Thursday, October 13, 2016

Digging Beneath The Surface - Kol Nidre, 5777

Dear Friends,
In 1982, I began my Rabbinical studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.  During that seminal year my classmates and I not only engaged in Hebrew language and text study, but we also explored Israel from top to bottom.  We were immersed in the midst of modern Israeli society as studied the ancient history of our homeland.
One of the most memorable experiences during that wonderful year was the opportunity to participate in an archeological dig at Tel Dan.  I learned several important lessons during that week at the dig.  The first was that while Archeology can be a very exciting field, the ratio of time spent digging, scraping brushing and schlepping to the excitement of actual discovery is tilted strongly towards the former and against the latter. The second thing I learned is that being on a dig is hard and sometimes monotonous work.  The image of the archeologist as a swash-buckling “Indiana Jones” makes for good movies, but has little, if any bearing on the realities on the ground.  The truth is that archeology is as much (if not more) about shvitzing than scholarship.  The third thing I learned is that dirt from a dig is stubborn:  it tends to stick around – even after showering….. But I’m not going to say anything more about that.  This is Yom Kippur after all…..
I recently came across a story about an exciting archeological find that I want to share with you tonight.It seems that an enormous monument has been discovered at the World Heritage site of Petra in Jordan. According to a study recently published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, a team of  Archaeologists[i] stumbled across it during a routine scan of the site using high-resolution satellite imagery and aerial drone photography.  The structure is roughly as long as an Olympic-size swimming pool and twice as wide. It sits only about half a mile south of the center of the ancient city[ii].This new discovery was in an area that had been familiar to scholars for decades.  Many people had walked past it and on it without realizing that it was fertile ground for excavation.
The most exciting – and perhaps embarrassing - aspect of this discovery was that, unlike most other great finds of the past that were buried beneath the shifting sands of history, this monument was not hidden at all.  It was there in plain sight  -but no one had recognized that it was an area of importance.
Tonight is Kol Nidre.  Tonight we come to this sacred place to stand together as both a community and as individuals to acknowledge our frailties and embrace our hopes.  Tonight, we join together with other congregations and communities all over the world to acknowledge that, like those Archeologists in Petra, we, too have been blind to the basic truths of our lives that have been lying in plain sight – but we cannot see them.
Our goal, over the next 24 hours is to dig deep so that we might uncover the layers of denial, obstruction and obfuscation that prevent us from being true to our authentic selves and our souls.  But our task is more than simply self-flagellation. If we are to truly take advantage of the meaning of this holy day, in addition to digging deep to find our flaws, we also must look for a counter balance in the holiness around us that, all too often we ignore – even though it is right in front of us.
On this holiest night of the year, I want to address this concept that something so huge and important is right in front of our noses but we are blind to it unless and until we make a conscious effort to open up our eyes. This is the basis for what I believe to be one of, if not THE most important and beautiful elements of our tradition.
Tomorrow Morning we will read the following passage at services:
אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָֹ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֑ם
Atem nitavim kulchem hayom lifnei Adonai Eloheychem
“You are all standing this day before Adonai your God”[iii]
On Yom Kippur we remember and relive the experience of standing directly before God.  At the foot of that mountain there was no doubt of God’s presence or the meaning and purpose that defines us as members of a Holy People.
And yet, Judaism teaches that holiness is found not only at sacred places and times…but every day and everywhere we allow ourselves to be open to the possibility that we
·        like Moses at the burning bush,
·        like Sarah upon being told that she would bear a child
·        like Jacob when he dreamed of a ladder extending into the heavens,
…..are standing in God’s presence.  Holiness is not something that is bestowed from above –it is everywhere we find ourselves.  Our task is to uncover it and bright it to light.  We see this most profoundly in the Jewish concept of a beracha – a Blessing.
There are Berachot - blessings - for almost every aspect of our lives.  We bless before and after we eat.  We make a Beracha when we light candles, when we wake up in the morning and when we go to bed at night.  There are blessings for seeing beauty in nature and escaping misfortune.  There are blessings for hope and blessings for fear; Blessings for wonder and blessings for discernment; Blessings for our country and blessings for peace.
The interesting thing about a beracha is that is does not bestow holiness; it reveals it. When we eat a piece of bread and say Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheynu Melech Ha-Olam, Ha motzi Lechem Min HaAretz – Praised are You, Eternal our God, who brings forth bread from the earth - we are not making the bread or even the act of eating holy, rather we are acknowledging the sacred nature inherent to our meal.  Similarly, when I, as a Rabbi, say a blessing over a newborn baby, a bar or bat mitzvah boy or girl or a wedding couple – I am not infusing them with holiness; rather, I am illuminating the sanctity that is part and parcel of who they are. Berachot, in many ways are like archeology.  Their purpose is to peel away the layers of ordinariness upon which we walk every day and uncover the treasure and the majesty that lies just beneath the surface of our daily lives.
Spirituality is about being awake – aware.  Judaism teaches that we need to see the world around us, not merely in terms of shapes and shadows, but rather in meaning and purpose.
In the Torah reading that we will read tomorrow afternoon, we will hear the words:
קְדשִׁ֣ים תִּֽהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:
Kedoshim Tihyu, Ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheychem
You shall be holy, for I, Adonai you God, am holy
This vital passage teaches us that holiness is inherent to our very nature. It is found in relationship to the world around us when we acknowledge that we were created as holy beings – with a Divine purpose, living in a world where God’s presence is everywhere – but we can only see it if we attuned to finding it beneath the surface of the superficiality of daily life.  Blessings, if we truly apply them, are the antidote to the cynicism, monotony and ordinariness that accumulate day after day, month after month, and year after year.
The Great 20th Century Theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”[iv]
The opportunity to view the world as sacred is a precious gift.  It forces us to appreciate and celebrate the fact that we are alive.
At the same time, when we engage in the act of peeling away the layers of ordinariness and uncovering what is underneath, we must not stop at the beauty and wonder that we unearth, we also must confront the unpleasantness as well. 
As Jews, we are called to be a holy people. Our prophetic tradition demands that we speak out and act whenever and wherever we see ugliness and evil in our society.  Whether it is in the vulgar words and actions of our leaders – or those who strive to become our leaders - or in our own backyards, we cannot be silent when we see our values and ideals being trampled in the arena of public discourse and policy.
On Rosh HaShanah morning, Rabbi Immerman spoke forcefully and powerfully about how we must address the racism that continues to poison our society.  It is real.  It is rampant and it is being used as a weapon – not only against the most vulnerable but as a political tool to inspire fear and conformity.
Tomorrow afternoon, at 2:00 PM – concurrent with our family service, I want to encourage everyone who is able (pause) to attend an important presentation by the Reverends Amanda Henderson and Tawana Davis of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.  Entitled:  “Peeling Away the Layers: Facing Racism in our Community,” we will begin what I hope will become an ongoing conversation about how we can listen to one another, share our stories and our fears and, in the process of doing so, confront and work towards recognizing and repairing the racism that is embedded in our society. 
Now I understand that for some, this not a simple issue: it can be controversial – and people feel very strongly about it.  But let us start from a place of acknowledging that, regardless of our own personal experience, there are many in our community who feel that they are victims.  We need to hear their stories and try to understand their experience. 
This will not be an easy task – but, if we are to be honest with ourselves and our souls, we have no other choice.  I hope to see you tomorrow afternoon.
When we peel away the layers, we see both the holiness  and the ugliness as well.  Sometimes it feels overwhelming. We cannot possibly address every ill that plagues us, but we also cannot stand idly by.  And so, we need to try to make a difference – one step at a time.  As we heard from our Temple president, Ellen Abrams on Rosh Hashanah, our Board of Trustees has decided to participate in a very important program called Family Promise that addresses the painful issue of homelessness in Denver.  I am very familiar with this program because I brought it to my former congregation in Albuquerque where it was not only implemented with great success, but it also made a huge impact on our community.
Family Promise is part of a national network that was created to deal with the issue of vulnerable families without housing in our nation.  A few facts: 
·        On any given night, there are 750,000 people on the streets of our nation, with somewhere between 1.3 and 2 million people experiencing homelessness over the course of a year. 
·        According to the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative, the estimated number of homeless men women and children in our community is about 4,000 a night.  
·        Today, families make up about 49% percent of the people who become homeless.
·        The typical homeless family consists of a young unmarried mother with two or three small children. [v]
Family Promise was created to help address the national problem of families who have lost their housing.  Here’s how it works:
We will be joining forces with 13 other host congregations in our community who have been part of Family Promise for several years and have found it to be a powerful and rewarding experience.  In a nutshell, , what we will be asked to do is to open our up our doors for one week –four to five times a year – and house no more than 14 carefully screened and selected individuals – about 3-4 families at a time  - who are in transition.  These families – our guests - explode the myth of what homelessness looks like in our community.   These are not panhandlers standing on the street corner.  They are men, women and children who are living on the edge – one paycheck away from disaster.  They are multi-generational families and single parents. Most of them are “newly-homeless.”  Whether through illness, injury or job loss, they have found themselves without a place to stay.  Through a variety of social service agencies in the city, they are referred to Family Promise where they are carefully screened.    Family Promise does not only provide temporary housing - their social workers also work closely with each family – guiding them as they search for apartments, daycare and jobs.  They provide them with training, coaching and counseling.  Most families are part of the program for no more than three months .  Each host congregation provides their guests with a safe place to sleep, food, companionship, comfort and stability during a period of great stress and vulnerability.   Our task, as a host congregation, will be to coordinate the transformation of three rooms in our building into temporary housing for one week.  We will also cook meals, come up with activities for our guests, play with and tutor the children and provide transportation.  Families arrive at the Temple at 7:00 at night and leave before 7:00 in the morning.  They have a 24 hour social worker who is always on call.  Family Promise provides us with a  beds and a van for rides to and from a separate day center where the parents work hard to get themselves back on track.
Our Board of Trustees has already formed a motivated and dynamic coordinating committee chaired by Suzie Moss, Sherrie Stark and Deb Herman.  We also have a committed group of initial volunteers who are ready to get started.  But it isn’t enough.  In order for this program to work we will need many helpers.  Most volunteer positions require a minimum of effort.  Some tasks require more.  Family Promise provides training for all participants.  We will need drivers, cooks, and cleaning crews.  We will need volunteers to stay overnight at the Temple, set tables and play with the children and help them with their homework.  Most congregations require anywhere from 80 to 150 volunteers to make the program successful.   There is no doubt in my mind that this is not only doable, but essential for our congregation.  
Following services tonight in the Sisterhood lounge and all day tomorrow, we will have informational material available in the foyer.   You also will see members of our staff, our trustees and the Family promise coordinating committee who are wearing buttons that say:  “Ask me about Family Promise at Temple Emanuel.”  Go up to them.  Ask them questions.   We will be having several informational meetings in the coming weeks for those who are interested in learning more about the program.  The next meeting will be Wednesday, October 26th here at Temple.  We also have set up a page on our website that explains the process as well.  If you have any interest whatsoever in exploring the possibility of volunteering for this program please let us know.  No one is being asked to make a commitment at this time.  Everyone can participate in some way – regardless of age or ability. 
My friends, our nation is experiencing what can only be described as great trauma during this election cycle.  Too many of us are disturbed, disillusioned and dismayed as we witness the debasing of basic human dignity playing out in front of us.  While we cannot fix our political system overnight, we can commit to focusing our energies and our resources towards the good – towards Tikkun Olam  - repairing some of the brokenness that surrounds us every day. 
Over the next 24 hours we will be coming together as a community to peel away the layers of our personal flaws and foibles as well as our communal malaise and avoidance.  Let us pledge at this most sacred time to try to see the holiness around us.  Let us use our capacity to bless as a tool to uncover - not only the beauty that surrounds us, but also the ugliness.  We know that the task is great, but we also have the ability and the responsibility to actualize the God-given gifts that each of us possess to make ourselves and our world just a little bit better.
G’mar chatimah Tovah - May we all be inscribed and sealed for blessing in the book of life.  AMEN.

[i] Sarah Parcak and Christopher Tuttle
[iii] Deuteronomy 29:9
[iv] Heschel:  God In Search of Man

Israel: A Two Way Street - Yom Kippur Morning-5777

My Dear Friends,

There is an experience that I have only had twice in my life – but both of these times left a lasting impression on me.  The first time was in 1975.  The second was in 1982.  It has been 34 years since I last experienced it and I remember it like it was yesterday.  I am referring to being in Israel on Yom Kippur.  In 1975 I was a Junior in High School – participating in the Eisendrath International Exchange  (EIE) program at the Leo Baeck school in Haifa.  In 1982, I was a first year Rabbinical Student studying at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

To be in Israel on Yom Kippur is to experience silence – or as close as you can find silence in an urban environment.  There are no cars, no radios or Televisions.  Any noise you might hear comes from the synagogues that line the streets or the sounds of worshippers walking in the middle of empty roads that are normally filled with cars, busses and taxis.

Not everyone in Israel goes to Synagogue on Yom Kippur but everyone - from the most secular to the most religious – strives to preserve a sense of holiness and reflection during the course of the day.  The truth is, the sanctity of Yom Kippur is one of the few things about which all Israelis can agree.  Almost every other aspect of life in Israel is subject to politicization and argumentation.

Yom Kippur is not only a day of silence in Israel – it also is a day of historical significance.  43 years ago, on Yom Kippur morning, October 6, 1973, the sanctity of our fast was violently and irrevocably destroyed when the armies of Syria and Egypt launched cross-border attacks through the Sinai and the Golan Heights against the Jewish state.  For the first 48 hours, the Arab armies experienced significant victories against the Israel Defense Forces, but eventually the Arab onslaught was subdued and Israel went on to defeat her enemy.   Israel paid a heavy price in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War.  The cost in human life was very high.  The leftist political establishment was dismantled and a new era of politics was set in motion that ultimately led to the ascension of Menachem Begin’s Likud party to political prominence.       

For those of us who are old enough to remember 43 years ago with clarity, the experience of walking into the Synagogue on this holiest of days and seeing and hearing Television sets and radios blaring was unsettling.  Although I was only 13 at the time, I remember well how my Rabbi, David Polish, set aside his Yom Kippur sermon and organized an impromptu emergency fund-raising campaign.  I remember the fear in the faces of my parents and their friends who were desperately afraid that Israel might not make it through the first 48 hours.  On that day, 43 years ago, all Jews were united in the love, fear and support of the State of Israel.

So much has changed since that fateful day, hasn’t it? 

There used to be an assumption that every Jew, no matter how religious or non-observant, ultimately feels a strong connection to the State of Israel.  While that may have been the case in the past, we all know that this is no longer true.  During the first few decades of Israeli independence, the majority of American and World Jewry saw the embattled Jewish State as a symbol of pride.  Zionism, and its message of Jewish self-sufficiency in a Jewish homeland, was a central aspect of Jewish identification.  This, coupled with the recent memory of the Shoah and its horrors, caused us to see Israel as an extension of our Jewish selves.  We defended Israel's right to exist - holding our collective breaths during times of crisis and rejoicing in her miraculous victories.  We demonstrated our support with our political clout and our pocketbooks, by making Aliyah, traveling on Pilgrimages and sending our Children to study and experience the "Miracle on the Mediterranean." 

Today, however, the term “Zionist” has become controversial.  Our enemies have tried to co-opt the term by linking it with policies of oppression and racism.  Some of our Christian friends have called themselves Zionists it to describe their love of Israel – despite the fact that Zionism can only be used in context with the Jewish connection to the land of our people.  Organizations in our own community that question the traditional Zionist narrative have gained legitimacy – especially with young people - some of whom are  joining forces with virulently anti-Israeli movements that support a secular, One-State solution and  BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.

While Israel still needs our political and emotional support, our dollars are becoming less important. Israel's economic fortunes continue to shine.  On a recent trip to Israel, I was amazed to realize that, for the first time in over 60 years, the Israeli economy was no-longer linked exclusively to the dollar.  It used to be a given in Israel that durable goods were all linked to US currency.  No more.    The prices of homes, cars and other large-ticket items were listed in either Shekels or Euros.  Store owners actually preferred shekels and were reluctant to accept American currency.

The Jewish state has become a major powerhouse in electronics, medical research, defense technology, agricultural innovation and the arts - to name just a few areas of success.  Many Israelis are enjoying the fruits of an economic boom that has quickly propelled them into the ranks of the Nouveau Riche.  At the same time, Israeli youth are becoming increasingly disillusioned and disenfranchised and, the eternal curse of the privileged - bored. 

Concurrent with Israel’s economic growth, we are also witnessing a rise in poverty and crime in Israel.  Not everyone has benefitted equally from Israel’s economic successes. The Gap between the wealthy and the poor is growing and the middle-class is shrinking. New immigrants, in particular, and traditional minorities are suffering.  Israel also has a massive African refugee problem as a result of tens of thousands of desperate men, women and children who have fled war, poverty and famine to find refuge in the closest democratic republic. 

Israel still faces security threats: Just two days ago, at a light-rail station in Jerusalem, a Palestinian terrorist shot and killed two Jewish Israelis and severely wounded 5 others.  This is one in a string of recent violent attacks by so-called “lone wolves” who are radicalized by incessant anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric coming from all corners of Palestinian society.  Rocket fire from Gaza, while not an everyday occurrence, still threatens the lives of those living in the south.  In the North, the tragedy of Syria has played out dangerously close to the border while Hezbollah’s rockets, tunnels and commandos continue to pose a potentially existential threat.  ISIS is threatening to creep into the West Bank and Gaza.

And, of course, issues of religious freedom are of key concern to those of us who feel betrayed by an Israeli government that places politics over pluralism.  The Ultra-Orthodox coalition partners continue to flex their muscles – threatening to uproot the fragile, far right coalition government headed by Prime Minster Netanyahu.  The corrupt Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem issues one outrageous declaration after another: now they are not only condemning Reform and Conservative Jews, but they also recently issued a ban on the acceptance of conversions by leading American Orthodox rabbis. 

The farce of the Western Wall egalitarian agreement negotiated in good faith by Natan Sharansky –head of the Jewish Agency for Israel is now in shambles. As such, it has now found its way to the Supreme Court where, hopefully, pluralism will prevail  despite the current government’s lack of strength or desire to enforce it.

In many ways, it appears that the multiple problems facing Israel seem unsolvable. 

I’m reminded of a story that I recently heard about a man named Sam who was walking on the beach. He happened to stumble upon an old tarnished lamp.  He picked it up, started to polish it and POOF, out popped a genie, just like the stories of old.
The grateful genie said to Sam "Thank you for freeing me from my prison.  As a reward, I'll grant you one wish."
Sam said to the Genie:  "I've been a life-long Cubs fan. Just like everyone else, I've hoped and I've prayed to see the Cubs make it back to the World Series. It would mean more to me than anything to see the Cubbies win."
"I'm sorry," replied the genie. "What you ask is too much. Their pitching rotation is weak, they've got a terrible ERA index, and the curse of the goat is just too strong. You must ask another request."
"Well," Sam said, "I'm a good Jew, committed, dedicated to Israel. How about peace between Israel and her neighbors?"
The genie thought about it for a moment, then answered: "Do you want the Cubs to sweep in 4 on the road or win it in Game 7 at Wrigley Field?"

Israel is not a perfect place – far from it, and yet I firmly believe that the reality of the Jewish State is one of, if not THE most important components of Jewish identity in the 21st Century. 

This morning, I want to challenge you to think about the role of Israel in our lives.  Are we still united?  Does Israel instill in you a sense of pride or is it more like fatigue?  Does the term “Zionist” resonate within your self-identity or is it a relic of another era?  These are important questions for us to address – especially on this Day of Yom Kippur. 

As you all know, we are in the midst of Sheloshim – the 30 day period of mourning – for Shimon Peres – a luminary figure in the history of the State of Israel.

Peres, to his dying day, was an optimist.  He also was the rare politician who evolved to meet the challenges of his time:

  • He came to Palestine from Poland as a young boy in 1934.  Like so many others, he and his family were refugees from the rampant anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe that would soon morph into the horrors of the Nazi Era.
  • He began his career as a protégé of David Ben Gurion.·        
  • He was a warrior – fighting with the Haganah and becoming Defense minister in the early days of the Jewish State.
  • He was a diplomat and a fundraiser – establishing important relationships with France when many other nations – including the United States – were not keen on selling desperately needed military hardware to the newly-formed state.
  • He was one of the key architects of Israel’s nuclear program.
  • Following the 6 day war, he became a strong proponent of building settlements in the Territories.
  • He vigorously and relentlessly fought against Palestinian terror and was a bitter enemy of Yassir Arafat.
  • But, later in his career, when he saw the necessity to make peace, he made sacrifices and forged difficult paths to address the realities he saw on the ground.  His passion for dialogue with his enemies paved the way for the Oslo accords.
  • He eventually stood with his sworn enemy, Arafat and political rival, Yitzchak Rabin on a platform in Oslo when they all received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
  • He understood that the Status Quo could not stand.
  • He took risks and as a result was vilified by many.
  • He rose through the ranks of Israeli politics and became both Prime Minister and President of the Jewish State – although it was not until the last years of his life that he achieved the status of a beloved elder.
  • Many Israelis on the right felt betrayed by his willingness to negotiate peace and those on the left remember his hawkish dedication to the settler movement – a stance he reversed when he realized that it was only through compromise and sacrifice that true peace could be attained.
  • At the end of his career – he assumed a new role – that of an exemplar of bravery and statesmanship.
  • He was the last of his era – a man who fled persecution in Poland, made Aliya and whose entire life and career revolved around the formation, preservation and evolution of the Jewish State.
  • He came to Palestine when the idea of Israel was just a dream.
  • He died at the age of 93 having helped to make that dream – his dream – OUR dream - a reality.

In discussing Peres’ legacy, my dear friend, Eddie Goldfine, who lives in Tel Aviv, recently shared a thought with me.  He said:  “You know, Joe, Peres is as much a product of Israel as Israel is a product of Peres.”

I thought about that statement for a while, and then I realized how true it was.  Shimon Peres was able to accomplish so much for the Jewish State because of what it gave to him: a home, security, meaning and purpose.  In turn, he repaid his adopted homeland with his vision, passion and many talents. And it was at that point that I realized that I could broaden Eddie’s statement: 

“The Jewish community is as much a product of the State of Israel as the State of Israel is a product of the Jewish community.”

Think about that for a moment:  If we only think about our relationship with Israel in terms of how it impacts us, then Israel is merely another country to visit, sightsee, take pictures and come home with a few souvenirs.

But if the idea and the ideal of a Jewish State – a Jewish homeland – a sanctuary and a wellspring of spiritual, historical and intellectual connectivity speaks to us, then we have no choice but to admit to and embrace the compelling and vital links that exist between our community and our sisters and brothers in Israel.

As you know, I feel very strongly about these issues.  My convictions are deep because I am a Zionist.  I have always been a Zionist.   Israel is central to my understanding of who I am - as a Jew and as a human being.   And I also believe that most of you here this morning are Zionists as well.

If you have ever been grieved by the verbal and physical assaults on Israel by her enemies - you are a Zionist. 

If you have ever sung Hatikvah in a room filled with other Jews and felt shivers run up and down your spine, you are a Zionist.

If you feel a kinship and a solidarity with Jews around the world - you are a Zionist.

If you see the plight of the Jews of France and other countries where anti-semitism is increasingly becoming a nightmarish reality, and you give thanks for the fact that they have a homeland that is prepared and willing to take them it en-masse, you are a Zionist.

If you ever felt pride in the achievements of Israeli Industry, Agriculture or the arts, you are a Zionist.

If you have ever experienced the beauty of walking in the streets of Jerusalem on a Shabbat or Yom Kippur afternoon - you are, and will always be - a Zionist.

We are all Zionists because despite her flaws, the State of Israel is central to our historical and spiritual birthright.  Throughout our history, the land of Israel has been inexorably linked to our self-understanding.  When we pray, we face Jerusalem.  During Passover, and at the end of our prayers this evening we will pray: "L'Shanah Ha-Ba-ah B'yerushalayim - Next year in Jerusalem."  In our prayer books, in our poetry and music, in every age, Jews have been spiritually and physically connected to this land.  Zionism is a movement that is the natural outgrowth of that connectedness.

To be a Zionist is not to state that we agree with every policy of the current Israeli Government.  We have a right – indeed a responsibility to raise our voices when we see issues of concern.  But when we do raise our voices – it must be out of love – based on our historical and spiritual connection to Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael – the land and people of Israel.

My friends, on this Yom Kippur morning I am asking you to exercise your rights and responsibilities as Jews to learn as much as you can and get involved in strengthening your relationship with Israel.  In March. I will be attending the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC.  Join me. 

Travel to Israel.  This August, Cantor Sacks, Sue and I will be leading a family b’nai mitzvah trip.  Join us if you are in this demographic. Read books, take classes, learn as much as you can.  If you are a student on a college campus, or if you have a child who is a college student, find resources to combat the increasing anti-Israel activities that, unfortunately have become commonplace.  Connect with Hillel, call us here at Temple – you are not alone!

On this Yom Kippur, I ask that you join with me in renewing your commitment to Israel – not by withholding criticism, but rather by celebrating the fact that we live in a time and a place where we are able to see a vibrant Democracy emerging on the land of our ancestors.  May the year 5777 bring with it hopes for Peace for the State of Israel and her neighbors.  May we, as well continue to strengthen our relationship with the land and people of Israel.

Ken Yehi Ratzon. AMEN

Monday, October 3, 2016

Let the Old Be Renewed and the New Be Made Holy - Erev Rosh HaShanah, 5777

L’shanah Tovah – it’s very good to see you here tonight! Welcome Home!
As I look out at the sea of familiar faces it feels like nothing has changed since last we all came together to greet another year. And yet, of course we all have changed – as much as we’d like to think that we haven’t.
This point was recently driven home to me at the Cherry Creek Mall. It’s not often that one has an epiphany at a shopping mall – but I did. A while ago, I found an old pair of pants in my closet -- my favorite jeans. You know the ones I’m taking about: they fit perfectly. They’re broken in -  in all the right places. They’re forgiving and comfortable.  I slipped them on, and, to my great chagrin – I couldn’t button them. Now it’s true that I hadn’t worn them in a few months -   but I had no idea how this could have happened:  maybe I washed them in hot water….. Anyway, as a result, I found myself at a large department store looking for a new pair.
It’s been a while since I’ve bought a pair of jeans. The salesman asked me what kind I wanted.
“Blue,” I said.
He smiled -  patronizingly - and asked, “Do you want traditional fit? Relaxed fit? Skinny fit? Slim, tall, retro?
Do you want Blue, washed blue, broken in blue, light wash blue, dark rinse blue……”
“I just want a pair of jeans,” I said.
He must have seen the pleading and glazed look in my eyes because he nodded his head, sized me up and said: “‘Relaxed Fit’.”
I told him my size and he found them and sent me off into a dressing room loaded down with several pairs of what my dad used to call “dungarees”. I slipped them on and, strangely, they were all too big. I called the salesman over and he said, “Hmmmm – try these.” And he handed me a pair of pants that were three sizes smaller than I had originally asked for. Now you need to understand, the last time I wore pants that size, I was in college and disco was cool. I told him that there was no way that they would fit. “Try them on anyway,” he said. And so I took that pair of ‘relaxed fit boot cuts’ and tried them on. They fit like a glove! It was amazing! I was 20 years old again! I was back in college. Man did I feel good!!!!
I bought 2 pairs….
“Those 2 days at the gym last month must have done the trick,” I thought to myself. “Maybe it was the salad I had for lunch…”
I came home, went into my bedroom and prepared to celebrate my newfound svelteness by purging my closet of all of my old pants.  But, just to be on the safe side, I slipped on a pair of slacks. You guessed it – not only were they not were too big…as a matter of fact – they were a bit snug.
It was then that I realized that “relaxed fit” was a code word for “three sizes too big”.
Today’s marketing wizards understand exactly how to motivate us – simply tell us what we want to hear:
They help us to see ourselves in the way that we want to be seen – the way that we used to be.
They provide us with the  momentary fantasy: that nothing has changed since we were young;
That’s the way to sell an awful lot of dungarees.
Truth be told, it’s not only sales people who try to paint a rosy picture of the present – we all do to some degree. We want to see ourselves like we do in the dressing room of a clothing store: reflected in the best light – unchanged, eternally young. We spend billions of dollars on cosmetics, clothing, and other gizmos and gadgets that are designed to slow the aging process and help us hold on to the fantasy of our seemingly better, youthful selves.
The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is reputed to have said that “the only thing that is constant in life is change.”  This is sometimes hard to accept, but it is the most basic truth that we know.
I recently read an article  about a group of Harvard University researchers who set out to find how people perceive change in their lives.  They asked a series of questions to different age groupings:  people in their 20’s, 30’s 40’s 50’s and 60’s.  They asked two basic questions:  the first was:  “how much have you changed over the past 10 years?”  The second question was:  “How much do you think you will change in the next 10 years.”

Their findings were fascinating.  In terms of how we tend to perceive change that has already happened, it is clear that the younger we are, the more we see the difference in the present from the past.  As we age, however, our perception of how we have changed decreases.  And this makes perfect sense. During our formative years – from adolescence through young adulthood – we are constantly experiencing new things:  leaving our families, going to school, starting new careers, beginning families… life is a constant state of flux.  But as we get older, for most of us, we get more set in our ways and the changes that were a constant in past decades become fewer and fewer.

The interesting aspect of the study for me was the fact that, even though we are pretty good at identifying the ways that we have changed in the past, most of us refuse to acknowledge the fact that we are constantly changing and that we will be changing in the future.  The study showed that, across the board, regardless of age, the fact that people had changed in the past had little if any bearing on their feeling that they might have more changes in store for them in the future.
But it’s not only in the arena of aging that we want to slow down, ignore or even reverse the effect of change – it’s endemic to almost every aspect of our lives. Tonight is Rosh Ha Shanah. Tonight we engage in the ancient and essential process of reflecting on the past year. Tonight, we have no choice but to see ourselves as we really are – not as we’d like to be seen – not in the words of the salespeople who flatter us – but as God sees us – stripped of the distractions and diversions that we create in everyday life. Tonight we come here to acknowledge the fact that, whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, we are changing – sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse – but we can no more stop the changes in our lives that we can stop the clock from ticking.

As we enter into a New Year, it is time to recognize that our congregation has changed over the past six years. Look at some key elements of our staff team:  Steve Stark has done an excellent job in his first year as our Executive director. We have a wonderful new Senior Cantor in Cantor Sacks.  Steve Brodsky is now our full-time Cantorial Soloist and Music Director, the wonderful and charismatic Zach Rolf is our new Director of Learning and Engagement – and that is just the tip of the iceberg – there are a myriad of changes in both staffing and program. Things look and feel different at Temple.

And, of course, we have seen and will see this displayed quite graphically in our High holyday services this year as we introduce our new Machzor - or High Holyday Prayerbook, Mishkan HaNefesh.  Over the past several months, all of us on the Clergy team have written, taught and spoken extensively about this new book.  We are excited about everything from the page layout, the non-gender specific God language, the transliteration of the Hebrew text and the interpretive poems, prayers and essays it contains.  Our new Machzor will, hopefully provide opportunities for everyone to engage, not only with the book itself, but also with the vitally important process of introspection, self-reflection, repentance and renewal that these 10 sacred days are all about.  But that is only a book.  The changes taking place at Temple are much deeper.

I know that while many of us are excited all of this newness, for some members of our community, change can be unsettling.  Traditions run deep here at Temple Emanuel.  This is my 7th year as your Senior Rabbi. I understand the importance of tradition – especially around the High Holydays. For example, by now I know who will be sitting in which rows in this sacred space – without even raising my eyes.  While we don’t have reserved seats, certain families have claimed the same spots for generations.  I also know who will fall asleep during my sermon.  I know who will be checking their watch to see how long I will speak. I know who likes the guitar.  I know who doesn’t.  I know who loves hearing the organ and the choir.  I know who would prefer NOT to hear the organ and the choir…..
I’m also keenly aware of the fact that, for many of us, there are empty seats in this sanctuary – seats that, just yesterday were filled by loved ones who were taken from us this past year; and we feel their loss especially keenly during this time of tradition and coming together.

There are those who want Temple to remain exactly the way it has always been – and there are those who want to see radical change overnight.  4 years ago, when we introduced Rosh HaShanah Unplugged and then Shema Koleynu a year later on Yom Kippur, some people felt left out:  This didn’t seem like their Temple Emanuel! Others asked the question:  What took you so long?

If we look at the numbers of attendees at our traditional High Holyday services, we can see that things are radically different now than they used to be.  Our early Erev Rosh Hashanah service used to be packed.  Not anymore.  Many of our members have elected to stay home with family and friends tonight – especially during the traditional service time.  Tastes and traditions are constantly in flux.

We have many new members at Temple Emanuel.  Our Religious School and Early Childhood Center are bursting at the seams.  This year, we will celebrate about 40 young people who are becoming bar or bat mitzvah.  Next year, that number will be close to 50. The year after that we will exceed 60. And that is great news. Our Early Childhood Center is bursting at the seams and many classrooms have waiting lists. We must be doing something right!  If we look at how, across the country, synagogue affiliation and participation is declining, we can be justifiably proud. But, at the same time, we still face many challenges ahead.  Documented research and anecdotal evidence about affiliation and engagement patterns in our community and around the country point out the unpleasant reality that, for many Jewish households – especially younger Jewish households – the role of the synagogue is rapidly changing. As I have repeatedly said from this pulpit, the traditional expectation of “Synagogue Membership” as we once knew it is no longer a given.  If synagogues are to remain relevant in the 21st Century, we must look at new forms and definitions of engagement and involvement.

Similarly, our membership looks different today than it did 20 or even 10 years ago.  We have many more interfaith households whom we welcome with open arms.  The number of single members in our community is growing.  Same-sex families and transgendered people increasingly see Temple as a safe and welcoming place to worship and celebrate being Jewish.  In addition to the many young families who are filling the classrooms in our Early Childhood Center and Religious School, we are seeing an increase in retirees who are coming to us looking for meaningful ways to become involved – and who want to be part of a caring community.
The Jewish world is rapidly changing.

I once heard it said that there are 3 ways to deal with change:
We can make things happen;
We can watch things happen;
or we can sit back and ask the question: “what happened?”
Our task – that of each of us who cares about this holy congregation: the clergy and staff, the leadership and all of our members – is to forge a partnership that will not only make things happen –but will create a dynamic environment where change and growth will be managed in a healthy way – where we will create an environment where our change is transformative – not additive; where we can celebrate our strengths and rejoice in the possibilities that lie before us.

Over the course of the past year, as we planned about how we would introduce our new Machzor at these high Holydays, our team of lay and professional leadership thought long and hard about the best way to introduce change.  A key principle of our process can in found in the words of the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook who taught:
Ha Yashan Yitchadeysh V’HaChadash Titkadeysh
Let the Old be Renewed and the New be made Holy.
In other words, if all that we did to introduce change here at Temple was to discard the past, we would never succeed – we would have forsaken the beauty and power of our tradition.  But at the same time, we owe it to ourselves and our future to take measured risks: to explore new dimensions of program, of community building, of listening closely to the hopes, dreams and fears of our membership and crafting new modalities of engagement in our sacred community.
There will be change – but there also will be constants that will only grow stronger.

Make no mistake about it; we at Temple will continue to educate our children and adults about the sacred dimensions of our heritage. Shwayder Camp will continue to inspire our youth and create a magical experience of Jewish living every summer. We will worship together and celebrate holydays, festivals and important milestones.  We will continue to be a center of new and dynamic Jewish music for all.

We also will be there in times of difficulty:  providing comfort, consolation and community when we need it most.  We will continue to heed the prophetic call for justice and be a voice of conscience wherever and whenever it is needed.  We will reach out to feed the hungry and house the homeless.  We will educate and motivate our membership about key issues that face us.
On Erev Yom Kippur, at our Kol Nidre service, I will be introducing a new initiative for Temple called Family Promise that will enable our members to get directly involved in addressing the problem of homelessness in Denver.  I’m very excited about this hands-on opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people who need our help. Stay tuned

My dear friends, we are a dynamic, growing congregation that is facing a tremendous amount of change. Change isn’t always easy -- but it is very exciting. No matter what we do – change will come. How we deal with it will impact who we are becoming. As we grow; as we work together to continue to create the holy community that is Temple Emanuel I ask that you join with me, our incredible staff team and our dedicated and hardworking leadership as we embrace all that is to come while celebrating all that we have been and that we are now.
Ha Yashan Yitchadeysh V’HaChadash Titkadeysh
Let the Old be Renewed and the New be made Holy.
As we anticipate the growth and the changes that are taking place around us, let us look back on the visionary leadership and the strong foundation upon which our congregation was built 141 years ago. Let us continue to be the caring and creative community of learners who are dedicated to Torah, spiritual growth and Tikkun Olam.
Ha Yashan Yitchadeysh V’HaChadash Titkadeysh
Let the Old be Renewed and the New be made Holy.
At the same time, let us move forward in our quest to grow with courage and commitment to the ideals of our faith and promise of the future.
May the coming year, 5777, be a year of growth and renewal. May we look ahead with confidence and have the faith to celebrate our past. May God continue to bless us with the light of Torah and the promise of peace.
L’Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu – May we all be inscribed for blessing in the New Year.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Four Weeks of Elul 5776- Week Four: Our Physical Selves

Sue and I have two exercise machines in our basement – an elliptical and a treadmill.  When we bought them 3 years ago, we were determined that we would use them at least 4-5 times a week.  We figured it would be easy to just roll out of bed in the morning, put on our workout clothes and get in some exercise before the day started.
During the first few weeks we were very successful.  We had our routine: we even recorded TV shows on our DVR that we could watch as we shvitzed.  However, as the days and weeks went by, 4-5 times a week morphed into 2-3 times, then once a week, then….maybe one time a month…and soon, we avoided the basement altogether because our exercise equipment became a reminder of what we had hoped to accomplish, but couldn’t always get around to completing.
There have been fits and spurts when we have gotten back into the routine of exercise – especially after vacations and holidays when we looked at our excesses in the bathroom mirror and realized that we needed to take drastic measures .  Sue upped her game in anticipation of her High School Reunion this summer and this past week I started again: three days in a row on the Elliptical machine is a powerful way to lead into Rosh Hashanah.  I don’t know if I will be able to keep going long term, but I’m feeling good for now.

Truth be told, our failures in the past should not be seen as an excuse for not trying to improve ourselves in the present.  It is never too late to start healthy habits.  During the past 3 weeks we have focused on our spiritual selves, our relationships, and our responsibility to community. This week, I want us to be very much aware of our physical selves. If we do not take care of our health, then we cannot perform Tikkun Olam - the repairing of our world. Our bodies are holy.  The Torah teaches that we are created B’tzelem Elohim - in the image of God. In this light, taking care of our bodies is a sacred task.  As such – I offer the following questions:

  1. Have I taken care of my body through diet and exercise?
  2. Have I prepared medical directives that are clear and unambiguous stating my desires for illness and end-of-life issues?
  3. Have I done all that I could to comfort those around me who are affected by illness – have I performed the mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim – visiting the sick?
  4. Have I truly appreciated and taken advantage of the beauty of the mountains that surround me?
  5. How much stress is in my life?  Is it affecting my daily activities?
  6. What bad habits have I cultivated that I need to change?
  7. What positive habits should I trying to incorporate into my daily routine? 

Again, these questions are in no way complete.  If answering any of them causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbi Immerman, Cantor Sacks and I would welcome the opportunity.  Note that all of these materials will also be available in hard copy at the Temple Office. If you know of anyone else who might want to receive these mailings – whether or not they are members of the congregation, contact the Temple and we will send them to you.

L’shanah Tovah U’metukah – May you have a good and sweet new year,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

P.S. If you have not yet seen our Congregation’s High Holiday Video, R.E.P.E.N.T., here’s a link for you to watch and share:

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Our New Temple Emanuel Video: "R.E.P.E.N.T."

Once again, our incredible Temple Emanuel Staff Team has come together to bring you our semi(?)-annual greeting in advance of Rosh HaShanah.  With apologies to Otis Redding - who wrote the original, and Aretha Franklin - who made it a classic, we bring you R.E.P.E.N.T.

If you like what you see, share it with others.  Paste this link on your Social Media pages:

CLICK HERE to view Temple Emanuel's 5777 High Holy Day Video - R.E.P.E.N.T

Published on Sep 2, 2016
The Staff at Temple Emanuel - Denver, CO want to wish you a Shanah Tovah U'metukah - a good and sweet New Year. For more information about High Holy Days at Temple Emanuel, go to 

(Based on “Respect” by Otis Redding)
New words by Rabbi Joe Black
Temple Emanuel, Denver,CO

What’ll you do to greet the New Year?
We’re all getting ready to see you hear.
The Shofar calls us - it’s time to Repent (Just a little bit)

Oh those prayers….They come from our hearts.
If you’ve made some mistakes you can get a new start
Our hearts are open and our prayers sincere
It’s time to Repent (just a little bit)

People are coming, like you and me
With our new prayer books in our sanctuary
Rosh HaShanah Unplugged and Shema Koleynu
L’shanah Tovah from Shwayder too
It’s time to Repent (Just a little bit)

Apples and honey, for a sweet New Year
We all can’t wait, to welcome you here
The old year’s quickly, coming to a close
What the New Year will bring - nobody knows
It’s time to Repent (Just a little bit)
R.E.P.E.N.T. I’ll pray for you if you pray for me.
R.E .P.E.N.T. – From the 720 and the 303

Shanah Tovah – 8x

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Four Weeks of Elul 5776 Week Three: Personal and Professional Relationships

Dear Friends,
In the beginning of the Book of Genesis 2:18, God states, “It is not good for Humans to be alone.”  This profound statement teaches us the importance of relationships.  Each of us is involved in many different kinds of relationships – from families and loved ones, to work associates, to acquaintances we see only occasionally.  Our tradition teaches that every person with whom we come in contact reminds us of the fact that all humanity is created in the image of God.  As such, all of our interactions with others – from the most intimate to the merely mundane – contain the potential for holiness.  If we approach them from this perspective, maintaining healthy relationships takes on a sacred dimension.

Our tradition teaches that on Yom Kippur the sins we have committed against God will be forgiven if we are truly repentant. The sins we commit against others, however, cannot be forgiven unless and until we have asked those whom we have wronged to forgive us.   In many ways, this is one of the most difficult aspects of Cheshbon Ha-nefesh – taking an inventory/accounting of our souls.  It means that we have to take risks by reaching out to others.  We may encounter resistance, anger, or resentment.  Sometimes it is impossible to reach out to others – and yet, it is our duty to do all that we can to assess whether or not reconciliation is possible.  If there is even the slightest hope then we need to try - even if we fail.

The following questions are designed to make us think about the current status of the many different relationships in our lives.   Again, this is by no means a complete list.  Hopefully it will provide you with a starting point for improving the relationships in your lives.
1.      Have I taken part in any business or personal transactions this past year that were against my religious, moral or ethical principles?
2.      Have I ignored or been impatient with those I love the most?
3.      Are there people I have wronged that I need to ask to forgive me?
4.      Will I be able to forgive those who come to me to ask for my forgiveness?
5.      Have I taken time recently to let the most important people in my life know how much I care about them?
6.      Have I done all that I could to repair damaged relationships in my life?
7.      How have my actions towards others influenced their opinions of me?

Again, these questions are in no way complete.  If answering any of them causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbi Immerman, Cantor Sacks and I would welcome the opportunity.  Note that all of these materials will also be available in hard copy at the Temple Office. If you know of anyone else who might want to receive these mailings – whether or not they are members of the congregation, contact the Temple and we will send them to you.
L’shanah Tovah U’metukah – May you have a good and sweet new year,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Invocation for Colorado Remembers 9/11

I was asked to deliver one of the opening prayers for Colorado's commemoration of September 11, 2001.  Here is my text:

September 11, 2016
Rabbi Joseph R. Black – Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO.

Our God and God of all people:
God of the Rich and God of the Poor
God of the Progressive and God of the Conservative
God of the Immigrant and God of the Children of immigrants
God of the Muslim, the Christian, the Jew, the Hindu, the Sikh – God of every faith, race and nation.
God of those who have no God.
We have come together on this sacred occasion to remember, to commemorate and to show strength as one community – united in both grief and resilience – to raise our voices in prayer and humility and to state that we will never allow those who would use fear and violence as a weapon to divide us.
We need to come together, O God.  These are troubling times.
Our unity gives us strength,
Our strength is reflected in our determination
And our Determination brings us together  - united as one great State of Colorado;
One Nation under God – indivisible
One Human family created in Your image.
Today we remember those who perished in the fires of hatred and those who died extinguishing those fires  - in selfless acts of courage and commitment.
15 years ago – on September 11th 2001 – our nation witnessed a horror and received a blow that changed us forever.  Over 3,000 precious souls were wiped out in an instant – victims of baseless hatred and evil. While most our wounds have mended, the memory of those who perished and the implication of their deaths remain as a scar that will always be a part of us.
Today we pray for continued healing – of body and soul.
Today we proclaim our strength.
Today we come to give thanks for the power and beauty of community.
Bless this gathering.
Bless our leaders – and those who serve:  soldiers, first responders,  peacekeepers, fire fighters and police officers
Bless us all – as we remember and pray for a better world – a world of peace.

And let us say, AMEN