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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Four Weeks of Elul 5775. Week 2 - Our Spiritual Selves

As we enter the month of Elul, we have an opportunity to examine and evaluate our spiritual lives.  That’s an easy sentence to write, but a much more difficult one to explain.  What IS spirituality?  It certainly is one of those words that mean different things to different people. For the purposes of this list of questions, I want you to focus on Spirituality as referring to those aspects of your life that help you to feel connected to something greater than yourself. We grow spiritually when we feel that our lives have meaning and purpose and we are open to the possibility of the miraculous around us.

During this time of Chesbon Ha Nefesh, one of our tasks is to examine the status of our relationship with God, Torah, and our own mortality. As always, the following questions should not be perceived as a complete listing – they are merely a beginning. If you have other questions that you think may help others in our community, I would love to receive them.  I will post them on my blog – which is linked to both Facebook and our Temple Emanuel website.


  1. What events have caused me to question my faith during the course of the past year?
  2. When/where was the last time I felt close to God (however you define God)…?
  3. Jewish tradition teaches that all of us are created in the Divine Image.  When was the last time I looked for holiness in the people that I love the most?
  4. What aspects of my personality reflect the values that I have inherited from my family? From society? From Popular culture? From my own inner holiness?
  5. When was the last time I was able to pray without any distraction?
  6. How often, during the course of the past year, have I been able to set aside my own needs for something bigger than myself?
  7. During those moments when I did feel close to God (however you define God…) this past year, was I able to hold on to those feelings and share them with others?
Again, these lists are in no way complete.  They are designed to help us as we prepare for the High Holy Days.  If any of these questions has caused to you want to speak to me or any of the other clergy at Temple Emanuel, please do not hesitate to call us at 303-388-4013.  You can also send me an email at

May you utilize these and all of your questions to help you gain a better understanding of your spiritual selves.

L’Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Four Weeks of Elul 5775 – Week One: Our communal Selves.

The Four Weeks of Elul 5775 – Week One
My Dear Friends,

Today marks the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul – the month preceding the High Holy Days. It is customary during this holy month to begin intensive personal preparations for the New Year. This process, called Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh – ‘an inventory of our souls’ – requires that each of us engage in a process of self-examination. During this sacred season we look closely at our relationships, thoughts, deeds, fears and dreams. We do this so that we can enter into the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – spiritually and personally refreshed and prepared for the process of teshuvah (repentance/returning). Our tradition teaches that the month of Elul is when ask those around us whom we have wronged to forgive us for our actions. We are also commanded to forgive those who ask us as well.

As we reflect back over the past year, it is important that we put every aspect of our lives into perspective. As in previous years, during the month of Elul I will be sending out weekly lists of seven questions (one for each day of the week) to members of our community and to all who wish to receive them. These questions are designed to help us examine our lives in all of the varied aspects and arenas in which we live: Communal, Spiritual, Physical, and Interpersonal. Hopefully, by answering these questions we will be better prepared to enter into the New Year. The purpose of these questions is not to make us feel bad or unworthy, but rather to “nudge” us into looking at these vitally important aspects of our lives. There will be seven questions in each list – one for every day of the week.

I welcome your comments and suggestions for additional questions and formats that we can use.   If answering these questions causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbi Immerman, Cantor Heit, 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.  They also will be posted on my blog and linked to both the Temple website and Facebook page. If you know of anyone else who might want to receive these mailings – whether or not they are members of the congregation, please contact the Temple office and we will be happy to send them out.

Week One: Communal Selves

The past several weeks have been filled with divisiveness – from within and without. Reactions to the nuclear deal with Iran threaten to divide us.  The specter of politics and policy becoming intertwined with communal commitment and our relationship with the State of Israel looms threateningly large on the horizon.  I am concerned that our disagreements may harm our relationships with our elected leadership, the State of Israel, and one another.  While conflicts almost always arise over complicated matters, the fact that individuals and organizations on both sides of the political divide are using the issue of support or opposition to the accords as a litmus test of loyalty is a development that we can ill afford. We owe it to ourselves to learn as much as we can about the complexities of the agreement.  Read what others are saying.  Understand that intelligent people have come to different conclusions  based on their understanding and perspective of the world around them.  We can agree to disagree – but, in the process of doing so, we must respect each individual’s own decisions.

I was in Israel last month and, while our countries are very similar, there are also important differences.  Israelis love to argue.  They do it with passion and purpose.  The halls of the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) and the coffee shops on the streets are often echoing with shouts and disagreements.  And yet, after the arguments are over, people on different sides of the ideological spectrum can sit down together and maintain close friendships.  Here in the States, disagreements all too often lead to disenfranchisement.  One of our tasks, as we approach this New Year, is to find pathways of recognition and understanding that will allow us to have differing viewpoints, but maintain our relationships and shared values.

The following are a few questions designed to help us explore our communal selves as we begin the process of Cheshbon Hanefesh:

  1. Have I taken advantage of all that my congregation and community have to offer?
  2.  Have I taken my own comfort for granted and “looked the other way” when I saw poverty or despair in my community?
  3. Have I allowed my thoughts and feelings about the Iran deal to attack those with whom I disagree?
  4. Regardless of political perspective, have I been vocal in my support of the State of Israel?
  5. When I am at synagogue, have I done all that I can to make others feel welcomed in the same way that I want to feel welcome?
  6. When asked to help support the important institutions in my community, have I given as much as I could or should?
  7. What’s the best thing I did this past year to assist my synagogue or community? 

These questions are in no way complete.  They are designed to help all of us to begin the process of looking deep within ourselves and our souls as we enter into the month of Elul.  Again, we want to hear from you. If you have thoughts, questions or comments about anything we encourage you to let us know. 

May you utilize these and all of your questions to help you gain a better understanding of your communal selves.

L’Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Note - thank you to my colleague, Rabbi Alan Litwak who pointed out that numbers' 2 and 7 were repeated in my original text.  I have changed #7 to reflect the ideas in the comment below....

Friday, July 31, 2015

Eichah (How?). A poem for the bloody aftermath of two Jewish terror attacks.

In the past few hours, news of two horrific terror attacks in Israel have emerged. In the first, a crazed haredi (ultra-orthodox) man armed with a knife charged the same Gay-pride parade that he had attacked ten years ago- a crime for which he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Just a few days after his release, he repeated his crime. Six people were gravely wounded.

The second act of terror was perpetrated in the Palestinian village of Douma.  Firebombs were thrown into the home of a Palestinian family. An 18 month old baby was murdered in cold blood while words of "revenge" were painted on the side of the home.

Eichah (How?)

How can a city just sit?
Weeping copious tears while white-clad sanitation workers diligently sweep up the rainbow blood of her children?
Four thousand years ago, another man with a knife walked these streets with his wood-bearing son.
He, too raised his fist in passion, but an angel descended to soften the blow and disable the devouring knife.
And just a stone's throw away in another village, screams and horror echo off charred walls.
There are no angels anymore.
Only passion
And hate
And solitary weeping.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Two Videos of Israeli Religious Life - One Beautiful, One Upsetting

Dear Friends,
Several people have asked that I post the video I took on Rosh Chodesh Av, 5775 at the Kotel where I was attacked by Ultra Orthodox, Haredi thugs simply because I and seveeral of my colleagues dared to pray with and and protect Nashot Ha Kotel - Women of the Wall.  If you listed carefully, you will hear one of the older men calling me a "Nazi" and "Your name should be blotted out!"
It should be noted that these disgusting people do not represent all of Judaism in Israel - far from it!  I've also posted a short video from Kabbalat Shabbat at the Jerusalem Train Station where hundred of men, women and children danced with the Israeli singing grop, Navah Tehillah.  There was a lot more holiness at the train station than at the wall......

Being Attacked by Ultra Orthodox thugs at the Western Wall
Welcoming Shabbat With Navah Tehillah at the Jerusalem Train Station

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Israel and the Iran Agreement - Separating the Personal from the Political

Dear Friends,

I write this post from a sidewalk cafe Tel Aviv - the day after our AIPAC Rabbinic Mission has ended.  Most of our group has returned to the States and I am staying a few extra days to rest,  gather my thoughts, and visit with friends and family.  I have travelled to Israel at least 20 times - it's hard to count.  I have come as a student, a tourist, a pilgrim and a group leader.  I have been in Israel for happy occasions - to celebrate weddings and births, to officiate at B'nai Mitzvah ceremonies, to teach and to perform my music.  I have lived here as a student and visited during times of war and times of peace.  Each trip has had its own unique characteristics, but  this one was different.  I was honored to be part of a select group of "progressive" rabbis from across the country - 19 in total - invited by AIPAC for high level briefings at the Knesset and with political, religious and cultural thought leaders.  During our week together, my colleagues and I were exposed to parts of Israel that I had never seen before.  We experienced great beauty and creativity as well as some very disturbing and ugly realities.  Contrary to what one might think about a trip sponsored by AIPAC, we saw multiple aspects of society - from  members of the Palestinian authority in Ramallah to the most right-wing members of Knesset.  We visited with the leaders of the Settlements, with peace activists and members of the LGBT community.  We were given high-level security briefings by the IDF and stood on the Northern borders of Lebanon and Syria as the civil wars that have ravaged both of these countries literally played out in front of us.   We travelled to a hospital in Tzfat that treats wounded men, women and children who fled from the carnage of the Syrian civil war and visited too many other places to be able to list them all in this post.

Of course, a main theme and overriding concern of our trip was the Iranian Nuclear agreement that was signed as we were en-route to Israel.  From the moment we landed at Ben Gurion Airport, the historic and potentially pivotal nature of this agreement was foremost in everyone's thoughts.  Israel, as you know, is a very diverse society.  There are multiple political perspectives that every Israeli is happy to share with anyone who will listen.  The last election took a powerful toll on the social fabric of Israeli society.   And yet, as poll after poll indicates, the majority of Israelis  - on the left and the right - feel that this agreement poses an existential threat. The specter of a Nuclear Iran is frightening.  In addition, once the sanctions are lifted and the frozen assets (conservatively estimated to be at least $100 Billion) are released few doubt that Iran will use this infusion of assets to continue to exert its influence on the region and support Hezbollah, Hamas and other enemies of Israel and other moderate Sunni States.

This having been said, we were traveling, not as Israelis, but as American Zionists.  The question of how we, as an American Jewish community, should respond to the agreement is both complex and emotional. It is clear from what I have read in the press and what many of you have individually  conveyed to me that our community is divided.  Passions are inflamed on all sides and the calls for both condemnation and support of the agreement are forceful and compelling.

We are caught in a maelstrom of conflicting perspectives that has the potential to drive a wedge - not only between Israel and American Jewry but to cause serious damage within our community itself.  Whatever our own opinions might be about the agreement, it is vitally important that we not allow our legitimate concerns to become personal.  This is about policy - not personality.  There are some  who will attempt to use fears about Israel's safety to demonize those in our government who worked hard to bring us to this point in time.  Others may accuse those who oppose the agreement of using fear tactics to manipulate us into taking an extreme position that will drive a wedge between the current administration and the Jewish people. When we attack one another, we run the risk of hurting the fabric of our community and, in doing so, damaging the vitally important relationship that we hold with Israel. Debate is essential - but so is dialogue.  We must not only share our individual views, but we also must listen to one another with respect and love.

I will conclude this post with a picture of the cafe in which I began to write this post.  As you can hopefully see, in spite of the intensity of the situation, life goes on and thrives here in Tel Aviv and throughout the country.  Israeli society has learned how to separate between political debate and personal feelings.  We can do no less.

I look forward to speaking with you this Friday night after shabbat services.  In the meantime, I intend to enjoy every last second I have in this country that I love.

Shalom from Israel!

Rabbi Joe Black

Friday, July 17, 2015

Two Videos From Israel

Friends - I'm hoping to write a new blog post about all that I am experiencing on my trip to Israel with AIPAC's  Educational Foundation.  In the meantime, here are two videos that I have recorded.

Shabbat Shalom From Jerusalem!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Shalom From Jerusalem!

Wednesday, July 15 - 5:23 PM

I write this post during a brief "hafsaka" (break) from an intensive 1st day of travel.  I am participating in a mission of American Progressive Rabbis sponsored by AIPAC's educational foundation.  There are 18 colleagues from around the United States traveling with me.  The goal of the trip is to provide us with opportunities to dialogue with political and thought leaders within Israel.
If the past 24 hours are any indication of the pace of our journey, I will be both overwhelmed and exhausted upon my return next week.  Last night, after a long flight from Newark, we arrived in Israel, checked into our hotel and began our conversations with Denver native and Jerusalem Post political corespondent, Herb Keinon speaking on the topic "What's on the Mind of Israelis?"   Of course, everyone is thinking about the Nuclear Accord reached with Iran.  The general view from all sides of the political spectrum is a sense of nervousness in regards to this issue.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has made several bold statements during the course of the last 24 hours regarding Israel's concerns and condemnation of the accord but most people view this as political positioning.  It will take some time to see how the Israeli government will react.  The hard truth is that the United States is Israel's strongest and most faithful ally.  Disappointments aside, the ties that bind us are strong and they will remain so in the future.  One of the key points that we need to focus on is that the differences between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are political - not personal.  Bibi has made it clear that he views his legacy as preventing Iran from getting the Bomb.  He feels that this accord is in direct opposition to his core values.  As such, he will fight it whenever and wherever he can.  I hope that we will not see a repeat of what happened last March when he spoke to the US congress and, in the process of doing so, endangered the vital bi-partisan nature of congressional support for Israel.

This morning, during breakfast, Dr. Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor from Bar Ilan University spoke to us about the current political situation in Israel.  Netanyahu's 61-seat coalition majority is, by all accounts fragile and ready to fall at any minute.  It is for this reason that outrageous comments about Reform Jews such as the one uttered by Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay that "Reform Jews are not Jews..." will not result in any punishment or censure.  Azoulay is a member of the Utra-Orthodox Shas party and Netanyahu cannot afford to lose even one seat.  His coalition is so fragile that even when it was disclosed that another member of the coalition is under inditement for providing prostitutes to clients at a Bulgarian casino, there was little, if any punishment of consequence.

After breakfast we travelled to the Knesset where we met with MK's from the United List (Arab),  Kulanu (Centrist) and Likud (Right) parties.  In the afternoon we travelled to the Israel Democracy Institute where we learned about new initiatives for badly needed electoral reform and current polling trends in Israeli society.  We ended our day's discussions with a fascinating and sobering dialogue with Mohamed Darawshe - an Israeli Arab who has been on the forefront of dialogue and bridge-building between the Arab and Jewish communities in Israel for a long time.  Mohamed talked to us about the sense of abandonment that most Israeli Arabs feel - not only from the current, far-right government, but also from previous administrations who have never lived up to the promise of freedom and opportunity for all of Israel's citizens that was written into the 1948 Declaration of Independence.  

Each of these intense discussions reflected the unique perspectives of the individuals and political parties with whom we were engaged.  This is a difficult time in Israel.  And yet, despite the tension, it is a joy to be able to walk the streets of Jerusalem and participate in the vibrant democracy of the Jewish State.
I look forward to sharing more details with you in the days to come.  I also will be discussing my trip after Erev Shabbat Services on July 24th at Temple.

Shalom From Jerusalem!

Rabbi Joe Black