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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

My Remarks at the Israel Solidarity Rally - July 14, 2014

Photo: ‎עם ישראל חי
JEWISHcolorado & RMRC Israel
 Solidarity Rally
#JEWISHcolorado #JFNA #OhMyYAD #CAJE‎
Remarks for the Israel Solidarity Rally
July 14, 2014  Temple Emanuel
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Why are we here today?  Do we really care about a conflict in a land so far away –that does not impact us directly, that is being played out on our television screens, social media, and in the press?

Aren’t there times when we get tired of all of the negativity that is directed at the State of Israel – and, by proxy, at the Jewish people? Wouldn’t it be easier if we just didn’t care? 

Wouldn’t it be easier if we just gave in and gave up?  We could walk away from our commitment to Israel and go about our safe and comfortable lives here in the Diaspora.  It would be so nice….

Of course – that is not who we are and that is not why we are here this evening.
There has always been an unbroken link between those members of the Jewish people who live in the Land of Israel, and those who live outside the land.

The Torah teaches us that this link was established from the very beginning of our history – in the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness in preparation for the conquest of Canaan.

In this week’s Torah portion – Mattot, we read about the following:

·    The Israelites are preparing to enter into the land of Canaan. 

·    The Reubenites and Gaddites tell Moses that they want to settle outside of the land of Israel.  They see the lush grass and grazing for their Cattle and they tell Moses that they will not enter into the land with the rest of the Israelites

·    Moses is not pleased:  He says to them:

Numbers/Bamidbar32:6
  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לִבְנֵי־גָד וְלִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן הַאַחֵיכֶם יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה וְאַתֶּם תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה:
And Moses said to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Reuben, Shall your brothers go to war, and shall you sit here?

In response, the Ruebenites and Gaddites tell Moses – that, even though they will not dwell in the land, they will support the troops.  In fact, they will lead the battle.  They will go in first – to support their brothers and sisters who labor for the land.
Today – we find ourselves in a similar situation.  No – we are not being asked to physically take part in battle, but, like the Children of Reuben and Gad – we need to continually affirm our connection to our brothers and sisters who are in the line of fire – those soldiers called up for battle, and the civilians who are living their daily lives – trying to find a degree of normalcy – all the while listening for the dreaded sirens that tell them to run to the nearest shelter before the rockets either land or are intercepted by the Iron Dome system. 
No – we are not in the line of fire – but, make no mistake about it, we too are at war.  Our voices are crucial.  Our presence is indispensable.   We support Israel here today – through our efforts to combat the lies and propaganda that are daily portrayed in the media, online and in the streets..
We support Israel through our lobbying elected officials and through our financial contributions.
And we support Israel through our presence – by visiting, studying, exploring and falling in love with the Jewish state.

Just yesterday – our IST students returned from an experience in Israel that they will never forget.  They explored the land.  They met Israelis.  They learned about their history and their role in building and supporting Israel – and they experienced the precariousness of daily living in Israel when rockets were fired above them by Hamas terrorists. 
A few days before our ISTers returned, Sue and I and a group of 47 members of our community also returned from a trip that, while not as intense or long as IST, also was life-changing.  We saw Israel in all of her beauty.  We also were there during tense times – when the bodies of of  Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were discovered.  We watched the anguish of an entire nation as three precious souls were laid to rest.  We learned of the horrific lynching of Mohamed Abu Khdeir and were devastated to learn that he died at the hands of Jewish extremists. 
Before travelling to Israel, I said the following to the members of our group – and I know that anyone who has travelled to Israel will resonate with my words.
“We are not travelling to Israel as tourists or as explorers – we are pilgrims.  Ours is a sacred journey.  Once you experience the reality of Israel – the beauty, the spirituality, the history – and even the tension that is a part of daily life – as a Jew = as a Zionist – you are changed forever.”
When Israel grieves – we grieve.
When Israel celebrates – we celebrate
And when Israel’s enemies rise up against her – they rise up against all of us – and we have no choice but to do everything in our power to support her.
And so, we come here today – from all different corners of our Jewish community – to show our support, our love and our determination.  Od Lo Avda Tikvateynu We have ever given up our hope.  Hatikvah Bat Shnot Alpayim the hope of 2,000 years.  Lihyot Am Chofshi b’artzeynu – beretz Tzion V’yirushalyim – to a be free people in our own land – the land of Zion in Jerusalem.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.  AMEN

Friday, July 11, 2014

Peeling Away the Layers – Report from Israel. July 11, 2014


My Dear Friends,
Anyone who has travelled to Israel knows what it’s like to stand in one place and see multiple layers of history and reality unfolding in front of your eyes.

·         On Top of Masada – gazing at the splendor of Herod’s palace – with its luxuriously appointed bath houses, swimming pools and guest quarters – but also seeing the unfolding of a story of a Jewish life, a Roman conquest, a tragedy and a symbol of resistance and strength.

·         In Jerusalem  - at David’s Citadel at one and the same time seeing layers upon layers of civilizations:  Jebusite, Babylonian, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Marmaluke, Crusader, Ottoman, British and Jewish,

·         In Tel Aviv – seeing the vision of the pioneers who, 100 -  years ago dreamed of a Jewish city built on empty sand dunes on a Mediterranean beach - and how that dream has blossomed into a vital, energetic. modern metropolis that is a center of culture, high tech and economic growth

Archeologists know that ancient civilizations built upon the ruins and resources of those which came before them.  This is why a Tel – a Hebrew word that describes an archeological site on a hill is so compelling and confusing to archeologists around the world.
Truth be told – anywhere you go in Israel – you will find yourself overwhelmed by the depth, complexity and beauty of this incredibly multi-layered country –the touchstone and center of our historical and spiritual lives.

And so, when I originally thought about what I might speak about tonight, the day after Sue and I have returned from Israel – and 4 days after our group of travelers and pilgrims have all come home as well – I was planning on talking about what we did, what we saw, how we felt upon returning – and how all of us are now different as a result of our trip.
I didn’t think that I would be addressing an ever-escalating military and societal crisis that is gripping the Jewish State and, indeed, the entire Jewish world at this very moment. 

Silly me.

I should have known that, just as you can’t see only one layer of  history at any given moment in Israel, you also cannot speak of one aspect of the reality of daily life without, invariably, getting caught up in the crazy quilt of  historical, political, spiritual and security details as well.

So what happened these past 3 weeks? 

We had an incredible, life-changing trip. In addition: 
·         4 young men were murdered – 3 Jews and one Muslim.
·         In response to these horrible attacks, we saw an outbreak of racist rhetoric and violent clashes
·         And then…. overnight, hundreds of  rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip.
·         Operation “Protective Edge” was launched in responsive to Hamas’ unrelenting rocket attacks.
·         As these missiles were launched all over Israel – from Sderot to Netanya, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva – over 5 milllion Israeli citizen’s lives and security were jeopardized.
·         We witnessed how the Iron Dome missile battery system has worked almost flawlessly – preventing disaster and devastation in the most populated areas of Israel.
·         Over 30,000 reserve troops have either been called up or put on alert
·         A ground offensive against the Hamas terror cells and rocket launchers is poised to begin.

As always, Israel is being unfairly criticized from all sides for a so-called disproportionate response to Hamas’ terror.

As always, Israel, while sensitive to such criticism, is doing what it must do to protect her citizens from harm and we, as Americans, as Jews, as Lovers of Israel, can do no less than to support Israel in her time of need.
And all of the world is watching and waiting to see what will happen next.

So I will begin by talking about the first layer - our trip itself.

In the weeks and months before we left for Israel, our group of 47 individuals met  several times and talked about what we would be experiencing together.  I stated then that traveling to Israel is different than travelling to any other country.  I told everyone that we were not going as tourists, or as visitors, but as Pilgrims.  Yes – we would see beautiful sites, take guided tours, eat lots of food, stay in some wonderful (and some not-so wonderful) hotels…..but we also would be travelling – not only on out feet, but in our souls.   The experiences that we would share together would change us – as individuals and as a group.  We would be different people when we returned to the States than we were before when we left.

From the moment we touched down in Israel and travelled immediately to to Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Nature Reserve, to plant trees, we saw how this trip would impact us.  While we were planting, we asked members of the group to think about why they were planting trees.  Were they planting in memory or in honor of others who never had the chance to fulfill this vital mitzvah of building up the Land of Israel?

And people shared.  We talked about relatives who had died.  We shared our hopes and dreams for our children and the generations to come.  Tears and laughter freely mixed as we got a glimpse of each other’s’ souls at that sacred moment.

And this was only one of many powerful moments that shaped a group of individuals into a Havurah – a community bound together by common experiences, values, hopes and dreams.  [I’m thrilled that there are a lot of people here tonight who participated in our last Temple trip two years ago – and who also experienced the life-changing results of being Pilgrims in the State of Israel.]

We not only covered a huge amount of territory during our 10 days in Israel, we also met some extraordinary individuals: 

·         From an Ethiopian born, Ashkenazi Orthodox Rabbi named Sharon Shalom who leads a congregation of Russian Jews and survivors of the Shoah in Kiryat Gat, 
·         to Felice and Michael Friedson – founders of the Media Line – a small, independent news service that has access into both the Israeli and Muslim Arab world – and thereby have a unique and powerful perspective on how facts and rumor are both utilized and manipulated by the press and governments on all side of the various conflicts in the region,
·         to Anat Hoffman – one of my personal heroes in Israel – and our Scholar in Residence this past year – who talked about the dangers of racism and misogyny in Israel.
Throughout all of our travels, we were fortunate to have been led by our tour guides, Ariel Fogelman and Maya Sandak – as well as our fearless and expert Driver, Shlomo.  Yitzhak Sokoloff, the founder and Educational Director of Keshet Israel Travel, also joined us on several occasions and taught us.
At the end of our journey, in a small Jerusalem restaurant, we talked about what we had experienced.  Many of us shared meaningful and powerful expressions about what the trip had menat to them, but I want to share one with all of us.  Ethan Abramson,  a young man who, only a few months ago, celebrated becoming a Bar Mitzvah at Temple said the following (and I paraphrase):
“When Rabbi Black told us that the trip would change us, I was scared – since I liked the way that I already was and didn’t want to change.  But then I experienced everything with everybody else and I realized that while I didn’t change all that much on the outside – my soul had changed – and I’m all the better as a result.”
Ask any of the people who were with us these past two weeks and they will share how with you just how much they were impacted by the experience.
And that was the first layer of our trip……. Here comes layer #2:
The day before we left for Israel, I spoke at a Rally here in Denver in support of the families of the three boys who were kidnapped and subsequently murdered by Hamas operatives in the West Bank.  All of us hoped and prayed for their safe return to their families.  Unfortunately, our prayers were not answered in the way we wanted.  In a blog post that many of you may have already read, I wrote the following:
This morning, …we sat in the ancient synagogue on top of Masada and broke the news [of the murders of  Eyal, Gilad and Naftali] to our group. We chanted the El Malei Rachamim - the prayer for the deceased and we recited the mourner's Kaddish as well. We also talked about the juxtaposition of this horrible news with our location. Depending on one's perspective, Masada has a multiplicity if meanings. For some, it symbolizes Jewish power - our fighting spirit. For others, it is a symbol of weakness - of Jews who took their own lives (according to Josephus) - rather than standing up and fighting to their deaths. For still others, Masada is a symbol of Jewish extremism - some scholars believe that the Jews who fled to Masada were the instigators of the Jewish revolt itself.
You can see that Masada means many things to different people. And yet, one consistent theme is that of Jewish power. The cold-blooded murder of our children served no purpose other than make us feel powerless: to instill fear and anger in the hearts of the citizens of the Jewish State. The way that we respond to this horrific murder is a measure of our values and our character.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the gruesome revelation of the deaths of these three innocent young men, a wave of racist and violent reaction rolled through the State of Israel.  On the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, gangs of hoodlums marched and shouted:  Mavet L’Aravim! – Death to the Arabs!”  A Facebook page calling for revenge against the Arabs quickly gathered over 30,000 ‘likes.’  The country was in turmoil. And then, the unthinkable happened.  A young Palestinian Arab named Mohamed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped, tortured and burned alive by a group of Jewish extremists.
When we met with Anat Hoffman, she reminded us about how she predicted 6 months ago that the current climate of racially charged language and overall tension in Israel would result in a lynching in 12 months.  Unfortunately, she was incorrect – she was off by 6 months.
Yes – it is true that the horrific reality of Mohammed’s death was followed by an immediate condemnation from within Israel.  The whole nation was shocked to confront the fact that Jews could commit such a horrific act.  Many people have pointed out the difference in the reactions between Israel’s condemnation and soul searching following the murder, and the voices of rejoicing and celebration in the Palestinian community in the wake of the discovery of the bodies of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali.  But we cannot allow ourselves to say:  “we are better because we did not rejoice.”  As Jews who believe in the principle of all humanity being created in the Divine Image, we cannot pretend that all of these murders occurred in a vacuum.  To do so is to close our eyes to the truth. This is not only about the 3-6 Jewish punks who did something terrible. It is about the fact that racist ideologies, "price tag" Justice and extremism have been allowed to flourish. It is about the fact that unless and until the current government begins to acknowledge that they cannot sustain a situation that is based on protecting one people and oppressing another, there will only be more tragic violence from all sides.
And that was layer two…..
And in the midst of all of this soul searching that took place, the day that the majority f our group left Israel to return home - the rockets began to fall – hundreds of them - not only in Sderot and Ashdod in the far south – near the border with Gaza, but in the center of the country – in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Instantly – all Israel sprang into action – as it has done so many times before.  Everything was set aside in order to acknowledge the existential reality facing the Jewish state on a daily basis.  The IDF went to work – first by air, and now ground troops are massing on the borders of Gaza. 
Sue and I stayed a few etra days after the group left to visit family.  We were in the far north of Israel when the rockets were aimed at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  We were out of harm’s way, but we felt them nonetheless – in the pictures on the television, in the anguish in the faces of the parents whose children were either in range of the rockets or in the green uniforms of the IDF, in the incredulity of the public that, once again, Israeli citizens were forced to flee into bomb shelters.
One thing that has become perfectly clear during this past week is the effectiveness of Israel’s Iron Dome system in shooting down Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket attacks – but even this brings small comfort.  Israel should not have to use precious resources to build a defensive shield.  Nothing about this current conflict will bring peace.  It will only serve to reinforce the deadlock between both sides.
My friends, I began my remarks this evening talking about the multiple layers of experience that are part and parcel of the Israeli landscape. None of them exist in a vacuum.  They are all intertwined. In essence, the only way to truly understand Israel is to adopt the tool-kit of an archeologist.  We have to brush away and explore each level of reality we find. Today’s current events are the direct result of yesterday’s triumph and trauma.  It is vitally important for all of us to find out as much as we can about Israel– as well as to experience it first hand – as 47 of us did these past two weeks.  Each layer of reality is attached to another that preceded it – and another before that as well.  Each time I travel to Israel, I come back changed.  This time was no different. 
And so, let us pray for the peace of Jerusalem – and let us show our support for Israel as well –with our dollars and words and our presence.  But we cannot only show our support.  When we see things that concern us – such as racism and violence in our midst – we cannot remain silent.  Our job – as Chovevei Tzion – as lovers of Zion – is to commit ourselves to study, to travel and to support a healthy, secure, democratic and moral Jewish state.  There is no other path to peace.
Shabbat Shalom



Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Israel Under Fire - A view From Within


Dear Friends,
I write this post from Kibbutz Sasa near Tsfat in the far north in Israel.  For the past two days, after the majority of participants in our congregational trip have returned to the US, Sue and I have been visiting family here.  We are scheduled to fly to the States tomorrow night at 11:30 PM.  We feel very safe and are far away from the events unfolding in the South and Center of the country where Hamas terrorists have been launching rockets at Israel and the IDF has been responding with Operation "Protective Edge."  Since midnight last night, over 150 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel.  Not only have cities close to Gaza such as Ashdod and Sderot been targeted, but also Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva, Hadera and other cities in the Center of the country as well.  Thank God, no casualties have been reported.  Israel's Iron Dome missile batteries have intercepted several rockets and others have fallen harmlessly in unpopulated areas. In response, the IDF has been targeting terror targets in Gaza.  Things are very tense here, as you might imagine, but all of Israel is united in support of their soldiers.
I spoke earlier this evening with Phyllis Adler, Director of CAJE, about the 70+ students from Denver who are participating in the Israel Study Tour (IST).  The group is currently in Netanya and they are safely ensconced in a hotel there.   While the group had hoped to travel to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for the last few days of their trip (they are scheduled to leave on Sunday), their itinerary has been changed in order to keep them in the North and out of the possibility of being in harm's way.  Sue and I plan to stop in Netanya tomorrow on our way back from Sasa in order to spend some time with the ISTers before we leave for the airport.  I am sure that the experience of being in Israel at a time of crisis, while certainly not what we would have hoped for them, will give them a unique perspective about the realities of living in the Jewish State.
So much has happened over the last two weeks that it is almost impossible to try to put it all into perspective.  We are still glowing from the amazing sites and individuals that everybody on our congregational trip experienced.  We all saw an Israel that is beautiful, passionate and filled with cultural, historical, entrepreneurial and spiritual depth.  And yet, as we all know, Israel is not perfect.  It is vitally important to understand that recent events - the murders of 4 innocent youths by extremists - both Arab and Jew  - while important to address, are not in the forefront of most of our minds at this time.  The current military action in response to Hamas' terror attacks has placed everything else on the back burner.  And yet, nothing happens in a vacuum.  The fact that racist rhetoric, base hatred and a climate filled with tension and fear have fueled extremist behavior on both sides of the conflict cannot be swept under the rug of public discourse.  It is obvious that the status quo cannot be sustainable into the future.
I look forward to sharing our experiences and my thoughts with you this Friday night at services. I hope to see you there.
I conclude with a prayer for peace:
עשה שלום במרומו, הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל, ואמרו אמן.
May the One who makes peace in places far beyond our understanding, send peace to us and to all Israel.  And let us say - Amen.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
שלום מישראל - Shalom M'yisrael - Shalom from Israel
Rabbi Joe Black

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Murders and Masada: Three Young Boys are Dead


Dear Friends,
This morning we climbed Masada after spending the night in a Beduin-"style" tent.  We woke up very early, packed our bags and drove to the bottom of the Roman ramp.  Most of the group hiked up to the top in time to see the sunrise.  It was inspiring and beautiful.
I have explored Masada several times.  I have studied its history and tried to uncover the many stories it has to tell: from it's origins as a luxurious fortress built by King Herod in the year 3 BCE, to its reclamation as a refuge for Jewish Zealots who fled Jerusalem and its Roman conquerors in the year 70 CE, to the tragic story of it's fall and the death of it's Jewish residents in 73 CE, to it's rediscovery and excavation by Yigal Yadin in the 1960's to its powerful symbolism for a nascent new nation.   The words:  "Masada shall never fall again!"  became a rallying cry for the Zionist pioneers determined to create a new kind of Jew - one who was a fighter, not a victim.
Today, however, Masada took on a whole new meeting for me and everyone in our group.  Today we heard the terrible news that we all feared might be coming, but were afraid to say out loud:  Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were murdered by their terrorist abductors.
For the past two and a half weeks, we hoped against hope that somehow a miracle would take place and that these three innocent young souls would be returned to their families.  But this was not to be the case.  And so, today, an entire nation tragically buried it's precious dead.  The pictures on Israel Television of three flag-draped coffins in a cemetary overflowing with tens of thousands of mourners, grieving parents, somber dignitaries, grieving high school classmates and everyday Israelis from all walks of life told a story of tragic loss that every parent, child and sibling experienced.  Everyone is grieving today in Israel because these three young boys represent everybody's children.

This morning, at the end of our tour, we sat in the ancient synagogue on top of Masada and broke the news to our group.  We chanted the El Malei Rachamim - the prayer for the deceased as well as the mourner's Kaddish.   We also talked about the juxtaposition of this horrible news with our location.  Depending on one's perspective, Masada has a multiplicity if meanings.  For some, it symbolizes Jewish power - our fighting spirit.  For others, it is a symbol of weakness - of Jews who took their own lives (according to Josephus) - rather than standing up and fighting to their deaths.  For still others, Masada is a symbol of Jewish extremism - some scholars believe that the Jews who fled to Masada were the instigators of the Jewish revolt itself.
You can see that Masada means many things to different people.   And yet, one consistent theme is that of Jewish power.  The cold-blooded murder of our children served no purpose other than make us feel powerless:  to instill fear and anger in the hearts of the citizens of the Jewish State.  The way that we respond to this horrific murder is a measure of our values and our character.
Of course, we know all too well that this is not the first time that Israelis have had to respond to an act of terror.  Unfortunately,  it probably will also not be the last  - to our great sorrow. During our brief prayer service on Masada this morning, Yitzhak Sokolov - a dear friend and founder of our tour company - Keshet Israel Educational Tours - shared the following thoughts:
"If the goal of this murder was to scare us into leaving - it will fail.  If the goal of this murder was to goad us into seeking revenge and acting on our basest urges - this too will fail.  Today, we grieve.  Tomorrow we will continue to build our state."
Justice must be served.  Those who are responsible for this heinous act must be punished.  The reality that the perpetrators of these murders were Hamas operatives also exposes the dark reality of who our enemies really are.  And yet, the pursuit of peace can never be relegated to the dark recesses of our fears.  We must rise above our anger, our hatred, and our desire for retaliation.  We must never close the door to peace - so long as we have partners with whom to work.  And if our partners are not readily available  today - we must wait until they emerge tomorrow.
Masada was supposed to have been an impregnable fortress that could never be breached.  We know that this was not the case.  Sometimes, those problems that, at first glance, seem intractable,  can be solved with perseverance and personal interaction.   This is my prayer:  may we find the time to grieve and, in our grief, work for the promise of tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Enroute to Israel at 30,000 feet: Perspective and Anticipation

Dear Friends,

I write this post while enroute to Israel.  I have always found it easier to write on airplanes than any place else.  Perhaps it's because of the lack of interruptions - no phones, meetings or other disruptions that can take me away from the focus I need.   But perhaps it is also because of perspective:  the fact that I am writing at 30,000 feet somehow helps me to have a different view of the myriad of details and activities that are a normal part of my daily routine.

I truly cannot say how many times I have travelled to Israel.  I can count at least 20 trips - but there may be more..... I first went in 1975 as an exchange student when I was Junior in High School.  Those 6 months changed my life forever and put me on a journey that can only be described as a love affair with the Hebrew language and the State of Israel that continues and grows to this very day.  Every time I return to Israel, I never fail to feel the same excitement and anticipation that I felt as a 16 year old as I board the plane and look ahead to the adventure that awaits.  Sharing Israel with others is an especially rewarding experience.  This year, Sue and I - along with Janet Bronitsky and Mark Suprenand - are leading a group of 45 congregants.  For most of the people in our group, this will be their first trip to Israel.  Seeing the excitement on their faces and knowing that this trip will literally change their lives is both an awesome responsibility and a great joy.

The timing of this particular trip could not be more significant.  The medieval poet, Yehudah Halevi wrote:  " לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב"  "My Heart is in the East, and I am in the uttermost end of the West."  This encapsulates the centuries- old longing of the Jewish soul to travel to Israel - even when we were firmly ensconced in our Western-world milieu. Recent events have served to intensify my desire to be in Israel.  The kidnapping of  three teen-aged boys - Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaer  and Eyal Yifrah by Palestinian terrorists 2 weeks ago has highlighted both the vulnerability and unity of the Jewish people.  All Jews - regardless of political or religious affiliation - are unified around the anguish of these families.   Last night, I was honored to participate in the "Bring Back our Boys" solidarity Rally as president of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council.  Seeing such a diverse cross-section of the Denver Jewish Community coming together in solidarity with the the Frankel, Shaer and Yirah families - as well as the entire State of Israel - was a powerful experience.  The fact that the next day, we would be able to travel to Israel and share our solidarity with the Jewish state and it's people makes our pilgrimage all the more powerful. 
In addition, the recent unfortunate decision by the Presbyterian Church  - USA (PCUSA) to become intertwined with the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement (their denials and protestations aside...) has highlighted the fact that the State of Israel has few true friends.  The sadness, disappointment and sense of betrayal I experienced as a result of this action taken by my PCUSA colleagues has shaken me - and the vast majority of the Jewish world- especially here in America where we have worked so hard to build bridges of dialogue, community and friendship - deeply.  The opportunity to experience the reality of the State of Israel - warts and all - and share this with members of my congregation is the perfect solace at a time of disappointment.  

I cannot promise how often I will be able to contribute to this blog.  Our itinerary is jam-packed.  Nonetheless, I will try to keep you all updated on our adventure.

Until then, I bid you Shalom from 30,000 feet.

Rabbi Joe Black

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Korach, Demagogues, and Presbyterian (USA) Divestment

Dear Friends,
I write this post on Shabbat Morning from Beautiful Telluride Colorado where I am attending the 41st annual Telluride Bluegrass festival with family and dear friends.  Last night I led a Shabbat Service with the gracious and welcoming Telluride Jewish Community.  Today I will spend the rest of Shabbat relaxing in the pure mountain air listening to many of my musical heroes.
I love this festival.  It is the perfect mixture of virtuoso musicianship, relaxation, family bonding and almost Utopian community-building.  For four days every summer, this far-flung mountain village with breathtaking views of the western San Juan Mountains becomes a community of "Festivarians" who share a love of acoustic music and a desire for peace and tranquility.
Unfortunately, as much as one would like to shut out the outside world while on vacation, the news does not go on holiday.  In the State of Israel, the search for three kidnapped boys - Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach  - continues while the entire country joins with others around the world praying for their safe return.
And in the midst of our prayers for these boys, we learn of how the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church -USA (or PCUSA) has voted to divest itself from three companies that do business in the West Bank - thereby giving another boost to the Anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (or BDS).
It's ironic to me that this week's Torah portion, Korach, coincides with the  PCUSA's vote.  One of the lessons of Korach is the danger and power of demagoguery.  The text reads:
1. Korach the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben. 2. They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute.
3. They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?"
4. Moses heard and fell on his face.
Korach is portrayed by the rabbis as the ultimate manipulator.  His diabolical brilliance is seen in the way that he utilizes half-truths and preys on the fears of those who will listen to him.  He tries to position himself as a savior of the people by speaking "truth to power" on behalf of their "legitimate" rights of leadership and status by claiming that it is arrogance and self-aggrandizement that gives Moses his power when, in actuality, it is Korach's desire for power that ultimately does him in.
Unlike others who have commented on this issue, I do not believe that most of the PCUSA delegates were motivated by blatant anti-Israel or anti-Semitic feelings.  I do, feel, however, that they were manipulated by  a well-organized campaign from a group within the church that calls itself the Israel-Palestine Mission.  This group has a long history of attempting to de-legitimize Israel and Zionism in general.   The anti-Israel activists within the church have been very methodical in their systematic deconstruction and mis-representation of the history of the Jewish State.  The study guide, "Zionism Unsettled," that squarely places the blame of the entire conflict on the shoulders of Israel is on the church's website. (Here is the link:  http://store.pcusa.org/2646614001).  Yes, the church has distanced itself from this insidious text, but, as of this writing, it is still available for sale to its member churches.
Last week, I, along with representatives of the JCRC and ADL, met with a few local delegates from the PCUSA who were going to be attending the convention and voting on this and many other issues that would be coming before the General Assembly.  We talked about how important this issue was to the Jewish community and we wanted to share our concerns and listen to theirs as well.  It was a powerful meeting.  For me, the biggest take-away was that most of the people in the meeting truly felt that they loved and supported Israel.  They also did not make the connection between divestment and the global BDS movement.  My colleagues in the ministry shared with us their pain at the divisions that this issue was causing-both within the church and the potential for harm in relationships between the Jewish Community and the Mainline Protestant denominations.   We talked about how we shared so much in common:  our mutual support for GLBT rights, concerns about gun violence, poverty, homelessness, women's rights and so many other issues that should bring us together - not force us apart.  And yet, as much as I feel connected to my clergy colleagues over these issues, when it comes to Israel, the fact that their movement could be so eager to visualize a peaceful solution in the Middle East that they are willing to blindfold themselves and sacrifice the truth by buying into a one-sided, blatantly anti-Zionist and (yes - I will say it) anti-Jewish narrative that ignores our historical, spiritual and cultural connection to the land of Israel is very upsetting.
Moses, when confronted with Korach's distortions of the truth, "fell on his face."  The leadership of the Jewish community  cannot and will not follow his example.  While I am deeply disappointed and feel a sense of betrayal from my Christian colleagues, I will not allow this to poison what needs to be a strong relationship.  Now is a time for renewed dialogue and outreach.  While damage has been done to  Jewish-Presbyterian (USA) relationships, we cannot allow the demagogues to win.

Shabbat Shalom from Telluride.
Rabbi Joe Black.
PS - I want to encourage everyone to attend the solidarity rally for the three kidnapped teens that will take place this Tuesday night at 6:00 pm at the JCC.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Welcome Home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl!


Like many of you, I have been following with rapt attention the story of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release from five years of Taliban captivity in exchange for five Afghan detainees from Guantanamo Bay.  In particular, I am drawn to the multiplicity of reactions from all corners of the political spectrum.  There are those who support the decision of President Obama and his advisors for making a quick decision in the face of evidence that pointed to a rapid decline in Sgt. Bergdahl’s health – while others are critical due to the fact that US law states that congress must be notified in advance of a prisoner exchange. 

Others are focusing on the fact that Bergdahl’s capture 5 years ago was preceded by what appears to have been an act of disobedience.  Many reports state that he had previously expressed concern about the Afghan war.  He left his post and walked into the hands of his captors.  Some are calling his actions desertion.  They blame him for placing other soldiers’ lives in danger – especially those who were sent to rescue him after he was discovered missing[i].

Still others question whether the release of five dangerous terrorists was a fair trade for the release of one POW.  Add to this the fact that he may have broken a sacred code of military conduct prior to his imprisonment and the negative rhetoric only increases.

As a Rabbi, a Jew and a Zionist, I cannot help but compare this situation to that which the State of Israel faces on a daily basis.  How many times have the leaders of the Israeli Government and the Israel Defense Forces found themselves in the difficult position of having to release convicted murderers in exchange for the lives – or even the dead bodies – of Israeli soldiers?  When Gilad Shalit was freed after 5 years of captivity, the Israeli Government released 1,027 prisoners who were directly responsible for the deaths of over 569 Israelis[ii].  The policies expressed by President Obama and his cabinet reaffirm a shared principle with the State of Israel that not one soldier will ever be left behind. 

Most of us have never met Sgt. Bergdahl.  But we can understand the pain of his parents and family as they waited for five tortuous years to hear some positive news about their son.  In Israel, there is no family that has not been touched by the reality of war.  The anguish of Gilad Shalit’s parents was shared by an entire nation.  While the decision to free him in exchange for over a thousand murderous terrorists was controversial – everyone understood that there was no other way.

Another concern I have about this unfolding story is in regards to the many Ad Hominum attacks that have been levied on Sgt. Bergdahl.  If, as some claim, he deserted his post, why did he do so?  Was it an act of political defiance or the result of an emotional breakdown?  What was his mental state in Afghanistan?  Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that he was a broken man – a soldier who could no longer fight – whose repeated exposure to the horror of war and the constant fear that it instilled in him caused him to act irrationally.  Does this mean that he deserves to be abused by others in the court of public opinion?

I do not know the current physical or mental state of Sgt. Bergdahl or what he experienced five years ago when he walked into the hands of the enemy. I cannot imagine what he must have endured in captivity.   I pray that he will find a path toward a renewal of body and spirit and that he will be provided with the best care possible.  And yet, there are many other Military Veterans who walk the streets of our cities and towns and who, effectively, are still on the battlefield.  They relive their experiences on a daily basis.  We see their haunted eyes on the street corners as they beg for change and a modicum of compassion. The recent scandal revolving around the Veteran’s Administration has shown us that access to quality health care – whether for mental or physical ailments – is scandalously lacking in many of our VA facilities.  Unless and until mental illness is perceived as a condition that befits compassion, not condemnation, action and not alienation, our nation is not living up to its commitment to honor and take care of those brave men and women who risked their lives so that we could live in freedom.

But, of course, Veterans are not the only ones who lack access to basic mental healthcare.  The stigma attached to mental illness is a main reason that it occupies such a lowly place on the priorities of both Federal and State legislatures.

I write this article the day before the Festival of Shavuot.  In a few hours, we will gather together and give thanks for the gift of Torah.  Shavuot teaches us to value learning.  The revelation at Mt Sinai taught us an entirely new way to view the world around us. Torah opens our eyes to new truths every day. May we never stop learning – may we never stop growing and may there soon come a time when we will be able to see the Divine Spark implanted within every human being.  Welcome home Sgt. Bergdahl!  You, like every one of us, are a gift from God.

Chag Sameach – Shavuot, 5774