Author Archives: Rabbi Jason Miller

Rabbi Jason Miller

About Rabbi Jason Miller

Rabbi Jason Miller is an educator, entrepreneur, social media expert and blogger. He is president of Access Computer Technology, a computer consulting firm based in Detroit, and is the founder/director of Kosher Michigan, a kosher certification agency. His personal blog has reached over a million and he has created PopJewish.com, TorahDaily.com, CelebrateJewish.com, and JewishTechs.com. Rabbi Jason also writes for Time.com and the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @rabbijason

Do We Need Lent in Judaism?

There are two funny images I like to circulate this time every year as we approach the Passover holiday. The first is a cartoon of a truck with large text on the side reading “Morty’s Passover Cleaning.” On the driver’s side door is the word “chametz” inside a circle with line struck through it. Underneath the large “Morty’s Passover Cleaning” text on the side of the truck it reads:
Orthodox $89.95, Conservative $49.95; Reform $19.95.
Passover Cleaning Joke (RabbiJason.com)

The second image is of a person’s office cubicle and it’s completely covered in aluminum foil. Even the desk chair, computer, keyboard and mouse are completely covered in aluminum foil. Most likely this photo was taken of the scene of an office prank, but I like to circulate this photo with the question, “Do we go overboard when it comes to Pesach cleaning?”

Let’s look at the first photo. Is there some truth to this? I always maintain there has to be some truth to a joke for it to be funny, so let’s say that on the whole, yes, Orthodox Jews would spend more money for Passover cleaning than Conservative Jews and Conservative Jews would spend more money for Passover cleaning than Reform Jews. Perhaps, this image strikes us as offensive, but we’ll unpack that in a moment.

I remember as a kid before we got granite counter tops watching my mother cover all the counter tops in tin foil and then redoing this process each morning of the holiday because some of the tin foil had ripped the night before causing little sections of the white Formica counter to be revealed. This was done despite the fact that our house was completely spotless after having been thoroughly cleaned for the holiday. The thinking was that the counter is of a porous material and would have retained some of the chametz from the year which would contaminate our Passover food.

Office Covered in Aluminum Foil for Passover

Do we go overboard for Passover?

We all spend exorbitant amounts of money on this 8-day holiday (only 7 days in Israel) to get special food that has been labeled kosher for Passover. We take Spring cleaning to the next level and then up a few more levels to make sure there is no chametz in our homes. We stockpile enough Kosher for Passover food to feed an army as if we’re planning to never return to a grocery store ever again or that the supply of matzah may run out. Are our intentions misguided? Most rabbis encourage congregants to fully embrace the strictures of Passover, and I certainly want everyone to observe the holiday with fervor and joy, but I question what can only be characterized as the intense OCD-like tenacity with which we tackle the minutiae of Passover observance. After all, our ancestors in Europe weren’t buying kosher for Passover bottled water!

Cleaning-for-PassoverThere are certainly some core laws of Passover that we’re all familiar with. These include avoiding the consumption or possession of chametz, eating matzah, drinking four cups of wine or grape juice at the Seder, and telling the story of the exodus while imagining that we, ourselves, had left Egyptian slavery on the journey toward freedom. The most important mitzvah or commandment of Passover, however, is one that we no longer follow. The Tradition commands us to eat the Passover sacrifice, known in Hebrew as the Korban Pesah.

We are instructed to eat this Pascal sacrifice or offering in a state of ritual purity and that’s what I think we should focus our attention on as we prepare for Passover. We should spend more time trying to achieve this state of ritual purity that our ancestors strived for when eating the Pascal sacrifice, and less time stressing out with the minutiae of chametz. I hear a lot of stories of people spending days cleaning under couches and in crevices on the kitchen floor. However, it’s important to remember that dirt is not chametz. If crumbs have been hiding in the cracks under your cabinets, that’s called garbage not food.

To eat of the Pascal sacrifice we have to be spiritually pure. Our souls have to be cleaned out. The idea is that we should transcend our everyday experience of life and place ourselves on a higher spiritual plane. You see, in Judaism we have an elaborate system of purity and impurity. Think of these as order and chaos. Our world is made up of order and chaos — both are essential. We must seek out order as a way to put limits on the chaos and make the world a better place for us and for our descendants.

Each year as we’re preparing for Passover, our Christian friends are preoccupied with Lent. This time of Lent is also a spiritual cleansing time when they give something up that they love. A good friend of mine gives up drinking alcohol during Lent each year. His wife gives up all sweets — no candy, no sugary soda, no sweet desserts. Some people give up using profanity, or smoking, or video games. Lent is a time for people to clean up their act so to speak. While I’m not proposing Jews begin observing Lent, I do think that the idea of this spiritual cleansing is in line with the notion of becoming purified in order to eat of the Pascal offering — and that is precisely the focus of Passover.

Maybe we use the Passover preparation time to consider what we need to do in order to improve our lives. Maybe we should spend more quality time with our spouse and children, dedicate more volunteer time to local nonprofit organizations, set aside more money for tzedakah each year. Passover occurs about 6 months after the High Holidays so it’s really an opportune time for us to do a spiritual checkup anyway. We can do a midway audit on our Jewish New Year’s resolutions.

Pesach has become a holiday of cleaning and scrubbing and dusting and vacuuming. And that’s all fine and good — who doesn’t appreciate some heavy Spring cleaning this time of year. But the real experience that God expects of us is for us to do some spiritual Spring cleaning. To rid ourselves of the negativity — the spiritual chametz — haughtiness, arrogance, the ego.
We should be striving for renewal in our hearts, and not simply in our homes or specifically in our kitchens.

As we shop, clean, pack, unpack, set the tables, and prepare the elaborate Seder meals over the next week, we should be mindful to place the emphasis of the holiday on the correct place. Chametz isn’t dirt or dust or garbage. It’s that which we must rid ourselves of in order to be of pure souls for this significant festival. We may no longer eat of the Pascal offering and we only discuss it at the Seder, but let us remember that our ancestors took this task very seriously. Give up something this year for the Jewish Lent. Rid yourself of that which you’re not proud of and would be better off without. Discard the metaphysical chametz while you’re getting rid of the literal chametz. Kedoshim Tihiyu — And then, we shall be holy and closer to our God.

Posted on March 25, 2015

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Rabbis Should Double Down on Pop Culture

Growing up I had fond respect for the senior rabbi of my congregation. I learned much from him, but I never truly connected with him on a personal level. Other rabbis around town were the ones with whom I had more meaningful discussions and the rabbis I would later point to as influences for my own path toward the rabbinate.

I was thinking about this recently when I was asked what a successful rabbi looks like in the 21st century. Certainly, rabbis today must be intelligent, engaging, personable and funny. That hasn’t changed since the time of the Mishnah. The questioner found my response intriguing when I included that a successful rabbi today watches popular television shows and goes to the multiplex to see the latest movies everyone’s talking about. What did I mean by that?

Pop-Culture-Rabbi-Jason-MillerPop culture unites us. An office environment in which both the rank and file employees as well as the boss not only watch the same television shows but also gather around the water cooler (or Keurig) to discuss them the following day will enjoy a camaraderie that leads to more collaboration and productivity. A school teacher who can engage her students by discussing the latest trends in Hollywood will earn their respect and show she is able to talk to them about their interests. A politician who doesn’t only talk to his constituents about politics, but also connects by talking about the latest sports story will remove the barriers that often exist.

So too it is with rabbis, or any religious leader for that matter. I’m not suggesting rabbis should ease up on their scholarship or reference jokes from How I Met Your Mother in all their sermons. Rather, in the 21st century I think people are looking to connect with their spiritual leaders through different access points. A generation ago if people felt their rabbi was there for them in their time of need or was a kind presence during a family celebration, then that was enough. Today, rabbis score points if they can connect to the teenage youth group by discussing the latest Twilight movie or recount the best highlight from that morning’s Top Ten on SportsCenter. If they open a sermon with a reference to last week’s episode of Homeland, they will grab everyone’s attention.

When people say they love how easy it is to connect with their rabbi, they don’t just mean that “rabbis are just like us” in an Us Weekly sort of way. Rather, they appreciate how their rabbi is able to connect a message – ethical, spiritual, historical, ritual, etc. – to pop culture. A few years ago, together with an Orthodox rabbinic colleague, I created PopJewish.com. The focus of this blog was to give rabbis a forum to connect Jewish teachings with the pop culture of the day. Essentially, it takes what people are talking about anyway and brings in the Jewish message.

The times when a rabbi wasn’t considered a regular person who took out the garbage, had cereal for breakfast or binge watched an entire season of House of Cards are over. There might be some negatives to rabbis letting their guard down and schmoozing with congregants about a mindless fiction book they just downloaded to their Kindle or what they thought of the Oscars last week, but ultimately it makes us more human and more relatable. And that’s a good thing.

Posted on February 25, 2015

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Let the Parenting Criticism Stop… Unless

The other day I came across a very funny video by Similac, the baby formula company. This extended advertisement was more of a public service announcement urging parents to stop criticizing the parenting techniques of other parents. (Watch the video here).

It doesn’t take long to realize that the strong message from Similac is that parents need to stop judging other parents about whether they choose to breastfeed their babies or provide baby formula. It’s certainly in the best interest of Similac to put an end to the onslaught of criticism waged against mothers who opt to feed with formula rather than from their breasts.

The formula vs. breastfeeding debate, which I’m not going to get into, wasn’t the reason my interest was piqued by this video. What intrigued me so much about this video was that it made me question where the line is between legitimate criticism of others’ parenting decisions and the etiquette of simply biting ones tongue.

shutterstock_181170578Judaism certainly offers up its fair share of parenting advice. The Talmud, a sort of ancient parenting manual, advises when a parent should begin to teach his child Torah, how to swim, and even how to find a mate. On the matter of disciplining a child, Proverbs advises, “He who spares his rod hates his son but he who loves him is diligent to chastise him.” It’s one thing for Jewish law to offer prescriptions for responsible parenting, but when another parent is critical of how we parent our own children it can be an uncomfortable situation.

Many parents are quick to judge other parents, but haven’t walked a mile in their shoes. We’ve all seen parents roll their eyes when another parent lets their young child see a questionable movie, get a cell phone at an early age, wear expensive name brand clothing, or go out in the cold without a jacket. As the Similac video made clear, our global concern should be over the wellbeing of all children rather than trying to force our own opinions of how best to parent on others.

So, if it’s inappropriate for parents to criticize other parents over the source of food for infants and whether to let their children play outside without a warm jacket, is it ever acceptable to be critical of our peers’ choices as parents?

Well, that brings us to two ongoing news items. The first is the current spread of Measles in the United States. The outbreak, which is traced to an unvaccinated child at Disneyland in California, is highlighting the vaccination debate in our nation. In the case of vaccinating children, it is acceptable to voice our disagreement with the choice of other parents. Sending your child outside without a coat, staying up late at night, or letting him play a violent video game only affects your child. When parents choose to avoid having their children vaccinated in the 21st century, it poses a serious health risk to others. In the name of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, we have the responsibility to voice our disapproval of parents letting their children go unvaccinated.

The same is true when a parent is seen hitting their child. While some parents choose to spank or as a form of discipline and others feel it is improper, we should all agree that outright hitting a child is abusive. Unfortunately there’s no perfect litmus test for this and deciding whether to intervene when we see a parent hitting their child in public can be an uneasy situation. However, we should intercede on behalf of the child. In many cases, the parent just needs to calm down and handle the situation differently. While it might feel awkward to step in and voice an objection to the way the parent handled the situation, it is the ethical and justified course of action.

There is certainly gray area when it comes to criticizing other parents, but my sense is that our gut reaction will usually be right. There are certain things that occur between a parent and child that are none of our business, but there are other things that have a harmful effect – either on that child specifically or on society at large. I maintain that when it comes to parents not vaccinating their children or engaging in corporal punishment, we are duty bound to intercede and voice our disagreement. For just about everything else, just grin and bear it.

Posted on January 28, 2015

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How the Tragedy of an Infant’s Death Can Bring About Mitzvot

Buddy Bench in Memory of Rylan Foster GelbToday will be a difficult day for my family. And for me. We should be celebrating the first birthday of my nephew, Rylan Foster Gelb, but sadly his brief life was cut short on his eleventh day from a rare genetic disease called Galactosemia.

I never had a chance to meet Rylan or to hold him. And that makes the grieving process all the more challenging for me and for my young children who never met their first cousin. In the months following his death, my sister-in-law Stephanie, while deep in her own grief, desperately searched for ways to keep Rylan’s memory alive. She came up with a few wonderful ways for people to perform mitzvot and acts of loving kindness and then pay those good deeds forward. Stephanie and her husband Hylton have used the tragic death of their newborn son to improve the lives of thousands of others in such a short time.

I was thinking of this last night when I learned about an easy way to support the cause of Pancreatic Cancer research by purchasing Hanukkah candles on Amazon.com. My colleague and teacher, Rabbi David Wolpe, posted a tweet on Twitter with a link to buy a box of purple Hanukkah candles for $20 on Amazon and 100% of the money goes to Pancreatic Cancer research. With a couple of hours left in “Giving Tuesday” I quickly clicked the link and ordered candles in memory of my uncle, Jerry Gudes, who died of Pancreatic Cancer in 2009. After I ordered the candles, Amazon asked if I would like to post my purchase to Facebook and Twitter to let others know about this product (and charitable cause). When I posted to Facebook with appreciation to Rabbi Wolpe for the tip, I mentioned that Rabbi David Wolpe and his brother Rabbi Dan Wolpe lost their father, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, to Pancreatic Cancer. This led Rabbi Dan Wolpe to also click the link and buy Hanukkah candles in his father’s memory. Talk about paying it forward!

My sister-in-law and brother-in-law have created several initiatives to encourage people (young and old) to make the world a better place and pay it forward. The first thing that they created was the Kounting Kindness website in memory of Rylan. This is a place where individuals or families can share their stories of how they were kind to others in honor of Rylan. Just this week, a friend shared that he paid the bridge toll of the car behind him in memory of Rylan and later heard that this act of paying it forward went on for many cars thereafter. One woman posted, “I brought our new neighbors muffins and welcomed them to our street. They were so grateful.” It’s also become a forum for leaving stories of ways that others have been witnessed being kind. “A woman leaving as I was driving up to a space gave me the rest of the minutes in her parking ticket!” posted a woman.

Stephanie and Hylton Gelb have also set up a new scholarship fund at The Galactosemia Association of Midwest America (GAMA) to financially assist families with conference or evaluation expenses. The Galactosemia Foundation organizes a conference every other year in various locations around the country and this scholarship fund will help families pay for conference registration and offset travel expenses. The goal is to help families become more educated and make lifelong connections with other families. The second goal of this memorial scholarship is to financially assist families to be evaluated by a medical professional specializing in Galactosemia because there are currently only a few specialists around the country who have experience in the treatment of Galactosemia.

Finally, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, together with our family and friends, have donated a Buddy Bench. The purpose of the Buddy Bench is simple. It is placed on an elementary school playground to eliminate loneliness and foster friendship among the young children. The Buddy Bench helps spread the message of inclusion and kindness. Stephanie chose to have the custom designed Buddy Bench placed on the playground of Forest Elementary School in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which is the same school that both she and my wife, Elissa, attended as children. What’s so special for me about this Buddy Bench is that it can be seen from the windows of my home. Already in the few short weeks since it was dedicated, I have seen many children taking advantage of the Buddy Bench to let other children know they are lonely and need a friend, and also for children to include others in their activities at school recess. The Buddy Bench has the opposite effect of bullying because it strongly encourages children to be inclusive and kind to others. Just this past Shabbat, a six-year-old girl approached my wife and I to let us know that she found a new friend by going over to the Buddy Bench when she saw a little girl sitting there waiting for someone to approach her. What a significant way to bring more kindness into the world.

It’s remarkable how the tragedy of an infant’s death can bring about mitzvot. These acts of kindness have helped to bring a touch of joy to the memory of my nephew Rylan. It’s a challenge to find ways to turn such a negative event into many positive initiatives — especially during the grieving process — but I give my sister-in-law and brother-in-law tremendous credit for what they have done. The kindness that Rylan Gelb has brought into this world is exponential and will only continue to grow. May the short life of Rylan continue to bring blessings into our world and make it a kinder place for us.

Posted on December 3, 2014

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Have We Forgotten Yitzhak Rabin Already?

RabinLast night I sat among 850 supporters of Israel and its Israel Defense Forces at the annual Friends of the IDF dinner here in Metro Detroit, Michigan. I attend this event each year and last night was not much different than past events. I was moved to tears watching the video screens and hearing about young Israelis who had to overcome difficult personal challenges while serving in the Israeli Army to defend the Jewish state. I listened as one young man, now an attorney in Israel, thanked a local Detroit family that sponsored him so he could attend law school after the army despite both of his parents being unemployed due to serious medical problems. He, like so many Israeli professionals, had to leave his job over the summer when he was called up from reserves to serve in Gaza.

There wasn’t a single person in the large synagogue social hall last night who wouldn’t identify as a strong supporter of Israel. There were hundreds of Israelis in that room last night who had served in the IDF and emigrated to Detroit. There were also many Americans who had volunteered to serve in the IDF or who are related to Israelis who had served. There were families who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Friends of the IDF to build army bases and classrooms and fitness centers throughout Israel. Like me, I’m sure, all 850 of the men and women in that room remember precisely what had happened in Tel Aviv nineteen years earlier. It was on November 4, 1995 that the Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a Jewish religious extremist. And yet there was no mention of that day.

Rabin’s assassination was my generation’s JFK assassination. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. It was a beautiful, sunny Shabbat afternoon. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I were standing outside my AEPi fraternity house when someone told us that there was a rumor that Yitzhak Rabin had been shot dead. CNN was already showing video footage of the peace rally in Tel Aviv where Rabin’s life was taken. As my fraternity brothers began returning from the afternoon’s football game (I hadn’t attended), I told them the news. We were all shocked. As a leader at my university’s Hillel, I was asked to speak at several community vigils the next day. I was called by newspaper reporters asking for my opinion on the assassination and whether it would end any hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. It was my first experience being interviewed at a TV news studio. I had always been a Zionist, but November 4, 1995 made me, and so many of my peers, feel closer to Israel than ever before. I began researching ways to return to Israel that summer.

So much has happened in the 19 years since that horrible day. Israel has endured more terrorism, fought more wars and has yet to mend its internal fractures. As Americans went to the polls yesterday in our midterm elections, so many of us refused to check our concerns about Israel at the door. We take them with us into the voting booth. We discuss the candidates’ positions on Israel and the Middle East.

I’d like to think that last night’s omission of the anniversary of the Rabin assassination was just an oversight. We memorialized all of the victims of terrorism and all of those men and women who lost their lives while serving for the IDF. Yitzhak Rabin was an IDF general long before he was a politician or a statesman. For me, I will never forget November 4, 1995. I pray that we continue to honor the memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. To forget his contributions to the State of Israel would be an assassination to his legacy.

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Posted on November 5, 2014

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Can We Be Commanded to Be Happy?

Tonight begins the 8-day festival of Sukkot (7 days in Israel and in the American Reform movement). One of the core texts from the Torah we learn about the festival of sukkot is v’samachta b’chageicha, v’hayita ach sameachwe should rejoice in our holiday and we should feel nothing but happiness. We even sing a catchy chant using these words. But, is it really possible to command happiness?

We live in challenging times. Wars, diseases, and injustice around the globe, it’s no wonder that this year’s most famous song was so uplifting. Pharrell Williams helped to get us all out of our funk when he sang:

It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way

Because I’m happy – Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

I think Pharrell Williams sang the song that we really needed to hear this year. Happiness isn’t easy to come by, but it’s something we’re all searching fornot just on the weeklong holiday of Sukkot, but all year round. But what really is happiness? Because if we don’t know what happiness really is, then maybe we’re wasting a whole lot of precious time in our lives by seeking it out!

Sukkot HappinessIn his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert uses cutting-edge research to show that happiness is not really what or where we thought it was. We often think we know what will make us happy, but we really do not. We also say we are happy but oftentimes, as Gilbert explains, we are just misusing the term “happy.” Reading Gilbert’s book forced me to think of new ways to think of happiness and to bring more happiness into my own life.

I love how Gilbert begins his book Stumbling on Happiness: “Despite the third word of the title, this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy. Those books are located in the self-help section two aisles over, and once you’ve bought one, done everything it says to do, and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to understand why.”

Rather than thinking about this pursuit of happiness as a search for a life in which we’re always happy in the sense we typically think of happinessalways smiling, laughing, you know, Disney’s concept of Mr. Bluebird on my shoulderI’d like you to consider three words that better define what we’re seeking. Not happiness, but contentment, gratitude and meaning. Let’s explore these three concepts:

Contentment requires that we look around at our family and our home and our lot in life and we say “Baruch Hashem”blessed is God for my life. I’m not a fan of saying Baruch Hashem in a reflexive way every time someone asks how things are going, but I do believe we need to spend more time feeling grateful for what we have. That is contentment.

Now, let’s look at another better way to think of the goal of happiness and that is gratitude. Studies have shown that people who practice gratitude in their daily life are happier than those who do not. There seems to be a clear connection between learning to be grateful and living a more fulfilling life. Social science research has demonstrated that cultivating gratitude, learning to recognize and respond with thankfulness to the goodness of other people and the beauty in life, as opposed to complaint or indifference, stimulates a host of benefits.

Gratitude means being attuned to the gifts that have come our way. Sukkot, is almost completely about expressing gratitude. The Avinu Malkeinu prayer we sang on Rosh Hashanah (we omitted it this Yom Kippur since it fell on Shabbat) is all about the gratitude we give to God. In fact, the vast majority of our prayers consists of offering gratitude to God for our lives.

And this brings us to meaning: In an article in The Atlantic in January 2013, the author takes a look at happiness through the perspective of Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, who was arrested in September 1942 and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. When Frankl’s camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had died, but he survived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. As Frankl saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I wish you a Chag Sameachmay Sukkot help you find contentment, meaning and gratitude in addition to joy.

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Posted on October 8, 2014

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Why Gwyneth Paltrow’s Conversion to Judaism Will Confuse People

We rabbis often lament about how many issues divide our people. We pray differently, we keep kosher differently, we talk about Israel differently, etc. The truth is that while these topics make us debate with each other and cause us to affiliate with our own congregations and communities and organizations, they don’t change the fact that we’re all part of the Jewish people. The only issue that truly does divide us in the sense that it keeps us from uniting as one people is the issue of Jewish identitywhat’s commonly called “Who’s a Jew.”

The 1983 decision by the Reform Movement (in North America, not in Israel) to consider those with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as fully Jewish changed the rules of the game. In my first decade as a rabbi serving communities of young Jewish people (both on a college campus and at a Jewish camping agency), I’ve been asked numerous times by patrilineal Jews whether I consider them Jewish. At the end of a Birthright Israel trip a young female participant asked if I would be willing to officiate at her wedding even though her mother isn’t Jewish. As a Conservative rabbi I find these to be the most challenging questions I’m asked. My Reform and Orthodox rabbinic colleagues respond to these questions without much hesitation or difficulty. The Reform rabbi is able to cite the movement’s resolution establishing that “if the child is raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent is Jewish, then the child is recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent.” The Orthodox rabbi frames the answer with cut-and-dry legal wording, explaining that the definition of Jewish lineage according to halacha (Jewish law) is a child born to a Jewish mother or one who undergoes proper conversion.

Gwyneth Paltrow - Conversion to JudaismNow a mega celebrity is catapulting the topic of patrilineal descent right onto our dinner tables just weeks before the High Holidays. Rabbis might feel inclined to include this issue in their Rosh Hashanah sermons this month. Gwyneth Paltrow has long been considered a Jewish actress by her fans and those in Hollywood who know that her father was Jewish. Paltrow’s mother is Blythe Danner, the actress known most notably for her roles in television’s Will and Grace and the movie Meet the Parents. Now, Paltrow has announced that she has been in the process of a conversion to Judaism since discovering her ancestors were famous rabbis. This has led to confusion among many who thought Gwyneth Paltrow was already Jewish.

Conversion is an option for patrilineal Jews who wish to remove any genetic doubt about their heritage, but it can also be an insulting suggestion. We are now facing the inter-denominational challenges that have arisen from the Reform movement’s 1983 resolution as the children of that era are now of marriage age and are having their own children. Gwyneth Paltrow will likely go through a mikveh conversion to formally (and halachically) become a member of the Jewish community (and remove any doubt that she’s 100% a Jewish celebrity), but that resolution won’t work for every man or woman who grew up thinking they were unequivocally Jewish. The mere mention of a conversion process can be taken as an insult to an individual who grew up as an active member of the Jewish people. So what are we to do for the thousands of Patrilineal Jews who don’t want to convert? Maybe we just need a big name celeb like Gwyneth Paltrow to bring this issue to the fore.

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Posted on September 10, 2014

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The Tragedy of Comedy: What Good May Come of Robin Williams’ Death?

I’ve never cried when a celebrity suddenly dies. It has always seemed like something that just happens. Certainly, it’s a sad day when an actor or musician, athlete or politician has “cashed in their chips” early. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve been shocked and saddened when I’ve learned of the lethal overdose of a promising young athlete or when the news breaks that a famous actor has lost his battle with cancer. But Robin Williams wasn’t just any comedian. He wasn’t your typical actor or entertainer. Robin Williams was the textbook definition of “comedic genius.”

Robin Williams grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan only a few miles from my childhood home and, while not Jewish by birth, he was widely known as an honorary Jew—both for his brand of humor (always peppered with a Yiddish expression and Jewish inflection) and for his unwavering commitment to Jewish causes. I’ve cried several times in the past couple of days since hearing of his untimely death. He was a brilliant at entertaining us.

Robin Williams - Depression

Like most of my generation, I was first introduced to the silliness of Robin Williams as a young child tuning in to every episode of Mork and Mindy. It was my mimicking of Robin’s goofy antics in kindergarten that led the teacher to tell my parents I was a “class clown.” And then I found my father’s audio cassettes of his standup routines, “Robin Williams: A Night at the Met” and “Reality… What a Concept.” I listened to those tapes dozens of times and brought them with me to summer camp to entertain my friends. The counselors told my parents I should be a standup comedian. Not long after that my dad took me to see Good Morning Vietnam in the theater and then I bought the video tape as soon as it came out, memorizing long segments of the movie and then performing them in front of my class at my Jewish day school. The teacher told my parents that I should tone down my R-rated humor.

As news of Robin Williams’ suicide by hanging (asphyxiation) has now been confirmed and his publicist has explained that he had been struggling with severe depression, we must now find ways to take this tragedy and bring about some positive from it. Many have noted the irony that behind the comedic mask of Robin Williams was a very dark human being who was suffering from depression. Robin Williams had it all—fame and fans, riches and rewards. He had a loving family and countless friends who cared deeply about him. Looking at his life I’m reminded of the Biblical character Jacob who also had it all, but suffered from depression.

In the section of the Torah relating the events leading up to the much anticipated reunion of Jacob and his estranged brother Esav, we are told that Jacob is left alone to spend the night. He is left alone – without his large family – in the darkness to contemplate his fate when he would once again come face to face with his brother. In this night of utter aloneness a man wrestles with Jacob until the break of dawn leaving him injured.

It is possible that the Hebrew term alone (levado) actually means a sense of despair. And while biblical commentators have theorized that the being with whom Jacob wrestled was either an angel, God or even Esav himself, my own interpretation is that Jacob wrestled with himself. It was depression.

Jacob was not really alone on that fateful night. His loved ones were just on the other side of the river, but he felt alone. He had a large family who loved him and he had great wealth, but he was struggling with his inner demons. Feeling anxious and alone, our patriarch was left in the dark to wrestle with himself.

Depression often goes undetected and untreated. In the United States, between two and four percent of people suffer from clinical depression translating to about 17.5 million Americans. Like Jacob, they too are wrestling internally and praying for healing and recovery. We must constantly remind them that there is hope and there is help.

As dawn breaks, Jacob’s opponent begs him to let go. Not until you bless me, Jacob says. From that point on, Jacob is transformed and known as Israel. Transformation is possible, but it comes out of a difficult struggle.

Our responsibility is to recognize and accept those who are wrestling with depression. We must listen to their cries for help and be present for them. The loss of Robin Williams, a truly gifted performer, is painful for everyone who was entertained by him. Let us work to help others who suffer from depression before it is too late.

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Posted on August 13, 2014

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