit. She asked if I’d be willing to offer a prayer for the Detroit Lions. Knowing how funny the show is, I wasn’t concerned that the prayer would be taken seriously. So, I agreed to give a tongue-in-cheek prayer for our city’s woeful NFL team (audio below).

The following are the prayerful words I offered:

Our God and the God of our ancestors. The God of Billy Sims, the God of Barry Sanders, and the God of Eddie Murray. (It’s always good to invoke the name of a placekicker… God likes placekickers). Almighty God, Ruler of the universe, who is mindful of the desire for a playoff-reaching football team in this great city, Grant your mercy to the Detroit Lions. Heal their injuries, allow them to overcome their misery, and let us all forget their many seasons of woe. Let the defense divide before them like the Red Sea so they may go forth and scoreth and spiketh thy ball. In victory may they conquer every enemy team that comes before them. Give sight to the blind referees who error in judgement before Thee. And may You grant the Detroit Lions the power to grasp the Superbowl trophy. Ken Yehi Ratzon… And so may it be. And let all of the Detroit Lions’ faithful say ‘AMEN.’

Now, I don’t know if that prayer will work for a team that actually went 0-16 two seasons ago, but it was fun to be a guest on Mojo. An hour after speaking to the Mojo crew, I received an unrelated phone call from Alan Zeitlin, a reporter for NY Blueprint and The NY Jewish Week. He contacted me regarding an article he was writing entitled “By God, Should LeBron be Forgiven?”

Zeitlin wanted to know if I thought LeBron James, the star basketball player who upset just about every citizen of Cleveland by leaving the Cavaliers as a free agent to play for the Miami Heat over the summer, should offer an apology to the people of Cleveland for his actions. I explained that, while LeBron didn’t owe the city of Cleveland an apology, it would be nice if he did some soul searching about the way he went about his departure and then offered a sincere “sorry” to Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert for not returning his calls in the weeks prior to his decision.

What was most interesting about Zeitlin’s phone call was the response he told me he received from other rabbis to whom he posed the LeBron question. Many refused to answer the question, explaining that professional sports shouldn’t be taken so seriously and Jewish people should get their priorities in order. One rabbi went so far as to call professional sports “idolatry.” Now, I agree that it’s important that we have our priorities in order (especially in the days before Yom Kippur), but I see nothing wrong with being interested in sports and discussing the off-the-court actions of superstar athletes.

Yes, there are many important issues going on in the world that should occupy our attention ahead of whether a star athlete should apologize to the city he departed as a free agent. However, sports in our country hold great entertainment value for adults and children. Cleveland fans have a right to be disappointed by LeBron’s exit and the way in which he exited. For professional sports franchise owners like Dan Gilbert, it is also a business and a financial investment, and he has every right to criticize an employee for leaving even if it was within the employee’s legal rights to do so.

I maintain that there is nothing wrong with having a discussion about whether a star athlete should do teshuvah (repentance). After all, many children look up to star athletes as role models and questioning their integrity and actions is fair game.

Praying for a football team to win a game? Well, that’s just tongue-in-cheek humor that makes for funny morning radio bits.


Rabbi Jason leads a prayer for the
Detroit Lions on the “Mojo in the Morning” radio show.

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