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Monday, April 14, 2014

A Seder Prayer in the aftermath of the Kansas City Tragedy

Our God and God of our ancestors. 
You who watch and weep at the death of your innocent children
On this eve of Passover, as we tell our story/Your story, help us to find a safe place for our fear, our grief, our anger. 

"In every generation there are those who rise up against us."
This week ugly truth has once again raised its head. 

"In every generation we are required to view ourselves as though we, individually, went forth out of Egypt."
This week, we taste the dust and feel the degradation  of our ancestors. 

Tonight, as we gather around our tables; as we open our books and see the crumbs from seder's past spilling into our fingers; as we count the wine-stains on our pages and remember how our cup is always lessened with human suffering, help us to find perspective, strength and faith. 

We pray for the victims of violence in Overland Park and everywhere hatred bursts forth from the barrel of a gun. We hold them and their loved ones in our outstretched arms. 

There will be empty seats around our tables this year. We remember them. 
There will be old nemeses stopping by as well: uninvited, unwelcome, but part of us nonetheless - our past present and future. *(see below) 

When we open Elijah's door, who will be on the other side?  Hope? Futility? Dream or nightmare?

May our worship, our laughter, our tears and our stories bring to fruition the ancient hope of peace. May violence and hatred be drowned out in a final Halleluyah as we sing from our hearts. 

We will never be defined by brutality. We will always be defined by our vision of a better world. 

L'shanah Haba-ah B'yirushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem.   AMEN
Rabbi Joseph Black - Denver, CO

*Some say that t

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Gribbines- A Poem for Passover.

I wrote this poem about about 7 years ago.  It was published as part of an essay on Parashat Bo I submitted for the Men's Torah commentary (Jewish light's Press- Jeff Salkin, Ed.) I like to bring it out around Pesach time- especially if I'm making chicken soup.  Enjoy. 

Gribbenes (parashat Bo)
© Joe Black -  Pesach, 5768

This year, on Pesach, I ate my father’s food:
Gribbenes, Gehachte Leber, and Gefilte Fish*
My Doctor tells me it hardens my arteries
But I think it softens my soul.

I wonder if Pharaoh ate gribbenes?
His heart hardened, melted, hardened, melted –
Like schmaltz
Floating on the surface
With each successive reconstitution --
Thawing, cooling, thickening, slickening
Until, finally
It merges into the mixed multitude
of shredded leeks, onions, bones and flesh that gather
On the bottom of the pot.

Pharaoh, after some prodding, hardened his own heart.
It was he who chilled his veins, sinews and arteries.
It was he who refused to open his eyes to the greasy truth
That haunted him with each successive plague:

Night after sleepless night – he felt them:  
The shortness of breath
The sharp pain that radiated
From the back of his neck to the tips of his fingers…..

If only, godlike, he could have seen the blockage
If only hearing, seeing, welcoming freedom’s cry
Could somehow miraculously have melted away his stubbornness
Flowing effortlessly into the banks of the Nile.

But then, of course,
We would have no story.

*  Gribbenes is rendered chicken fat.  Gehachte Leber is chopped liver, and Gefilte Fish is….Gefilte Fish…..

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Opening Prayer for the CO State House - "Screens" 3/27/14

Our God and God of all humanity:

On this amazing morning – when we see Your glory resplendent in the budding tree and the blooming crocus…

On this day of hope and promise fueled by the warmth of the sun and the smiles on our faces.

Remind us to go outside for a while…

Give us moments where we can turn aside from the tasks that confront us..

Allow us to appreciate the wonder and the beauty of Your creation.

Turn our eyes away from the screens that we depend on – the computer, the phone, the GPS, the tally board, the Television – and let us look at the scenes of wonder that play around us all the time.

Teach us that our task is not to be entertained – but to be intertwined – with one another, with those we love and those we fear and those we do not even see because our eyes are too focused on those little screens.

Help us to avoid screening ourselves – from both the beauty and the hopelessness that lie  just outside these doors. 

Show us - unfiltered  - the hope that gives us the courage to act and to make sacred change.

The psalmist teaches:  I lift up my eyes to the mountains – from there comes Your help.

Let us lift up our eyes – all of us – as we do our daily work.

Remind us of the sacred task of perfecting Your all too imperfect world.

Let the beauty of this day – this season – give us the courage to be brave – to be unscreened and unfettered by the bonds of politics and rivalry and focus instead on the possibilities of partnership.

As we consider the beauty of the communities in which we are fortunate enough to live and serve, give us time to appreciate and give thanks.  And in thanking You, let us thank one another – for the chance we have to make a difference. 


Friday, March 21, 2014

Rabbi's Report - Annual Meeting - March 21, 2014

Temple Emanuel Denver
Annual Meeting
Rabbi’s Report
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
March 21, 2014
Dear Friends,

In the Jewish mystical tradition, numbers have important significance.  The ancient practice of Gematria involves taking the numerical value of words and phrases and finding hidden meaning in these numbers.  Since tonight is the 139th annual meeting of Temple Emanuel, I thought I would try to find some significance in the number 139.  Looking into the torah, I discovered that the Hebrew word, ונחלמה (V’nachalmah) added up to 139.  V’nachalmah means “and we dreamed.”  The past 12 months since we last came together in our congregational meeting has been a year of dreaming and visioning for our congregational leadership and staff.  We have brought our dreams to fruition with new programs, new staff and new perspectives on what it means to be a vibrant and cutting edge Synagogue community.
What follows are some of the key highlights of the past year for me and the staff:
Worship initiatives.
Erev Shabbat Initiatives:
During the 7 weeks between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot, we offered a variety of worship options for the congregation.  These ranged from meditation, to visual tefillah, to a “Classical Reform” service, to a healing service.  We also experimented with the flow of the service – beginning with a “pre-oneg” in the foyer where we offered wine, cheese and hors d'oeuvres and began the evening with singing, candle-lighting and Kiddush as a large community before we split up into our respective services.  Following this experiment and after each service we requested feedback from the congregation.  We have gathered all of this feedback together and the clergy is currently involved in re-thinking what worship should and could be for the congregation.  We hope to initiate these new paradigms next year.

Rosh Hashanah Unplugged:
Building on the enthusiastic reception we received last year, we expanded Rosh Hashanah Unplugged and brought it into the sanctuary.  We added additional musicians and upgraded our sound, staging and visual offerings. Instead of offering “unplugged” as a parallel service, we had two options:  A 5:30 “traditional” service and a 7:30 “unplugged” option.  While there is always room for improvement, the overwhelming response was very positive.  We look forward to continuing this tradition into the future.
Yom Kippur Shema Koleynu Service
Continuing our desire to be innovative, we offered an alternative, parallel worship experience for Yom Kippur morning.  Shema Koleynu was designed to be an intimate, contemplative worship service that focused on creating a sense of sacred community and connectedness through the use of simple music, shared experience, meditation and the breaking down of barriers between service leaders and worshippers.  The idea for this service initially was envisioned as providing an option for members that was similar to the Rosh Hashanah experience at Camp Shwayder.  It quickly evolved into something more.  Under the leadership of Steve Brodsky, Cantor Sacks and Ron Leff and me, it was universally acclaimed by all who attended – both service leaders and worshippers alike.  One of the biggest problems with the service was the fact that there were not enough seats for all who wished to attend.  As such, we are currently working on finding a way to offer it in the sanctuary on Yom Kippur morning – not as a parallel option, but as one of the two services that will be offered.

Shabbat Mornings:
o   Our Weekly Torah Study (Parashat HaShavua) is continuing to grow and flourish.  On any given week, anywhere from 35-50 people come to Temple at 9:00 AM, sit around a table and study the weekly Torah portion.  This class is taught by all of our clergy.  The fact that each of our Clergy members brings their own unique perspective and experience to the table means that every week is different and exciting.  The community of students who gather every week has become very strong.  At the same time, new people are continually joining the group.  This is a vital and exciting part of our Shabbat and Educational vision.
o   Our Community Shabbat Morning Services is also flourishing.  We no longer fit in the Meditation room and have moved into one of the Social Halls.  Cantor Sacks is the coordinator of this service and a constant presence, while Rabbi Immerman, Rabbi Foster, Steve Brodsky and I rotate in and out.  This service has grown exponentially.  Utilizing new music, visual tefillah, lay-led divrei torah (short torah commentary) and lots of enthusiastic participation, it is a wonderful addition to the spiritual life of Temple Emanuel.

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Additional Programmatic Innovations (not a complete list):

Expanded Adult Education Offerings:
In order to fulfill our congregational vision of being a community of life-long learners, we have added to our offerings for Adult Education – under the leadership and coordination of Cantor Elizabeth Sacks.  These have ranged from hosting the iEngage program, to weekly Talmud classes, book groups hosted by our Librarian and Assistant Principal, Rita Dahlke, Cantor Heit’s “Lunch and Learn,” and a variety of topical and affinity group discussion groups.  We hosted Dr. Joel Kaminsky, of Smith College as our Scholar in Residence as well as an unforgettable weekend with Anat Hoffman – Chair of Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center.

HESED (Healing, Empowering, Serving at Emanuel Denver)
HESED is our community organizing initiative at Temple Emanuel.  This past year, we concluded a year-long focus on mental health with a special community “action”.  Attended by state senators, representatives and other political leaders in the Denver and Greater Colorado Community, over 300 people filled our Feiner Chapel as we heard testimony about the devastating impact of Mental Illness and the need for support of legislation that would afford more care in our communities.  This action was the culmination of many listening Campaigns, classes and information sessions that the HESED committee (under the leadership of Sandy Mandel and Rabbi Immerman) organized.  This coming year, HESED will be focusing on the issue of Violence Prevention.

This innovative program was designed to train and identify new leadership in our congregation.  Under the stewardship of Deb Herman and Ellen Abrams, a group of current and future leaders of our community met to study and learn about a variety of topics revolving around Reform Jewish leadership.  Sessions were led by national and local experts including:  Rabbi Daniel Freelander – Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Cantor Sacks, Janet Bronitsky, Cathy Rolland – Director of Early Childhood for the URJ, Sharon Elfenbein, Alan Gass, Scott Levin, Nancy Gart, and Doug Sesserman – CEO of Jewish Colorado, Rabbi Jordan Friedman, Hal Applebaum – from the Jewish Agency for Israel, and me.

“Celebrate Jewish Art”
Our Gallery space for Jewish artists in our congregation continues to be a nice addition to congregational life. 

Increased Emphasis on Integrating Camp Shwayder into Congregational Life
Last summer, Rabbi Immerman took on the role of “Camp Rabbi.”  This was a wonderful way to build bridges between Shwayder and Temple Emanuel.   We will continue with the model this summer.  In addition to Rabbi Immerman, Joshua Fixler, a 4th year rabbinical student with strong Shwayder ties will also be serving at camp as Education Director.

Josh Nelson Fundraiser
Continuing our tradition of offering a concert of contemporary Jewish music as our main fundraiser of the year, the weekend with Josh Nelson was an unqualified success.  Under the direction of Francie Miran, our Development Manager, and led by lay co-chairs, Susie and Perry Moss and Karen and Jim Herman, and a very hard-working committee, the weekend was an unqualified success – financially, programmatically and communally.  Not only did Josh and his band put on an amazing concert on Saturday night, he also led a “Warehouse Shabbat” service at the Mercury Café for our Young Adults and gave a rousing family concert at Religious School.

Anat Hoffman Weekend
Hosting a major figure like Anat Hoffman was an incredible achievement.  Cantor Sacks did an outstanding job of coordinating and juggling a myriad of activities, classes, and community-wide events.  She set a very high standard for professionalism and excellence in programming.  It was especially nice to share our pulpit with Temple Sinai on Friday night as we presented Anat with the Isaac Mayer Wise award.  Special thanks go out to our sisterhood for their help as well as the Hornbein Fund for their co-sponsorship as well.

Shwayder at 65
Almost 65 years ago, Temple Emanuel was gifted by the estate of Maurice Shwayder with a beautiful parcel of land on Mt. Evans – just outside of Idaho Springs.  Over the years, the “Shwayder Magic” has impacted and nurtured countless thousands of Jewish Souls.  During the course of the year, we have initiated a Campaign to both celebrate the Shwayder legacy as well as raise funds so that future generations will be able to continue the tradition.  Under the leadership of our members, Jamie and Marc Idelberg, Mieke and Scott Esserman, Jill Katchen and Steve Brodsky – as well as other dedicated volunteers – and working closely with Jodie Abrams and Francie Miran, we are planning a series of activities and events around the weekend of August 15-17.  We have started a Capital Campaign to help ensure Shwayder Camp’s future.

Community Garden
This past year, during Mitzvah Day, we planted a community garden in the courtyard outside of the Library.  Rabbi Immerman spearheaded this effort and we benefitted from our garden by harvesting fresh vegetables that we incorporated into our Shabbat Dinners at Temple.

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Sharing our Dreams with The Temple Leadership
Over the past three years, I have come to appreciate the dedication and love that Connell Saltzman, our outgoing president, has for our Temple.  He cares deeply about the congregation and has given of his time, resources, expertise and counsel without reservation.  He has been an outstanding president and I feel blessed to have been his partner, Rabbi and friend. Over the course of my tenure here at Temple we have developed a sense of trust and partnership that I value deeply. 
Our incoming President, Ellen Abrams, has been working closely with Connell, Janet and me to ensure that the transition will be smooth.  Ellen is a dedicated and hard-working, visionary leader who shares our dream of helping Temple Emanuel enter into a new world of cutting edge leadership and innovation.  I am very excited about partnering with her over the course of her presidency.
Our trustees and officers have worked tirelessly to ensure that our vision is in line with our deeds and that we will have the resources and resilience to continue to grow.

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Jason Oppenheimer – Director of Youth Engagement
We were pleased to welcome Jason Oppenheimer to our staff team this year.  Jason brings with him a wealth of experience as both a Youth Worker and Educator and, in a very short time, has brought new energy and excitement to our Youth Program.

Shannon Luedke – Clergy Assistant
Shannon is the newest member of our staff team.  Her friendly smile, hard work and organizational skills have been a welcome addition.  She keeps me organized (not an easy task) and juggles a myriad of responsibilities with ease and grace.
Rabbi Foster continues to be good friend, a trusted colleague and an important mentor.  His commitment to my success means the world to me.  I continue to be humbled and honored to be able to follow in his footsteps.  Over the past 4 years we have worked hard to create a paradigm for what we truly feel is a model for other Emeriti/Successors. I appreciate his candor, advice and partnership.  He is a “Rabbi’s Rabbi” and I feel blessed to be able to learn from him and build on his vision for the sacred congregation. 

Rabbi Brian Immerman
Rabbi Immerman is not only a wonderful rabbi – he has brought a wide portfolio of skills to our congregation.  His passion for youth, social justice, torah and community has enabled him to bond with our confirmation class and forge strong connections with individuals, families, staff and committees as well. His love for and excitement about Shwayder Camp is one of the key reasons that we have created the position of “Camp Rabbi.”  He has worked to strengthen and grow our Hineyni Project for Young adults.
Rabbi Immerman took the vision of HESED and brought it to fruition – culminating in the amazing program in our Feiner Chapel where members of the congregation and other communities shared their stories with legislators and community leaders and showed support for increased funding and programs for mental health.
Cantor Regina Heit’s beautiful voice is only matched by her beautiful soul.  Her boundless energy and enthusiasm never cease to amaze me.  She is a passionate teacher of Torah and a wealth of knowledge about everything from Torah to the history of the Monarchy, to Heavy Metal Rock Music.  She is a counselor to many and a dear friend to all.  I especially appreciate the way she has embraced the changes that are taking place in services and other areas in which she is intimately involved in the congregation.  Her leadership in this year’s Purim Shpiel was especially wonderful.
Cantor Elizabeth Sacks
We were very fortunate to bring Cantor Sacks onto our staff in a full time position this year.  Not only has she done an outstanding job of coordinating our Adult Education programming, Shabbat morning Community Service, Family Havurah program and Family Education programming, but she also has shared her many talents as an administrator and organizer – by taking a leading role in our Shabbat and High Holiday Initiatives, and seeing that every detail of the incredible Anat Hoffman weekend was an unqualified success.  I cannot say enough about how much Cantor Sacks brings to our community and how fortunate we are to have her as an integral part of our professional staff team.

Ron Leff, our Director of Education, is a wealth of knowledge.  He is committed to creating the best possible educational environment for our students.  Ron also plays a vital role in our staff by helping all of us see the big picture when, all too often, we get wrapped up in our own arenas.  There have been a lot of changes this past year and it hasn’t always been easy to implement them – Ron has been and continues to be such a team player.
Susie Sigman is an invaluable resource.  Her creativity, positive attitude and willingness to work hard and think outside the box ensure that we have a diverse and excellent variety of program offerings.  We are honored that she has been recognized by her national peers by being elected as president of the PDRJ – Program Directors of Reform Judaism.
Francie Miran – Development Manager
Francie has done an excellent job coordinating multiple projects for our congregation.  Not only did she spearhead the Josh Nelson Project events, but she also worked tirelessly to ensure that our ECC Fundraiser and Shwayder Campaign are on track.  She has helped to bring new awareness of the Live On Endowment Campaign and is vigilant in her constant search for creative and meaningful ways to support our community.  Her contributions to the overall wellbeing of our congregation go far beyond her fund-raising acumen.  She is a vital part of our staff team.

Jodie Abrams – Camp Director
In her first full year as Camp Director, Jodie has seamlessly integrated herself into the staff team.  She and her staff have worked tirelessly to bring new programmatic and organizational facets to Shwayder and has also become involved in several national camping initiatives.  We are thrilled to have her on board.

Doug Altman –Assistant Director
Doug also has strong Shwayder ties and has seamlessly become an integral part of our staff team. 

Rayna WandelReligious School Assistant
Rayna brings a wealth of experience to her position.  In addition to her responsibilities with the Religious School, she also is in charge of our Temple Bulletin.  Her bright and cheery disposition have added a wonderful energy to our office. 

Cindy Wolfe, Renee Sultanovich and the entire Preschool staff ensure that our youngest and most precious students are nurtured and exposed to a wonderful learning environment.  We are sad to see Cindy go this year and we wish her well in all of her future endeavors.

Julie Lucas, our bookkeeper, keeps us all in line with her laughter and enthusiasm.
Rita Dahlke, our religious school Assistant Principal and Librarian does a wonderful job making sure that everything is in place in our school programs.  Her exciting vision for our Library is quickly coming to fruition and we are very excited about where she is taking us.
Sura Veta, our receptionist, is the voice of Temple Emanuel – her warm welcome makes everyone feel at home the minute they call or step through our doors.

Cairo Lopez and the rest of the maintenance staff do an incredible job of keeping our building spotless and making sure that every service and program is set up.
 Finally – a word about my co-CEO.  Janet Bronitsky.  It’s hard to believe that this will be Janet’s last year at Temple.  For almost 25 years, she has nurtured this congregation with love, firmness and absolute dedication.  As many of you know, Janet never minces her words.  She speaks her mind and lets you know what she is thinking – no matter what.  I so appreciate that.  She has helped me learn about this congregation in almost every arena – from finances and budgets, to personalities and potential mine-fields. Together with our congregation leadership, we work to bring our Temple to new heights of program, involvement and spiritual depth. We all have been incredibly fortunate to have her as our Executive Director.  She has created a legacy of excellence that will help propel us firmly and responsibly into the future.  There is no doubt in my mind that she is the best in her field – bar none.  Thank you Janet.
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I cannot possibly speak to you tonight without publicly acknowledging my beloved wife.  In two weeks, we will be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary.  Sue -it has been an amazing journey and I look forward to the next 25 years together.

As we enter into our 139th year as a congregation- there is so much for which we can and should be thankful.  Temple Emanuel is a place where dreams become reality.   Thank you for entrusting this sacred congregation in our hands.  I know that I speak for the entire staff when I say that we are truly blessed.
Thank you for providing me with this incredible opportunity to serve this sacred community of Temple Emanuel.  May we grow and dream together.
Rabbi Joseph R. Black



Thursday, February 27, 2014

Invocation for the CO State House. February 27, 2014

Invocation for the Colorado State House of Representatives
February 27, 2014
Rabbi Joseph R. Black – Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO

God – you dwell on High.  You lie down with those in the street.
God – your voice rolls down like thunder.  We find You in the silent questions that plague us in the middle of the night.

God – You set a standard for our behavior.  You are filled with mercy and compassion for our frailties.

God - on this day of deliberation – help these legislators find You – not in the absolute or categorical imperatives that draw lines in the ideological sands of partisanship; but rather let them see you in their doubts, in their questions, in their struggles to fulfill the needs of our community.  Help them to find the words and the stories to stir each other’s  souls.  Open their hearts to the possible and the improbable.  Help them to find the human and the divine in their colleagues, their constituents and in themselves.

In times of instability, help us to stay balanced.

In times of Torpor, help us to feel uneasy.

Push us to find humor and banish hubris in the daily interactions of our lives.

Give us - all of us - this day:  a moment of tranquility and transcendence, so that we might rise above our ordinariness and glimpse the glory of Your greatness.

Let us see it in ourselves.  Let us see it in these deliberations.  Let us see it in one another.

Then, and only then, will we merit the gifts You have bestowed upon us.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Invocation for the Colorado State House of Representatives - 2/6/14

Our God and God of all people, you give us the gift of self-reflection.

As we prepare to begin a new day of deliberation, we take a moment to appreciate the fact that we are alive. 
With each breath we take, we fill not only our lungs with air - but also we infuse our souls with meaning.
Life is a gift.  What we do with that gift depends on our awareness of the preciousness and precariousness of our daily existence.

That we are here together in this sacred chamber of deliberation is a reflection – not only of the fact that the members of our community have placed their trust in these lawmakers, but also in the potential for change and healing that can take place in the deliberations and debate that make up the business of this body.
And so, as we take this moment of reflection, let us ask ourselves: What do we hope to accomplish today?

Whose lives are we impacting?  
What are the needs of our community?
Who feels pain? 
Who fears the future?
Who is poised for greatness?

How can we take the time we have together to work to improve our state, our communities, our families?  Ourselves?

Help these legislators to see that the issues that they are discussing and the laws they are enacting should serve to enlighten and animate the Divine implanted within them and the people they serve.

May any disagreements that arise be for the sake of bringing healing and wholeness to our world.

Let the perils of partisanship give way to the echoes of empathy – and may the work of these legislators  reflect the highest values of each of our faith communities.

Bless these proceedings and all those who labor here today. 
And let us say, AMEN



Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Prayer for Unity: Invocation for the CO House Of Representatives - 1/30/14

Invocation for the Colorado House of Representatives
January 30, 2014
Rabbi Joseph R. Black – Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO

In three days, the eyes of the world will be focused on a cold football stadium in New Jersey.  Most of Colorado will be gathered around our televisions, cheering on our beloved Broncos.  For four quarters, we will be brought together in our support of our gridiron gladiators.  For a brief moment in time, our hearts and our hopes will be united.
If only our ability to come together could expand beyond loyalty to our sports teams!  Think of what we could accomplish if we put aside our bickering and focused on making our State a better place.  For too long, the walls of this chamber have echoed with partisan passion and ad hominum accusations.  Now is time for change.  We pray for compassion and communion. 

Our God and God of all people.

You have given us a moral and intellectual core that allows us to discern the inequities and injustices around us.  Help us to use this gift wisely.

Bless these elected officials, O God.  Give them the strength to see beyond the petty and the political.  Help them to look deep inside themselves and into the eyes of those with whom they disagree.  Let them see you wherever they gaze.

Help them to remember why they were brought here.  Let them understand the positions and the passions of their opponents.  Let them move beyond the polemic to the poetic.

And in the process of doing so, God – may they become united: not only in loyalty to party and platform – but in their common vision for a better world, a better country, a better state of Colorado.

On this day of deliberation, we pray that those who seek meaning and purpose in their lives and through their work will find You in the potential to make a difference in their actions.

At this time of new beginnings, may Your presence guide even those who do not seek You.

We pray that you might be present to those who labor on behalf of our community.

Thank you for all of Your blessings.  And Go Broncos!