October 11, 2016

Trump Disrespects Men, and Yom Kippur

Filed under: Judaism, Personal Blog, Politics — marcstober @ 3:49 pm

What makes me really angry about things Donald Trump said isn’t that it disrespects women. It’s that it disrespects men.

When our country’s founders wrote “all men are created equal,” or Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote about Halakhic Man, or Hannah Szensh wrote about “the prayer of Man” (actually, in Hebrew, there are two words for “man” and she used adam, which conveys the deeper meaning more than the common word ish)—that language seems archaic now: it would be better to just say “people.” But the classical usage of “Man” also had a deeper connotation: a good, civilized human. A mensch. Donald Trump may have male chromosomes, but he’s not much of a man in this sense.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with “locker room talk.” Not just for the sake of (as the rhetorical trope goes) my mother/sister/daughter, but because it’s a challenge to being a man. Being a man means having testosterone-fueled energy and needing to find a way to sanctify it and to do the right thing. Bill Clinton has clearly struggled with this, and I’ll say to him what he said to us: “I feel your pain.” Mitt Romney has lots of children, so presumably he’s done the same stuff Donald Trump talked about—with his wife, when she consents. Teenagers may talk about this in locker rooms, but grown men are supposed to be better.

What does this have to do with Yom Kippur? In Jewish terms, we have good and evil inclinations, the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra. The little angel and devil on our shoulders, like in cartoons. We need both, and we wrestle to keep them in balance. On Yom Kippur, we check in with ourselves as to how we’re doing with that.

Such work is a big part of being (to quote Glenn Beck!) a “moral, dignified man” and Trump doesn’t seem to have any respect for that.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

June 1, 2014

Who’s Social Now?

Filed under: Business, Consumer, Jewish Organizations, Parenting, Social Media — marcstober @ 2:41 pm

So this was an interesting tweet:

There are times when I wish the religious organizations I’ve been involved with would take some marketing lessons from the retail world. But, sometimes, we should value what we’re doing better: community and social stuff. I mean, the Jewish world is in the business of giving people a way to find community and social on Friday night as we have been for thousands for years. Businesses trying to add community and social features to their website are WAY behind at what community really means.

Indeed, I came across this tweet because I was ordering labels for kids going to summer camp. I am going to let the nonprofit Jewish summer camp meet some our family’s needs for community and social. Try as they might, the e-commerce company trying to be social seems a little forced. But they probably make good labels.

January 20, 2014

When Instagram is the (small) Sanctuary

Filed under: Judaism, Parenting — marcstober @ 10:07 am

It was just Tu B’Shvat. I really had good intentions to do something for Tu B’Shvat this year. We could have done a little seder with the dried fruit, or maybe even found something to go to in the community. I mean, we had just gotten back from a family trip to Israel and were supposed to be feeling all connected the land and all.

And then, after kids went to bed, I was looking at Twitter. And seeing tweets about the holiday from my more religious or environmental-activist “friends.” Tu B’Shvat was tonight?We had pasta and broccoli, nary a tree food in sight. (And we’re not even one of the those families that gets the kids to eat the broccoli by calling it “little trees.” Though I did put some olive oil on it….)

The next morning I was still fretting when I realized, what is the tree fruit that I consume even more religiously than I observe my actual religion? That is probably the most consumed tree food in the world? That you you have to brew first? Yes, coffee! I was certainly planning to start my day with coffee. It turned out I had Max with me when I stopped at Starbucks, and he wanted hot chocolate. Cocoa beans grow on trees too, right? The second most important tree food! So we stopped at Starbucks, and I Instagrammed and tweeted this picture.

To the casual observer, I was all that is wrong with parents today: ignoring my kid to look at my phone while plying him with sugar on weekday morning. But for me, I was making the experience sacred, holy, special, kadosh. I took a common stop at a chain restaurant and elevated it. By taking that picture and posting those words, it didn’t matter where I was. I was celebrating Tu B’Shvat, and doing it with my community: my virtual Jewish community of people, some of whom I don’t often get to see in real life, but who, through social media, let me be part of a Jewish community wherever I go. Of course, finding real-life community is great, but to those who say I would be better off if I put down my phone: I seriously doubt I was going to connect with another Jew about Tu B’Shvat that morning otherwise.

Judaism gives us the idea of mikdash me’at—the small sanctuary. The idea is that we can make things holy wherever we are, in our homes and communities. It’s a beautiful idea that I love about Judaism and that’s helped us survive as a people. This year, we sanctified Tu B’Shvat with Instagram at Starbucks. I still pray “next year in Jerusalem”–but more likely, next year will be on Pinterest.

April 16, 2013

Israel is 65! Does it get to retire?

Filed under: Israel — marcstober @ 8:10 am

KKL tin

It’s Israel’s 65th birthday. Here in the States that’s retirement age. So, does Israel get to retire? Well, not exactly…

But it does make me realize it’s perfectly appropriate and OK that my relationship to Israel is different than it was when I visited it on its 44th birthday in 1992 or than the relationship that an older generation of Jews remembers from even longer ago.

My synagogue recently ran a program featuring JNF blue boxes, and I felt a bit guilty that I didn’t participate. But I realize now that those boxes were for taking care of baby Israel, not AARP-age Israel. I mean, you joyfully change a baby’s diaper in your close family because you know it’s totally dependent on you. But, while you would change your grandparent’s diaper if you had to, you’re really happier if you don’t have to. It’s not a perfect comparison: the blue boxes are still valuable for teaching the value of charity and a hands-on lesson in modern Jewish history. But 65-year-old Israel’s survival is not hanging on the micro-donations of diaspora Jews. And that’s OK and as it should be. That kids today don’t relate to Israel as their grandparents is not a question of “what’s the matter with kids today?”; it’s perfectly appropriate.

And if I want to donate my small change to free Jewish culture or if I’m more concerned about the Women of the Wall or the plight of civilians on both sides than I am about a militant attack, it’s not because I don’t think Israel has a “right to exist,” it’s because I see Israel as an established country with a capable enough military that its friends don’t always need to spend all their time merely asserting it’s right to exist. (I mean, we don’t all run around arguing that the United States has a right to exist any more, but that was a matter of debate, too, a couple hundred years ago.)

An earlier generation of Jews actually succeeded in building a state, and if today we seem to take that for granted, it’s not because we care less than they did, it’s an appropriate testament to their success.

March 17, 2013

Autonomous, Jewish, and OK

Filed under: Elsewhere, Halakhah, Judaism — marcstober @ 3:39 pm

I really like Jordana Horn’s response in the Forward to David Brooks’ New York Times piece about Orthodox Jews. And I’d like to take it a step further.

The way I’d summarize Brooks is that Orthodox Jews are “countercultural” because, well, they don’t think for themselves. They just follow the law.

I go to a Conservative synagogue, although I grew up mostly in a Reform synagogue. My father converted to Judaism, which is sometimes euphemistically called a “Jew-by-choice,” but I’d like to reclaim that term: my ideal Judaism is a religion that can stand on its own merits as a path worth choosing.

Religious law, for me, is not about following blindly, but trusting in good advice handed down from earlier generations. The Law of Gravity isn’t a something you go to jail for violating, it’s something that makes you fall down. Halakhah is a path through life that, ideally, will keep you from getting tripped up along the way.

Sometimes this means I don’t quite fit in in either the Reform or Conservative worlds. The Reform folks reject traditions that I autonomously choose. And some vocal Conservative folks believe the problem is that we don’t all keep to their ideal of Orthodox-lite: egalitarian, eating non-hechshered cheese, but still focused on obligation. (I worry that those viewpoints, while keeping a few devoted to the Conservative movement, cause a lot more to leave.)

The really successful Conservative and other non-Orthodox communities that I’ve seen understand the power in a nuanced balance between tradition and autonomy. For me, religious life includes independent thinking and shopping for Kosher food.

January 29, 2013

Anne Frank and Amanda Todd

Filed under: Judaism, Social Justice — marcstober @ 12:15 am

Like a lot of teenagers, I read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager, and what stuck with me was this idealistic quote:

in spite of everything I still believe that people are basically good at heart

Recently, I was thinking about that, and that maybe it’s not true. But, you know, I didn’t want to disrespect the memory of Anne Frank, or of all the teachers who influenced me and held that diary up as an important work to teach values to their students.

Then I heard about Amanda Todd (via Jeff Jarvis). A teenage girl who died because people were basically awful. So, I don’t think Anne Frank has the last word on this any more.

Most of the time, people are basically good, and you can expect them to be. But sometimes, they’re not. And it’s important to remember that.

August 30, 2012

A Funny Thing Happened on Way to Tot Shabbat

Filed under: Judaism, Parenting — marcstober @ 9:02 am

Cross-posted to JewishBoston.com.

People tend to use religion at certain points in life: baby namings, bar mitzvahs, funerals. When Cheryl and I got married, we wanted a Jewish wedding. Having a toddler, however, wasn’t a life stage we thought we’d associate with religion—diapers, sippies and tantrums aren’t exactly compatible with deep spiritual reflection. But it turned out that it was the toddler years that established us as a religious—maybe not Shulchan Aruch religious, but still nominally religious—family.

When Cheryl and I met, I was the more religious one. Being Jewish was important to both of us in theory, but I was the one going to synagogue on Saturday mornings and scanning restaurant menus for the most kosher option. After we got married, I kept going to Shabbat morning services usually by myself, as I’d been doing since college. At first, having a baby didn’t change much: we were a little more likely to go to synagogue (or not) as a family, but little Hannah just slept in her car seat and we participated as adults. But once our daughter started being awake, making noise, and needing to move around, it seemed like none of us were going to be going to services much.

I’d been aware that somewhere, down the hall in the religious school wing I’d never been in, there were programs during services for children, but I didn’t know exactly what. So, one Saturday morning, when Hannah was about one-and-a-half, we nervously wandered down there. A guitar-playing woman named Dale welcomed us, who told us that Hannah was exactly the right age for Tot Shabbat. Actually, she was a little too young to really participate, but she’d grow, and with that welcome, we became regulars.

Fortunately, we were in the right place at the right time. Soon, there was a new religious school director excited to improve things, and a new service leader, Julia, who ran a business teaching toddler music-and-movement classes. Together they came up with a routine that infused Jewish content into a toddler music class as good as any, and attendance grew. Sure, we could sign our kid up for some sort of secular class on Saturday mornings, but now we had an activity for the children, lunch at kiddush, a small but growing community of like-minded families to socialize with, and still got to, in a way, go to services. The maintenance staff even began setting up a preschool-sized table at kiddush. If nothing else, we were getting our money’s worth out of our synagogue dues!

And that’s how the funny thing happened: we’d established the rhythm of observing Shabbat, of going to synagogue as being the default thing to do on Saturday morning, and so became a Shabbat-observant family. We knew we succeeded when Hannah once told us that God is candy, because at the end of services every week the children were called up to the bimah of the main sanctuary to get a piece of candy—hopefully not the end of her spiritual development, but a successful early start! We aren’t shomer shabbat by strict standards in terms of all the negative rules of not driving, cooking, or watching TV; but, at least for us, focusing on the positive commandments of celebrating Shabbat with a family dinner and participating in a synagogue community is a more compelling path. And we’ve cemented this as a foundation of our family life.

Of course, children get older. Hannah is starting third grade, well into the school-age years, and she spent part of this past summer at pluralistic but religious Jewish camp. Our son is four, and in another year we’ll have moved fully out of the Tot Shabbat cohort. I’m not sure what comes next. Will I really want to go to the main sanctuary service in the same synagogue, now that I get to? Can Shabbat at synagogue ever seem as special to older children with more sophisticated interests, not to mention already going to Hebrew school during the week? How do we maintain a sense of community as the ranks of synagogue members with children the same age as ours swells to include many who weren’t interested in Jewish observance until a bar or bat mitzvah came on the horizon? Nevertheless, I’m sure that in celebrating Shabbat from our children’s earliest years, it will always seem like a way of life that is normal to them and be something we can come back to.

So, a two part message: First, if you’re a family with a toddler, don’t be afraid to check out what’s going on down the hall in that religious school wing. And even if you happen to show up on a week when nothing is going on because you’re not yet familiar with the mysterious machinations of the school year calendar, and even if you have to leave early because your kid had a tantrum and spilled the juice: persevere, try and find a community, and Shabbat may become one of the best parts of having young children. Secondly, if you’re a synagogue, offer these programs, publicize them well, and don’t forget the little details like a good place to change diapers or refill a sippy cup that make all the different to a frazzled parent—compared to engaging, say, pre-teens, it doesn’t take much to make a lasting impact.

June 5, 2012

More on Community and the Cloud

Filed under: Judaism, Personal Blog — marcstober @ 10:04 am

Is it ironic that I decided to go in person a “conference” about the “cloud”?

First, a personal bit: I like going to in-person, out of town conferences or meetings from time to time, and would like to do so far more than I actually do. While the cost of travel to learn some specific things are hard to justify either to myself or an employer, there is some hard-to-quantify change in perspective. I inevitably come home, not so much with new facts about the core subject, but with a new outlook that ends up proving very valuable. While I end up missing home by time I get back, I also find myself envying the people who get to do this stuff all the time (usually as evidenced by their live tweets about it).

So, attending the Jewish Futures Conference was as much as anything else about giving myself permission to go. I’m past thinking in terms of “maybe when I grow up I’ll get to…” because I’m already grown up. No one was going to “send” to me this so I just had to be entrepreneurial, get past my anxieties and go myself. And, it was manageable; it basically meant paying for a night in a hotel and an Amtrak ticket, and taking a couple days off work. Not cheap, but a lot cheaper than starting over in a second career (or technically, a return to my first career) in Jewish education just in the hope that somebody would spend $500 to “send” me to a conference!

The interesting thing was that not only did I not learn a lot of hard facts, but the conference was in and of itself pretty shallow. No one was going home equipped to fully cloudify (?) their organizations the next day. This is an important data point, though: there are a lot of people and leading organizations who think they need to start learning about the “cloud,” but they don’t quite know what they are going to do with it yet, and how it will affect their existing organization. It’s easy to be discouraged, working on your computer, thinking that “establishment” is ignoring you. On the other hand, these organizations were clearly looking for something from us, even if they aren’t ready to starting building it out, Silicon Valley style, like a “cloud” startup that’s just got it’s first big round of VC money. I literally found myself sitting beside the executive director of a 100+ year old organization trying to reinvent itself, who said she had recently been looking at the Open Siddur Project in her efforts to develop an online curriculum!

I had some other interesting conversations. In the first half, during Rabbi Laura Baum’s talk, I tweeted my table’s “idols” that they wanted to smash. The ideas of getting rid of hierarchy, membership, affliation was common them. I also met some folks who had been involved in online Jewish community even before me, in the early days of Shamash–we’re all waking in their footsteps.

I think everyone is worried about money. Before what my friends in finance call the “global financial crisis,” there were at least some organizations in the community that seemed permanent. Now nothing really seems solid. I’m not sure money to fund cloud projects is going to come from organizations just trying to survive, unless it will help their survival.

After dinner, I was sitting a table with two men who were second career Jewish professionals; one a rabbi and one a cantor. Sometimes I wonder if I am on that path, spending my free time going to events like this! 🙂 But for the foreseeable future, I like the independence that comes from being able to work on these issues without affecting my livelihood.

I also had discussion about “enhancing” rather than replacing existing community. This is exactly why I am drawn to projects like working with Jewish texts, which seems a natural fit for a digital cloud, and to communities that surround such projects; or to online communities that surround real-life communities as the “oneg all week.” Discussion of this would have actually made the conference deeper. While Rabbi Laura Baum and Patrick Aleph’s online synagogues are certainly interesting, the most profound changes will come from how people mix their on- and off-line community, and the extent to which those communities do and don’t inform each other–“bricks and clicks.”

After the event, I was fortunate (since NYC is a pretty lonely place when you have nothing else to do!) to be invited to a reunion over drinks of JESNA Lainer Interns alumni (or as I knew 17 years ago it, “Israel Interns”). It was some more interesting discussion with some people who care about these issues. Which ultimately is what they day was all about.

Finally, I’m glad I left New York City for Boston. Multiple mentions of Boston-area institutions like Brandeis, Harvard, and even a strangely interjected picture of Barry Schrage showed me that even if the Yankees, UJA-Federation, or JTS win in terms of numbers, the Red Sox, CJP, and Hebrew College have something special all their own!

June 3, 2012

Does Rabbi Steinsaltz Dream of Open Source Talmud?

Filed under: Judaism, Software Blog — marcstober @ 9:12 pm

Some of you might know I started another blog for my “Jewish tech” stuff. I wanted to share the latest post with you:

They say the Talmud is like a discussion among rabbis of different generations who could never have met. Well, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and venture capitalist Fred Wilson are both living, but I doubt they’ve met. But after reading a review of Steinsaltz’s new Hebrew/English Talmud, and then seeing this interview with Wilson about online content and the future of that business and copyright (20 minutes, worth watching), I’m imagining it in my head.

Keep reading: “Does Rabbi Steinsaltz Dream of Open Source Talmud?” on the JHacker blog..

March 9, 2012

Ki Tisa: Individual health insurance mandate and patient registration?

Filed under: Judaism, Software Blog — marcstober @ 10:29 am

For the past five years of my career I’ve worked on a patient registration system. It keeps track of millions of people for both clinical care and insurance reimbursement. So, when I started to practice my Torah reading for this week’s Ruach Shabbat Family Service (please come!), I couldn’t help thinking it sounded familiar:

When you take a headcount of the Israelites, to register them, for each man give a soul-payment to God to register them, that they will not get a plague by being registered. Those on the registry will give a half-shekel… (Exodus 30:12-13, my translation)

As Jews, we believe that every word in the Torah has meaning. (It better, since I have to basically memorize the cantillation of the reading! :)) I found a few things interesting.

The reason for donation is to avoid a plague. Today, spirituality complements modern medicine, but ancients really believed religious acts could cure physical illness–pre-modern religious leaders were sometimes even keepers of herbal remedies, etc. This sounds a lot like health insurance.

They are only asked for a half shekel. “Half” here has always meant to me that people are not asked to pay their share. There are other campaigns (such as to build the Temple, that we read a few weeks ago) where some give less and some give more, but the half shekel is the same for everyone. Thus, there is value to being a taxpayer even if you take more than you pay in. In modern terms, yes, liberals, some people need public assistance, and yes, conservatives, everyone should be responsible for paying something.

A more subtle point I notice from my IT experience is the focus on individual registrations rather than a count, which are not the same. In a small group, you know each person as an individual and you can count them. In a simple business, you can ignore people’s uniqueness–treat them “as a number,” as we say–because you only care about the totals. Treating each person as a valuable, unique individual and scaling that up to a population of thousands or millions is hard. Often, the techniques for counting totals are at odds with the techniques for counting individuals. In a database, it’s technically easy to retrieve one record or count all records if your data set is small. But, when you have millions of records, you need specialized, separate techniques for “transactional” and “analytic” processing.

Taking this to a higher level, I think perhaps the core Judeo-Christian value (not that Jews and Christians have exactly the sample values) is the value of the individual. It’s interesting that in English we can say that each person “counts,” and yet means, davka, that we are not simply counting them, but recognizing individuality. In healthcare, although we could probably do more with population-based measures, we tend to treat each case as individual. In the synagogue, although we worry about membership numbers, each person gets a chance to go the bimah as a bar mitzvah because we treat each person as an individual.

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