The Case for Boredom

by Brian on February 23, 2015

in In the News,Technology

New Tech CityWhen was the last time you were bored? Think about it…what do you do if you have nothing of great importance to do – say, you’re standing in a line at the pharmacy and there are three people ahead of you, or you’re waiting for a bus that Moovit says is still 7 minutes away, or you’ve just put the kids to bed but they’re not asleep yet, so it’s too soon to move on to the living room to blast the TV?

What do you do? If you’re like me, you pull out your smart phone. You check your email, Facebook, Twitter, the news, or you play a game. But do nothing and run the risk of getting bored? That’s so 2008.

Don’t feel bad – you’re certainly not the only one. Take a look around you the next time you’re at a party or in the park. How many people either have their heads in their phones or at least headphones in their ears as they’re standing or walking or sitting or running? Everyone.

Smart phones and other mobile devices have filled our every waking moment with stimulation, sometimes scintillating, more often just a numbing distraction. But as long as there’s still battery left, in 2015, boredom has been effectively banished.

And that could be messing up our brains big time. At least that’s the conclusion that Manoush Zomorodi came to. Zomorodi is the host of the American radio show and podcast New Tech City. Zomodori wanted to understand what we’re giving up on when we give up on boredom. Her research should alarm us. It alarmed me.

On the program, Zomodori interviewed Jonathan Smallwood, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of York in the U.K. Smallwood studies what’s called “mind wandering,” geek talk for the daydreaming that often results from getting bored. What he found was that there is a close link between “originality, novelty and creativity” and “the sort of spontaneous thoughts we generate when our minds are idle.”

Smart phones, which enable us to effectively avoid our minds ever being idle, also take away our ability “to see and learn where we truly are in terms of our goals,” Smallwood says, what neuroscientists dub “autobiographical planning.” About the only time many of us have during the course of an ordinary week where we’re not engaged with smart phone delivered media seems to be in the shower.

How much are people on their phones? Using an iPhone app called Moment which tracks every time you turn on your phone, pick it up, scroll, swipe or pinch, Zomodori came up with a number: her listeners were averaging around 110 minutes a day. That translates into checking one’s device an astounding 150 times a day.

Zomodori didn’t include Israelis in her analysis, but if anything, I’d guess we are even more hooked to our devices. We already have a long-standing tradition of half hourly news beeps priming us to pay attention wherever a radio is playing.

Is it really such a big deal, though? I’ve had my smart phone for a number of years now and my creativity seems to be just fine. Another psychologist, Dr. Sandi Mann, who teaches at the University of Central Lancashire, designed an experiment to investigate the correlation between boredom and innovation. She assembled a group of 40 students and had them copy numbers out of the phone directory for 20 minutes. She then gave them two paper cups and asked them to make something. The research subjects came up with some simple ideas, like using the cups to hold plants and spices.

Mann then asked another group to pull out the phone book but, for this round, to just read it for 20 minutes – a really boring task. This time, when they were given the paper cups, the students got much more creative. They turned them into earrings, musical instruments, Madonna-style bras.

Ironically, Zomodori has contributed to my own phone use. I’m a big podcast listener. I’m hooked on This American Life, Radio Lab, Vox Tablet’s English-language version of Israel Story, the TED Radio Hour, Fresh Air, Planet Money, Freakonomics, Invisibilia, and don’t even get me started about my Serial obsession. Now add to that list Zomodori’s New Tech City,

When I’m washing the dishes or mopping the floor on Friday afternoon, my headphones are in. When I’m doing pushups and squats, it’s Ira, Jad and Robert in my ears. When it’s my turn to walk the dog, oy va voy if my phone runs out of juice. What would I do, me alone with only my thoughts?

It’s not just podcasts. I check my email every time there’s a down moment in a conversation. My wife and I are having lunch together. She gets a phone call from a client, my screen is on at once. It got so bad that I was even checking my phone while we were on vacation in Bali. There I was, in a tropical paradise, drinking smoothies and getting massages, but 3G connectivity meant I was never far from the latest scandal back home.

I know it’s not all my fault. The apps on our phone are perfectly designed to send a little shot of pleasure boosting dopamine to the brain every time we receive a new tweet, email notification or Facebook “like.” I’m also no neo-Luddite: I’m well aware of the value our mobile devices have brought to our lives. I couldn’t do my job without the Internet, and apps like Waze and Google Maps have changed my relationship to getting lost (which used to result in something far more insidious than boredom). I love the fact that I can download an English-language eBook immediately rather than wait for someone visiting from the Old Country to kindly bring it over.

But still, if boredom so crucial to the human experience, maybe it’s time we take some action to bring it back into our lives

That’s what Zomodori decided to do when she launched the “Bored and Brilliant” challenge on her radio show. For the first week in February, she broadcast a series of suggestions designed to help us reclaim the opportunity to daydream. She never suggested we give up our phones entirely. Rather, on the first day, she recommended we keep our phones in our pockets or handbags, rather than having them in the “line of sight” where we can see those notifications pop up again and again. Next came “Photo Free Day” – for those people who are snapping pictures constantly, Zomodori recommended taking a whole day off.

Day Three was the hardest – Zomodori challenged listeners to delete their most addictive app. It might be a game, it might be Pinterest. You know what sucks you in. (Don’t worry, she said, reassuringly, it doesn’t have to be permanent, just give it a try.) On Day Four it was “fauxcation” time – that’s where you pretend you’re unavailable for the day and set your email and social messaging status to “away.” Day Five, Zomodori asked listeners to make like Chancy Gardner and just watch. Sit on a park bench or a café on the Ben-Yehuda midrahov and simply observe people going by. It’s boredom mashed up with mindfulness.

There was one more challenge Zomodori didn’t propose, but it’s one that the Jews might have something to say about: we already have a built-in don’t-use-your-phone day. It’s called Shabbat. Strictly observant Jews already refrain from using electronic devices on the Sabbath. Even if you don’t keep Shabbat, if you’re going to try any of Zomodori’s challenges, and they seem daunting during the workweek, doing so during the 24 hours between sundowns on Friday and Saturday nights might be an easier way to kickstart a new behavior…and a very Jewy way, to boot.

Keep it simple: set up a Friday night dinner with friends or family. Then, don’t just keep your phone in your pocket during the meal (as on Zomodori’s Day One); don’t bring it to the table at all. Lest you think I’m coming at this from some religious imperative, I’m not. But listening to everything Zomodori has raised from the latest in neuroscience, it just seems that, half way into the twenty-teens, a lightly mandated day (or even a few hours) of communal unplugging in order to boost creativity and restore boredom to its once, well, boring place, makes a lot of sense. (If you want to make this a group effort, Reboot’s “Sabbath Manifesto” project promotes a “National Day of Unplugging” the first weekend in March.)

By the way, I got kind of stuck trying to figure out the end to the article, so I did what I always do: I took a shower. Never underestimate the power of a little hot water and shampoo on a cold winter’s morning to turn boredom into brilliance.

I first got bored over at The Jerusalem Post. Here’s the link.

{ 0 comments }

Smoking in Mahane Yehuda (Laura Kelly)Is this a thing: smoking on the dance floor at a wedding?

My wife and I attended the nuptials of a friend’s son a few weeks ago. It was a lavish affair with an endless appetizer bar and a DJ crew that could compete with the best Tel Aviv clubs. But as the hundreds of young people grooved to a beat that was just a bit more melodically challenged than my hip but middle aged sensitivities could relate to, I was overwhelmed by the cigarettes. It wasn’t everyone but it was a lot. At times it seemed every third dancer was waving around a lit stick of tobacco.

Maybe I just don’t hang out in the cool parts of town, but I thought smoking was declining in Israel. Certainly in my circles, there’s almost no smoking at all. My friends by and large don’t smoke, there’s no smoking in offices or on buses anymore, even malls have gotten cleaned up in recent years.

The most recent statistics show smoking is definitely going down. A Health Ministry study from 2012 found that 17.7 percent of adult Israelis smoke, compared with 20.6 percent in the year before – a 14 percent drop. (Another study puts the number slightly higher, but the number of smokers is still heading south.) This is due in part to higher taxes, stricter enforcement, and a greater number of bans on where smoking is allowed.

It is now illegal to smoke in all commercial entities in Israel. That includes bathrooms, office buildings, gyms, cafés, restaurants, discos, pubs and bars. Owners of public places must display “no smoking” signs and prevent visitors from smoking.

I didn’t see any “no smoking” signs at all at the Kedma Event Hall in Neve Ilan where the wedding was held and had an inspector popped in (the fine for owners of public places is NIS 5,000 and for the smokers themselves it’s NIS 1,000), he would no doubt have been met by a near riot in trying to enforce the law.

It got so bad at one point that I had to step out of the hall entirely where, given the frigid temperatures that night, no smokers dared to tread, rendering the air clear from tobacco residue.

When I first got to Israel 21 years ago, I was more sanguine. After all, this was the Middle East not America, where no smoking laws have gone so far as to make cigarettes off limits now even at the beach (try telling that to a toned Israeli toting a matkot paddle). But back in 1984, who was I to judge a nervous people in a geography far more dangerous than where I grew up, letting off a little steam with a puff here and there?

Well, actually it was more than a little bit here and there. When I arrived in the country, Israel had only recently enacted a ban on smoking on Egged public transportation, but it was not yet strictly enforced. I remember being astounded that people were smoking on buses. That had been banned years before in the U.S., at least in California where I grew up. (Israel today has prohibited smoking even at bus and railway stops outdoors.)

One of my least pleasant Israeli executive encounters was when I was called into the office of the chairman of the board of the hi-tech company where I was working in 2002. The chairman needed me to do some copywriting for him. He smoked cigarette after cigarette in his private office the entire time we sat together. I probably should have said something but, you know, he was the chairman of what was then one of Israel’s most successful hi-tech companies, worth millions, and I was lucky to be driving a Mazda 3 company car.

He got his comeuppance in 2006, when he was charged with multiple counts of fraud pertaining to U.S. stock trading irregularities. He fled for another country, one without an extradition treaty and where, I suspect, they have less of a smoking ban. He’s still there.

I was never a smoker. On the contrary, as a teenager I was such a shtickler for smoke-free air around me that I would leave the room during meetings of the Jewish youth group I was a member of whenever someone lit up. I did the same thing when my father, who smoked a pack a day for decades, would pull out a Pall Mall to enjoy while watching All in the Family or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. My brother joined me and our joint boycott eventually convinced him to quit. I wish I could say it turned his health around, but who knows? He eventually died of lymphoma. (A Mayo Clinic study shows a clear connection between smoking and the development of this, the fifth most common form of cancer.)

Even before my father died, smoking had been one of those things that baffled me to no end. How can it be that perfectly logical adults continue to smoke when we know definitively that smoking kills? How is that tobacco companies are even allowed to stay in business? I’m all for capitalism, but we don’t allow Teva to sell strychnine pills to kids to boost the bottom line.

Things of course have gotten better. Remember flying in the 1960s and 1970s, when there were smoking and non-smoking sections on airplanes? How did that ever make sense? If I was sitting in the row directly in front of the smoking section (which was often the case), was an invisible air curtain going to magically protect me from second hand smoke? It took until 1988 for smoking to be forbidden, and then it was only on flights of less than two hours in the U.S. That was extended to flights of six hours or less in 1990. Amazingly, international flights were not officially added to the ban until 2000 (although to be fair, many airlines banned the practice before then).

At the risk of sounding like an unoriginal standup comedian, every time I fly, I wonder why are there still “no smoking” signs above every seat. Don’t people the rules know by now? (The Internet has lots of suggestions, from “the signs need to be posted to make smoking officially against the law,” to “it’s not worth the extra cost to remove signs from 30 year old planes that are due to be retired soon anyway.”) If I were El Al, I’d replace the no-smoking signs with a reminder that switching seats if you don’t like the gender of the person next to you is strictly forbidden. Just saying.

One of the thoughts I had after my run-in with the dancing smokers at Neve Ilan was whether my mostly positive experience with smoke free Israel has been a fluke, more indicative of the Anglo circles in which I travel than a broader trend. Apparently not. Indeed, Neve Ilan might be the fluke. Statistically, Israel is doing pretty well. We placed 49th on a list of 185 countries in terms of the number of cigarettes consumed per adult. That put us slightly higher than the U.S. at #51, but way below Eastern Europe and Asia, which remain in the lead. (Serbia topped the list as the country with the most smoking, in case you were wondering.)

And I should be thankful that my suffering last week was brief with no immediate physical harm, unlike an awkward event five years earlier when I found myself at a raucous student party waiting to hear the Israeli band The Madboojah Project. I had been a fan of the group for years, but had never seen them in concert. I decided to suck up my discomfort at being twice (and in some cases three times) the age of nearly everyone else in attendance.

But as the night wore on, and 1:00 am turned into 2:00 am, I couldn’t get past the smoking, which was everywhere. It was a cold night and, trying to blend in, I was wearing my favorite blue hoodie. When I noticed a draft in my sleeve, I looked down. Some idiot’s cigarette had burned a hole right through it. Furious and maybe a little insulted, too, I left before the band came on.

At Neve Ilan, my sweater remained intact, but only because I steered clear of the dance floor. Israeli smokers may have a long way to go, but I try to learn from my mistakes. But really, smoking at weddings – is it a thing or not?

This article originally got smokin’ hot at The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

My January 9, 2015 column in The Jerusalem Post generated a higher than usual number of comments, many of which were not particularly complimentary. In the piece, which addressed the United Synagogue Youth (USY) teen leadership’s decision on relaxing the group’s policy on “interdating,” I posited that since assimilation is natural – indeed inevitable – in the Diaspora, the Jewish people would be better served by lowering obstacles for those who wish to join the Jewish people.

There are many ways to do that within halacha (Jewish Law), but I’d like to propose another alternative, one that I’ll say at the outset is clearly unworkable in the mainstream Jewish world today. But bear with me, because this “thought experiment” may shed some insight on the process of change in rabbinic reasoning, ancient political in-fighting, and the surprising influence of Greco-Roman Law on what many tend to believe is outside the realm of history.

Here’s the crux of my argument: According to halacha, you’re Jewish if your mother is, regardless of the background of the father. Why not expand that definition to include patrilineal descent as well? It would address pressing issues in Israel – the many Russian Jews who have a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother, for example – and instantly make kosher the many marriages between Jews and non-Jews in the Diaspora.

Before you throw the shulchan aruch at me and point out with righteous indignation that this is exactly what the Reform movement decided back in 1983 and look how well that went in keeping Jews within the fold, just consider for a moment Jewish history. After all, for the first part of the Jewish story, Judaism was passed on by the father, not the mother.

A quick glance at Biblical genealogies makes this clear – see the many examples of Jewish kings who took non-Jewish spouses – and in inter-tribal marriage during the Biblical era, paternal descent was likewise decisive. A non-Jewish woman marrying a Jewish man didn’t even have to convert. She was now part of the tribe and her children would naturally be Jewish. Jewish family status continues to go by the father’s side to this day when determining whether one is a cohen (priest) or a levite.

Now, the rabbis in the years following the fall of Jerusalem to Rome may have had very good reasons for switching to matrilineal descent. Harvard professor and historian Shaye J.D. Cohen summarizes these in his comprehensive 1984 paper “The Matrilineal Principle in Historical Perspective.” These include the fact that you always know who the mother is but not necessarily who’s the father, and that there may have been a social problem to be solved following the mass rape of Jewish women by Roman soldiers during the wars of the first and second centuries of the common era. (There’s much more and the full paper is worth reading – it’s at http://bit.ly/1ugw3J2.)

Christine HayesYale Professor Christine Hayes also thinks Rome was involved, but from a legalistic perspective. Hayes is the author of the forthcoming book What’s so Divine about Divine Law? She spoke earlier this month at Jerusalem’s Kehillat Yedidya synagogue about the differences and similarities in how the Roman and Jewish traditions relate to the concept of “divine” when it comes to the law.

In the Roman legal tradition (actually “Greco-Roman” to be entirely accurate), Hayes explained in her talk, laws would be considered “divine” if they were grounded in reason and the “natural” world. Such laws would be rational, universal, eternal, unwritten and unchanging.

The concept of divine law in Judaism, on the other hand, was very different: It was “revealed” from a single source (rather than emanating from the natural world), written down, only meant for a specific people (rather than universal), and open to interpretation and change by those human leaders in positions of authority. We see that already in the Torah, where God delights in being contradicted and forced to change his mind. Abraham did it with Sodom; Moses beseeched God not to destroy the Israelites in the desert.

This openness to change found its way into the Talmud, often with good effects. The “eye for an eye” of the bible was transformed into monetary compensation, in perhaps the most famous example. Hayes described another that was new to me: When a man comes home from a journey, the Talmud states that “their wives are presumed to be ritually pure for them” in order that they may be together sexually. There may be questions about whether the wife is technically in niddah (with sex therefore being forbidden), but the rabbis were willing to bend this stringency, Hayes says, because “there are other values which they want to uphold.”

This concept of divine law being malleable contrasted with the Roman eternal approach. It drove the first century CE Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria crazy. Philo was a big fan of the Greco-Roman tradition and he did his best to try to reconcile Jewish and “natural” law, going so far as to write that “whoever will carefully examine the nature of the particular enactments [of the Mosaic Law] will find that they…are in agreement with the principles of eternal nature.”

The rabbis generally did not follow Philo. To wit, while Philo said that the laws dictating which animals are kosher and which are treife of course make logical sense, the rabbis considered them arbitrary and more a test of faith. The third century sage Rav commented that, “The commandments were given only to purify people…what difference does it make to Him whether one eats unclean or clean substances?”

Were the rabbis perhaps deliberately making a distinction in this case between Jewish and Roman law? If so, what about the example that started this discussion? Were the rabbis similarly comparing or contrasting the different legal systems when they made the switch from patrilineal to matrilineal descent?

To imagine the era in which the Talmud was codified as divorced from the world around it strains credibility. Nor would it make sense to assume that the kind of intra-Jewish (and Israeli national) politics that so defines the modern Jewish experience didn’t exist 2,000 years ago.

When it came to the question of descent, who benefited the most from the patrilineal argument? That would be the Sadducees, or priests, who were locked in a fierce battle for supremacy with the Pharisees, or rabbis. It wouldn’t have been the first change initiated by the rabbis meant to place a wedge between them and the priests who presided in Jerusalem.

Rachel EliorHebrew University Professor Rachel Elior speaks frequently on the importance of the calendar in the fight between these two groups. The priests held by a solar calendar; the rabbis promoted a lunar one. The two were completely out of sync. Yom Kippur on one calendar would never fall on the same date as the Day of Atonement on the other. How could you get along if you couldn’t celebrate the holidays together?

The reason for the dueling datebooks was as much political as it was religious, Elior says. In an article in The Jerusalem Post from a few years back, Elior explains that the rabbis “were unhappy about the exclusiveness of the priests and the power they had accrued.” Winning people over to the rabbis’ lunar cycle ultimately proved effective.

Could the same motivation be behind the change from patrilineal to matrilineal descent? After all, what could split the people more completely than the basic definition of who is a Jew? It certainly has that effect today.

I prefaced this piece as a thought experiment and even Shaye Cohen agrees. “Does my analysis have halachic implications?” he asks. “The answer is no. Jewish law is based on precedent, and what the historian can contribute to halacha is the collection of precedents and the analysis of legal history.” History and halacha, he concludes, “are autonomous disciplines.”

The late British Rabbi Louis Jacobs goes further in an analysis he published on Cohen’s treatise in 1985. Regarding matrilineal descent, he writes, “It is recorded as the law in all the Codes without dissenting voice and has been the universal norm in all Jewish communities. For such a law to be changed, only the weightiest religious and ethical advantages will suffice.”

But maybe it’s time. Ironically, the positive flexibility and openness to change that was the hallmark of so many Talmudic rulings has now been eclipsed by the very system the rabbis tried to discount, concludes historian Hayes. The modern Western world is the direct beneficiary of the Greco-Roman tradition, she explained in her talk, with its fundamental vision that divine law must be unchangeable. Jewish Law, in the centuries that have passed, has become similarly rigid,

I’m not holding my breath for a change in the laws on descent to put patrilineal on equal footing with matrilineal. But is it, as Jacobs suggested, weighty enough to warrant further discussion? I’ll leave that for the next round of talkbacks.

The fireworks first started when this article was published on The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

The headlines screaming across Jewish newspapers worldwide were an Orthodox kiruv professional’s wet dream. For a Jew whose job it is to bring other Jews closer to Orthodox observance, the dopamine rush of delight must have been overwhelming. Because if it’s your business to convince wandering Jews to become frum (religious) and one of the key tools in your arsenal is denigrating anything other than Orthodox practice as leading to demographic yiddishkeitasprophe, what could be better than a headline like “USY drops ban on interdating,” as Uri Heilman’s piece in JTA read.

JTA headline USY

Or as The Times of Israel put it more plainly: “Conservative youth movement lifts ban on board members dating non-Jews.”

TOI headline USY

The op-eds were fast to come, too – from the strident “Another nail in the coffin of Conservative Judaism” to the more poignant “Why I’m now a former Conservative Jew.

Here’s the thing: The headlines, the reactions and the analysis got it all wrong. What those leaders of the Conservative Movement’s United Synagogue Youth were doing was bravely acknowledging reality and then taking steps (in this case, through a change of language in the leadership group’s bylaws) to address what’s really going on, rather than enforcing a fantasy of how some would like the Jewish world to be.

The reality in this case: that in the culture of the open West, assimilation is entirely natural and dating outside one’s own religion wholly unstoppable.

I can already hear the push back: accepting the “reality” of assimilation is what’s driven up the intermarriage rates among the non-Orthodox in America to unprecedented levels. What we need to do is fight harder, resist the temptations of secular society, and build higher fences around our self-imposed ghettos.

That will work for a few, and maybe that few will grow in numbers to replace the rest who fall away. But that’s not a Jewish world in which I want to live.

Here’s the back story: At the annual convention for the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth group, which took place in Atlanta last month, USY’s leadership body voted to update a number of clauses. The updates applied to just that group, which is comprised of only around 100 or so USY leaders, and addressed one in particular that read, “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating.”

That rule was deemed problematic for a movement where members include children from mixed marriages. “We wanted to be sensitive to where members come from and reflect a welcoming environment in [the revised] language,” said Aaron Pleumer, USY’s international president.

“The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices,” the updated section now reads. “These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”

Which is brilliant if you think about it, both because of what it says (that dating within the community is still the best way to ensure Jewish continuity) and because of what is implied (that not everyone will do that, and the partners of those who date non-Jews should be recognized as being equally created in the divine image).

It’s not like this is the first time this has happened. Indeed, assimilation has been the norm in just about every society, whether the minority culture was conquered or welcomed in, from the Babylonians on down to today. Yuval Harari, in his book A Brief History of Humankind, for example, asks what happened to all of the “barbarians” who were captured and brought into Rome when the Empire finally collapsed? Did they return to their former tribal and national identities? Most didn’t – by that time they’d already assimilated into the greater Roman collective and thought of themselves as Romans.

How much more so in the U.S. where the “melting pot” is the single most unifying feature of a sometimes fractured nation. And despite the increasing acceptance of the value of diversity in recent years, America is at its core all about assimilation; it’s why immigrants came there in the first place. To deny it is to set oneself apart from cultural currents that run deeper than blood.

At the same time, if you care about Jewish continuity, dating within one’s own community remains “the most successful path toward creating committed Jewish homes.” That’s from Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. And yet, he goes on, “We can’t put our heads in the sand about the fact that we live in an incredibly free society, where even committed Jews will marry outside the faith. If they do, we must welcome them wholeheartedly and encourage them to embrace Judaism.”

Now, I’m not a member of the Conservative movement. But what Wernick says makes too much sense to dismiss just because he’s not in the same camp. His point: accepting reality is the first step towards addressing what to do next.

Think about that carefully, because it’s not just about this week’s USY brouhaha. You can find examples throughout politics, relationships and business. In my wife’s work as a financial coach, she finds over and over that only once a client accepts the reality of their overdraft can they take action to change their personal economic position. In business, it took Apple ages to acknowledge that consumers wanted bigger phones. When they finally came out with the iPhone 6, it was the company’s fastest selling device ever. What breakthroughs could we see in the Middle East if the players stopped trying to impose solutions that don’t fit and worked with what’s really happening? (I’m not taking sides; you can – and should – read that from every political perspective and not for any particular conflict.)

So, if Jews are going to date and eventually marry non-Jews, then let’s take the melting pot metaphor and make it our own. Moreover, let’s expand the pot and make it easier for people to join the Jewish people. Why aren’t we more welcoming? It’s not like we have such enormous numbers already that we need to exclude interested outsiders.

This is not just an issue for the U.S. – Israel has much work to do here too. We have to “provide more entry points into the community than we have in the past,” says Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM – The Jewish-Life Information Center, which assists Israelis with the legal intricacies of personal status. “Conversion must be realistic in its demands, and it ought to be made straightforward and uncomplicated, rather than burdensome and taxing.”

But we’re so afraid of change these days in the Jewish world. Where will it lead, we wonder? But that’s the point: we don’t know. History is actually not always the best predictor of the future. To take a trivial but still relevant example: my daughter hated avocado for her first 20 years. Now she loves it. People change. Situations can surprise – in both directions. But like sharks that have to keep swimming to survive, clinging to the status quo is not a long-term strategy. (Again, read that one any way you want.)

Following the USY storm, The Times of Israel and Kveller blogger Sarah Tuttle-Singer described her own upbringing with a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, one that eventually led to a remarkable and demographically surprising outcome: she made aliyah and is raising Zionist children in Israel. “Don’t tell me ‘intermarriage’ is always a bad thing,” she writes. “Instead, let’s recognize that our numbers are low and that we could change that demographic if we switch our way of thinking, ease the conversion process when relevant, and realize that intermarriage doesn’t have to be ‘marrying out.’ It can be ‘marrying in.’”

The new USY wording on dating reflected that flip, and it’s one more thing that we as a Jewish people could learn from. Once the USY’ers accepted reality, they turned the language from a negative to a positive, from a prohibition to an open door that nevertheless emphasizes the “healthy choices” that have kept us strong.

That shift from forbidden to permitted, from fearful to inclusive in our expression of Jewish Law and practice, and in the essential Jewish content that we teach newcomers and veterans alike, might make for a less provocative headline than “Jewish universe erupts.” But the future of Judaism has got to be about more than clickbait. Let a realistic conversation begin!

{ 0 comments }

Crowdsourcing the Real Israel

by Brian on December 28, 2014

in In the News,Technology

Jon Medved and Nir Barkat (sm)If you were just to read the international press these days, you might think Israel was on the verge of catastrophe, with sanctions from Europe just around the corner, boycotts being adopted from academia and beyond, terrorism back in vogue on the streets of Jerusalem and tourism in a tailspin. You wouldn’t be faulted for assuming that businesses around the world would certainly soon be pulling out of the Startup Nation – after all, who wants to fly into a war zone or consort with an international pariah.

That assumption would be very wrong, judging from the turn out at the first conference put on earlier in December by OurCrowd, the Jerusalem-based crowd-investing platform. OurCrowd makes it possible for individuals to jump into the once exclusive venture capital game as long as they have a minimum of $10,000 to invest. OurCrowd identifies promising startups; its investor members decide where to spread their money. 

OurCrowd has generated plenty of buzz since it launched in early 2013, in no small part due to its energetic founder, Jon Medved, who has been either leading or backing Israeli hi-tech companies for close to 30 years. (Among his better-known ventures: the VC firm Israel Seed Partners and mobile social applications maker Vringo.) OurCrowd, though, may be his biggest success yet. In less than two years, OurCrowd has made it possible for 6,000 individuals to invest more than $80 million in 55 companies, with more on the way.

Make that $84 million: At the conference itself, some of the nearly 1,000 participants must have been doing some serious tapping on their mobile phones: another $4 million was invested before the day was over.

Some of the receiving companies were on hand at the conference, which I attended. Here are some of the most exciting, up and coming Israeli startups:

VocalZoom has built a technology that filters out background noise so that when you talk on your mobile phone in a loud public place, the call will sound crystal clear. They’re already working with Apple as well as Toyota. VocalZoom works by picking out the vibrations coming from your face when you talk in order to isolate just the voice. The company’s been around since 2010 but recently received an additional $700,000 from OurCrowd.

Cimagine allows shoppers to place a 3D picture of a piece of furniture from any website into an “augmented reality” version of your living room. Cimagine adds a new button called “Visualize” next to that sofa you’re interested in. Click it, then aim your phone’s camera at the spot where you imagine the sofa should go. Cimagine shows you on your phone screen how that sofa will look in the space. You can move to another part of the house, click Visualize again, and the furniture now appears there. You can swap out different pieces of furniture, change colors and more. 

You might have heard about “beacons,” which are little plastic devices that can broadcast where they are so you can track your luggage, phone, keys or kids. Pixie one-ups that by adding “distance” and “direction” – so you’ll not just know that your car is nearby, but by using the accompanying mobile phone software, you’ll be directed right to it. Pixie is a physical device about the size of your thumb, it will cost $10-15, has a battery that lasts 18 months and, most important, works indoors which GPS can’t do. The beta is coming next month.

Up-n-Ride is a new take on the wheelchair. The trick: it can rise up into a vertical position, so the person in it can essentially be standing. That’s not only healthier than sitting all day, it allows access to kitchen or bathroom counters, for example, where the disabled person can participate more normally in everyday activities. Up-n-Ride is a friendly spin off from another Israeli innovation, the ReWalk wearable “exoskeleton” (also backed by OurCrowd; it went public at the end of September this year). But while ReWalk can only be used by about 10 percent of wheelchair bound people, Up-n-Ride is appropriate for anyone who can use a regular wheelchair. First prototype will be out in February 2015, with full production starting in 2016.

Zula calls itself WhatsApp for small business, but it’s more than that. The pitch is that business teams routinely use ten or more different digital tools – email, chat, WhatsApp, file sharing, Skype, conference calling, and more. Zulu brings that all into one application. It’s not meant for “regular” users (unlike Whatsapp, it costs real money) but it has one thing that’s been on my WhatsApp wish list for ages: a desktop version. I’m going to try it out with my own small team (i.e., my family).

eVigilo started as a warning system for rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. eVigilo manages the alerts, primarily text messages to your phone. Now they’ve started selling it to civilian customers – for example, to alert people of a potential tsunami after an earthquake. In 2010, exactly such a tsunami killed 600 people in Chile. In 2014, an earthquake and tsunami in the same location killed only 5 people because the eVigilo alert system was in place. Other potential clients include gas and chemical plants where residents living nearby need fast alerts. The system uses the location of cell towers, not your phone number, so if you’re out of town, you won’t get an emergency alert about something happening hundreds of miles away.

Consumer Physics is the closest thing to science fiction I’ve seen in many years of technology reporting – it’s SCiO device is a molecular scanner that fits in the palm of your hand. This little black dongle, the smallest spectrometer ever built, the company says, uses light waves to analyze the chemical property of physical things. Aim it at the pesto pasta on your plate, and it can tell you the ingredients and the number of calories. It can be used to sense what’s in pharmaceutical packages (great for drug stores and law enforcement); really anything other than metals. Connected to a mobile phone, the device sends what it scans to the cloud where it’s matched to Consumer Physics’ massive and growing database. You’ll be able to pick one up as early as next year for around $50.

And those are just companies OurCrowd is backing – the startup ecosystem in Israel is a hundredfold larger. Now, some of these companies may make it to the big time; others will fail – that’s the nature of venture capital. But they represent the continuing vitality of Israel’s hi-tech sector; a mass of brute brainpower that international business cannot – and does not – avoid.

Gonzalo Martinez de Azagra may have said it best. De Azagra heads Samsung Ventures in Israel. In the closing panel at the conference, he was asked why Samsung had opened an office in Israel only five months ago. De Azagra looked sheepish. 

“We were already late in the end game,” he told the audience, which was still packed after nine hours of pitches, panels and ever replenishing snacks. But after arch-rival Apple acquired Israeli flash memory design firm Anobit for $500 million in 2011 and then 3D sensor maker PrimeSense in 2013, Samsung had to follow. In the last two years, first from Korea and now from Tel Aviv, Samsung has invested $30 million in seven startups. There is just too much talent to not be here, de Azagra said, “and today we are coming in strong.”

That ought to be the real headline when reporting on Israel.

This look at Israeli startup success originally appeared on The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

The Evolutionary Inevitability of the Jewish State Bill

December 18, 2014

It’s already hard to remember, with election fever raging all around us, what triggered this expensive, unnecessary mess we’re now in. I’m talking about the “Jewish State” bill, of course. It wasn’t the only culprit, but it was a big one. What’s most interesting about the Jewish State law is not whether it was a […]

Read the full article →

Resilience in the Face of Uncertainty

November 30, 2014

When we made aliyah 20 years ago, did we come expecting that there would be war in our future? On a certain level, I suppose we knew that we were moving to a dangerous neighborhood and that conflict was probable. But we repressed that kind of thinking. You had to – why would we willingly […]

Read the full article →

Hillel vs. Shamai or When is it OK to Tell Your Wife’s Friend She Looks Fabulous?

November 17, 2014

The sign on my front door read, “Men, please announce yourself.” It was a Friday around 1:00 PM and my arms were filled with pre-Shabbat shopping: challah from Pe’er, still moist chocolate rugalach from Marzipan, eggplant dip in Thailandi sauce from Tzidkiyahu. The Jerusalem Post, of course. I walked right in.“Don’t come up!” my wife Jody called down immediately from the living […]

Read the full article →

Tragedy in Nepal Brings Back Trekking Memories

October 31, 2014

The tragedy in Nepal two weeks ago, where 40 trekkers, including four Israelis, lost their lives in a sudden freak snowstorm along the well-traveled Annapurna route brought back a flood of memories from my own trip to the Nepalese Himalayas. In 2011, my family and I went hiking in the same Annapurna region, and, although […]

Read the full article →

Members of the Tribe

October 17, 2014

Birds do the nuttiest things. In a flock, some of the birds will voluntarily serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which has less time to search for food and, by issuing a warning call, is more […]

Read the full article →