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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Four Weeks of Elul 5774 – Week One


 
The Four Weeks of Elul 5774 – Week One

My Dear Friends,

Today, August 26, 2014, marks the eve (Rosh Chodesh) of 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. We need to 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). This is the time when our tradition teaches that we need to 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. It has become my custom, during the month of Elul to send 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: Spiritual, Physical, Interpersonal and Communal. 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.

This has been a difficult summer. We have watched as Israel has been attacked – on the battlefield and in the cities and towns where missiles fall indiscriminately on innocent civilians. Israel has faced crises before. But somehow this time feels different. It is not only the Jewish State that is facing attacks, but Jews all over the world are being singled out for violence and demonization in the media, online and in the streets of our cities. As we approach the Yamim Noraim our process of Cheshbon takes on new significance as we struggle to understand our Jewish selves in light of the rising tide of Anti-Semitism that has poisoned the waters of rational discourse and contemplation.

It seems as though everywhere we look the world is in a tailspin. From the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, to the riots on the streets of Ferguson, MO; from the outbreaks of Ebola in Africa to the aggressive invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops – international paradigms are shifting and standards of behavior are in a constant flux.

Our task, as we enter into this sacred time, is to try to make sense of what we are experiencing and, if we can’t do this, than at least to reconnect with our own values. This is not easy – and, truth be told, it’s not supposed to be.

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, canto 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 blogs and linked to both our 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: Spiritual Selves

As we enter the month of Elul, we must examine our spiritual lives. Spirituality 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 that we are part of a Divine Plan. The liturgy of the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – is filled with the language of God’s judgment. Rather than perceive this is a negative or punitive light, try to imagine that we are being judged for the way that we fulfill the spiritual potential that God has given us.

This week's questions deal with our Spiritual Selves. 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.

QUESTIONS – WEEK ONE – SPIRITUAL SELVES

  1. Has my faith been shaken by the painful news of world tragedies we all have experienced over the past few weeks.
  2. When/where was the last time I felt close to God?
  3. Have I been able to catch glimpses of the Divine in the faces of those whom I love?
  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. If I were put in the position of explaining my beliefs to others, would I feel comfortable in doing so?

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

L’Shanah Tovah,
Rabbi Joe Black

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Summer to build Your Life On - August 15, 2014


Five years ago, when I first applied for the position of Sr. Rabbi at Temple Emanuel and was invited to come for a visit, I remember looking at the Shwayder Camp plaque in the hallway and seeing the words: 
“ A Summer to Build Your Life On…”

 I thought to myself—hmmmm, that sentence is grammatically incorrect!  It should say, “A Summer on which to Build Your Life.” 

But sentence-ending prepositions notwithstanding, that slogan will not be changing any time in the near future because Shwayder Camp values its traditions and legacies.  And I can live with that.  As a matter of fact, I can do more than live with it – I celebrate not only the grammatically incorrect slogan, but also its truth.

Shwayder camp is place where lives are built, friendships are made, God is found – in the music, the mountains, the moments of prayer and the many traditions and cherished spaces that have forged so many incredible memories over the past 65 years.

Yes, lives are built during Shwayder Summers.  Character is strengthened and Judaism and Jewish life are brought to new heights – not only because of the close proximity of the heavens at 10,200 feet, but because of that “Shwayder Magic” that is infused through ever experience and memory that thousands of campers have been blessed to receive.

Shwayder Camp is also a place where we teach our children to strengthen their relationship to Judaism and the State of Israel.  In a time when Israel is being attacked – physically, economically and existentially -- we desperately need places where we can expose our Jewish children to Israeli counselors and campers as well as providing them with multiple opportunities to learn to love and celebrate the Jewish State.

Temple Emanuel is uniquely blessed by this bequest of the estate of Maurice B. Shwayder.  Every summer, we are entrusted with the precious souls of our campers, SIT’s, senior staff and everyone and anyone who survives the drive up the camp road and enters into our sacred space in the mountains.  We do not take that responsibility lightly.  We should never take Shwayder for granted.  There are only 3 other congregations in the country that have their own summer camps.  The legacy of the past 65 summers truly sets Temple Emanuel apart.  Tonight we begin our anniversary celebration but the work of strengthening Shwayder will continue long after this weekend is concluded – through the support of everyone here, through the dedication of our Shwayder staff, the parents who send their children to camp and the donors to our Shwayder Capital Campaign who will make it possible for future generations to experience Shwayder magic. 

Tonight we will try to capture and encapsulate the love that Shwayder has generated.  At the end of our service, we should feel a profound sense of gratitude and amazement that we have been privileged to have a place to build our lives on……

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

I Want to Close My eyes and Cover My Ears..........

I’ve been thinking a lot about covering my ears and eyes lately – and I know I’m not alone.  It seems like every time I see, hear or read about Israel, I hold my breath.  The tragic death of hundreds of Palestinian women and children, the destruction of countless homes and infrastructure, the misery in the streets of Gaza is horrific.  At the same time, the anti-Semitic vitriol being spewed in the media and on the streets of cities around the world and close to home is paralyzing.  I read of Hamas’ use of civilians as human shields.  I see pictures of the tunnels leading from Gaza to the dining Halls of Israeli Kibbutzim.  I hear reports from friends and colleagues in Israel about terrorized children fleeing to bomb shelters and safe rooms as rockets land in their neighborhoods.  I gaze at the photographs of anguished parents who have to bury children who sacrificed their lives wearing the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces and I want to turn it all off.

But I can't.

This war has spilled beyond the physical boundaries of the Middle East.  There is no escaping the conflict – it is all consuming.   The Medieval Hebrew poet, Yehudah Ha-Levi wrote:  "My heart is in the East, and I am in the uttermost corner of the West."  His words reflect the ancient pain and longing of Jews to return to the land of Zion.  Today, although the physical distances separating the Diaspora community have not changed from the time of Ha-Levi, the reality of instant communication has brought destruction and devastation into our living rooms and computer screens. Our lives are not in danger like our brothers and sisters in Israel, but we feel the conflict, nonetheless.  We cannot escape it.  So instead of turning away, I find myself on social media platforms sharing articles from all sides of the political landscape.  As a result, my Facebook page and Twitter feed are filled with angry accusations that I am (at one and the same time) a callous enabler of the death of women and children and a disloyal Jew whose rabbinic and Zionist credentials are called into question. 

Let’s face it – defending Israel’s actions is not always easy.  In the face of the exponential death toll unfolding in Gaza, any attempts to place the blame where it belongs – on Hamas’ goal of racking up casualties to engender sympathy around the world –  can sound hollow and callous to those who do not understand the true picture.  Israel has no choice but to eliminate the sources of rocket fire and the terrorists bent on violence.  As horrific as the term “collateral damage” sounds (and is), it is a reality of modern warfare. Hamas knows this very well and they understand that every civilian death is more powerful than any missile they launch or tunnel they dig.

Our tradition teaches that the pursuit of peace is one of the most important mitzvot that we can perform.  And yet, there are times when war is a necessary evil.  The rabbinic concepts of Milchemet Mitzvah (a war which one fights after being attacked) and Rodeyf (the obligation to prevent an enemy from killing you by attacking him/her first) provide a clear justification for Israel’s engagement with her enemies.

For those who do not understand the history behind this war, Israel is easily portrayed as the aggressor.  In our sound-bite world of instant information, few people who are not invested in the topic want to take the time to unpack the decades of conflict that have led up to this point in time.  They see death and destruction and the disproportionate casualty reports and they buy into the Palestinian propaganda that portrays Israel as a demonic, colonial occupier.

At the same time, there are those among us who cannot or will not acknowledge that every casualty diminishes the image of God – regardless of who is the victim.  They refuse or choose not to acknowledge the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people.  This is wrong.  As Jews, we are taught that every human life is precious for we are all created in the Image of the Divine. In the Midrash, we read of how God rebukes the angels who rejoice in the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds.  “Be quiet!  My children are drowning and you rejoice?” (Talmud Sanhedrin, 39b).  Recent reports of racist mobs attacking Arabs on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are very sobering.  While it is clear that these actions are condemned by the vast majority of Israeli citizens, they nonetheless should give us pause and force us to look at the damage that 66 years of conflict is causing to the psyche of the Jewish state.

Our task, then, is to defend Israel’s right to defend herself without losing our own humanity. If we ignore or (even worse) become immune to the tragedy unfolding in Gaza, we are like our enemies – whose leaders glorify death and suffering as a legitimate weapon of warfare.  The Jewish people know all too well the ultimate consequences of dehumanization. 

Hamas must be stopped.  Their reign of terror – on Israel and on their own people – must be ended.  But as soon as the dust has settled and this war is over, we must begin a new campaign – a campaign for a lasting and true peace.  It will not be easy to find – and it may take a new generation before it comes to fruition, but we must never stop looking for new pathways for peace.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

 

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.