Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Opening Prayer for the Colorado House of Representatives 1-19-17

Note:  This prayer is based on a prayer that I wrote on behalf of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council in advance of the inauguration of Donald Trump.  I want to thank my RMRC colleagues who made important suggestions and edits to the final version of that prayer.

Opening Prayer for the Colorado House of Representatives
Rabbi Joseph R. Black – Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO
January 19, 2017

Our God and the God of all people:
God of the rich and God of the poor;
God of the powerless and God of the empowered;
God of the homeless and God of the settled;
God of those who live in fear and God of those who feel secure;
God of the faithful and God of those who have no God:

This week, in Synagogues around the world, the weekly scripture reading comes from the Book of Exodus – Chapter 1:

“And a new King arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”

There are some who would posit that the linking of this particular Biblical verse with the both the Presidential inauguration and the beginning of a new legislative session is not accidental.  In many ways, it sums up the state of our nation.  In the Biblical text, the new Pharaoh who “did not know Joseph” serves as an ominous foreshadowing of the fact that everything that the Israelites took for granted in the past no longer had any meaning.  Their world was turned upside down overnight and the safety they had felt in their home had vanished.

Here in America, the reality of a new administration in Washington for some brings a renewed feeling of hope and the promise of new perspectives and policies.  For others, the rhetoric of radical change that we have experienced brings a sense of foreboding and grave concern.
How we manage to bridge our divisions will, in no small measure, determine the health and unity of our nation.

Here in Colorado, we too must acknowledge our differences  and work to forge pathways of partnership. At this time of new beginnings, let us pray for the health of our country, our great State of Colorado and all who labor on our behalf.  May these elected representatives find the courage to listen to the words of the prophet Micah, who taught us to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the God in whose image we are all created.

Bless these legislators and their staffs, the clerks, guards and everyone who works in this sacred chamber as they strive to craft legislation  based on the values of tolerance, equality and justice.  Guide them to see the humanity and the holiness implanted within all of us – regardless of race, religion, gender, economic status, country of origin, who we love or how we love. 

Grant our leaders patience, courage and humility as they navigate through the difficult waters of the process of governance. Inspire them to collaborate with one another as they act with integrity. Help them to see that we all are partners in the process of strengthening our community.  Bless us, Eternal One, as we celebrate the values of diversity and compassion.  May our nation and our state continue to serve as a beacon of hope for all who are oppressed, excluded, marginalized and persecuted.

God, as we pray for the strength and security of our great State of Colorado, we also look to You to help us find strength within ourselves.  Inspire us to heal the brokenness  in our midst.  Bless us as we bless one another.

We pray for peace:  Oseh Shalom Bimromav – May the One who makes peace on high, send peace to our state, our nation and our world.


Friday, November 25, 2016

Israel: Fires of Destruction, Fires of Hatred.

Dear Friends,
I write this from Chicago where I am celebrating Thanksgiving with my family. While it is wonderful to be with loved ones - giving thanks for the bounty with which we have been bestowed - as Shabbat approaches, my thoughts are far away.  I know that many of you have been watching with horror at the news of the wildfires that are engulfing Israel. The city of Haifa, where I spent a semester during my Junior Year in High School, has been particularly hard hit. Tens of thousands of families have been displaced as they have seen their homes and neighborhoods destroyed.
Reports that  many of these fires may have been deliberately set by arsonists makes the tragedy all the more horrific. At the same time, we are also hearing about acts of compassion and courage from within the Palestinian community who are also affected by the fires and have have opened their homes and institutions to victims - regardless of religious, ethnic or political background. 
This week's Torah portion, Chaye Sarah, speaks of how Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah as a burial place for his beloved wife, Sarah. The ancient Rabbis, in their commentary on the text, wrote how this was the first time that land was legally and publicly purchased in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) by Jews. Many of the forests and cities in the State of Israel that are currently on fire were also purchased - this time by the Chaltuzim (pioneers) of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Building on and settling the land of our ancestors has always been a priority and an important mitzvah.
News reports have highlighted how some in the Arab and Palestinian communities rejoiced at the news of the devastating fires.  At the same time, however, we are also hearing how many Arab governments  and the Palestinian Authority have come forward with offers of aid.  Nothing is simple in Israel.
On this shabbat following Thanksgiving we are all aware of the many difficult tasks that lie ahead.  At the same time that we hear news of the fires, we are also seeing reports of vicious attacks on Reform and Conservative synagogues.  Death threats have been levied against Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism, Gilad Kariv - head of the Israel Movement for Reform Judaism, and Anat Hoffman- a friend of our congregation and the head of both Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center.
Tragically, these threats did not originate from foreign entities, they come from extremist Jewish terrorist cells who have been fueled by vicious hatred and rhetoric - some of which has its origins from within the far Rightist Israeli government itself.
Fires are burning in Israel this Shabbat- fires of arson and fires of self-destructive hatred. May our prayers for peace find their way to the  source of peace.
For more information on the fires in Israel, go to the Jewish National Fund.
For more information on the attacks against the Reform Movement and its institutions, click here.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Joe Black

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Swasticas on Schools Speak Volumes in the Wake of Silence.

Friends. The above photograph is of a grade-school in The Stapleton neighborhood of Denver that was defaced with a Swastica and Nazi-era reference to the Hitler Youth.
Were this an isolated incident it would be upsetting- but easily dismissed as a sign of the ever-present need for vigilance against fringe groups that never really go away. It would have been worthy of a police report and letters from school officials who condemned this act of vandalism.
But, unfortunately, it is not unique. It is just one more example of a series of ever-increasing acts of vandalism and violence in the wake of this horribly divisive election which has emboldened and strengthened hate groups. We need to see it as a warning sign of things to come.
This is not business as usual. When Neo-Nazi groups shout "Heil Trump" in their post-election celebrations; when openly racist men are placed in positions of power; when the mouthpiece of the Alt-Right has the ear of the president elect we have no choice but to draw historical analogies.
President-Elect Trump's silence speaks louder than the jeers of the hateful.
His attempts to vilify the press and use of social media to deflect away from his actions and the controversy around his personal finances and shady business dealings while  carefully crafting a narrative of personal persecution must be amplified.
If Donald Trump is to have any hope of uniting our nation, he needs to immediately and unequivocally denounce racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric from within his soon-to-be formed government and by those who are some of his his most-fervent supporters. The words "Stop it" are not enough. He must carefully and strategically denounce hatred and renounce any ties that he or those in his inner circle possess.
I do not believe that our President-Elect is a racist. I also do not believe that those who voted for him are evil.  I am beginning to understand the frustration and fear that were catalysts for his election. But for any person of decency and awareness of history to remain silent in the face of this increasing ugliness is to be guilty of being both complacent and complicit in the undoing of the fabric of our society.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

This is the Speech That Donald Trump Needs to Deliver. Today.

Allow me to engage in a bit of fantasy.........Here is the speech that I would like to see President-Elect Trump deliver as soon as possible:
My fellow Americans. Our country is divided. The election is over. Whether you like it or not, I have been chosen to lead for the next four years. I have been given a mandate for change and my team and I plan to go full speed ahead. That is both my right and responsibility.

Change is hard. It can be exhilarating for some and difficult for others. For the past eight years President Obama has led our country. He brought his vision of change to the White House. It is now my turn. That is how Democracy works.

As difficult as it can be for some of you to accept my victory, I want to take this opportunity to let you know that, although my administration will look very different from that of President Obama, the basic values of our nation will not be altered.  The Founders of these United States envisioned a country where all people had the rights to be free and equal under God. This will not change in a Trump presidency.  As I write these words, people are marching in the streets of our nation's great cities to protest the outcome of the election. While I obviously disagree with their anger, I understand their frustration. I also support their right to peacefully and non-violently express their views. I hope that, once I formally take office in January, my administration and I  will have the opportunity to show them that we are not all that different. I, too, love America. I will not only be the president of the Republican Party- but of ALL Americans.

In addition to those expressing their angst in legitimate protest, I also am painfully aware that there are some who are choosing to show their support of my presidency by raising the ugly flags of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination. I want to state clearly and unequivocally that this is wrong. It is intolerable. It is against all that I and all that our nation stands for. No American should ever be afraid because of who they are, what they believe, who they love, how they love, where they come from or the color of their skin. I want to state - unequivocally - that I disavow and condemn in the strongest terms any groups or individuals who see my election as a mandate for the dissemination or legitimization of racist or white supremacist views or policies. Those who persist in hateful acts, speech, or terror will not be tolerated. Period. 

It is my responsibility to earn your trust. This has been a grueling and, frankly, ugly campaign. My promise to you is that, even when we disagree, I will continue to work on behalf of our nation and the entire free world. This is my task and I humbly accept it.

May God bless the United States of America.
Donald Trump- President Elect

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sermon for Lech Lecha: Our Post-Election Journey. November 11, 2016

Dear Friends, 
This has been quite a ground-breaking few weeks…..
Just a few days after the joy of watching my beloved Chicago Cubs come back from a 3-1 deficit to put the curse of the goat to rest and  win their first world series since 1908, our entire nation was stunned by another upset as the predicted winner of the 2016 presidential election – and the first woman candidate for our nation’s highest office, Hillary Clinton was defeated by the ultimate political outsider, Donald Trump.  I would hazard a guess that most of us here tonight, regardless of political affiliation, were shocked and surprised by the outcome of the election.

Last night, I participated in a panel discussion at the Iliff School of Theology that  sponsored by Iliff, The Denver Seminary, Regis University and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.  This was supposed to have been the 2nd of three events under the rubric of “Healing the Divide.”  The original purpose of these three sessions was going to be dealing with specific issues that arose from the intersection between religion, politics and the public arena.  But we made the decision to change the topic in the aftermath of the election in order to deal directly with the complex emotions around the both the victory of Donald Trump and the defeat of Hillary Clinton.  During the course of the evening, I – and the other two panelists:  Dr. Jennifer Leath of the Iliff School and Dr. Mark Young – president of the Denver Seminary  - responded to questions about how we were feeling in the aftermath of the election;  how we might explain our feelings to our children; and strategies to bring about healing to our communities.  After each of our answers, the over 150 participants in the room were given time to discuss their thoughts and feelings in groups that were designed to be a mixture of political and religious backgrounds. 

The vast majority of the politically, ethnically, racially and religiously diverse people in the room were upset, confused and worried about what the future held in these very uncertain times. None of the aforementioned catagories had any bearing on the degree of concern that we all felt. I would wager that most of us here tonight feel the same way as well.

This has been a particularly grueling and unsettling campaign.  In particular, the rhetoric of demonization and de-humanization that was the daily fare of advertisements, debates, and prognostication by political pundits took their toll on all of us.  The charges of immoral and illegal behavior that were carelessly and callously thrown about from both sides were sometimes more representative of a Jr. High School Cafeteria than the sacred striving for our nation’s highest political office and the quest to become the Leader of the Free World.

And this all took place in concert with the rise and legitimization of the “alt-right” and a terrifying resurgence of racism and anti-Semitism that I have to say was emboldened by the Trump campaign’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric – coupled with misogynistic comments caught on hidden camera by then candidate and now president-elect Trump.  We also saw leaked emails from the Clinton Campaign that were exposed by outside forces who attempted to manipulate the electorate by showing the unfiltered  ugliness of the political process and the real flaws of Candidate Clinton.

In addition, the prevalence of social media and self-selected sources of information meant that most of us heard the same tropes over and over again.  We all created our own “bubbles” inside of which we heard what we wanted to hear and tuned out what was unpleasant.

We painted two dimensional pictures of the candidate that we opposed.  In the eyes of those who supported Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton became a lying, dishonest career politician who embodied everything that was bad about Washington.  In the eyes of those who supported Clinton, Trump became an ignorant racist buffoon whose narcissistic arrogance and impulsive behavior was a recipe for disaster.

This was an election that was fed by fear, intolerance and voyeurism.  It pandered to our basest emotions and threw out all previous rules of legitimate discourse.

In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha. Abram is challenged to "go forth"  to a new place - " a land that I will show you."      Our tradition teaches that the commandment to leave every thing that they knew  was one of many tests that Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah would face throughout their lives.

As a nation, we have been cast into uncharted territory. Like Abram and Sarai, we do not know what we will encounter as we travel on our journey into the future. Each step we take brings us further away from the touchstones we thought we could count on to steady ourselves as individuals and as a nation. We are in shock – we don’t know where to turn. 

Over the past few days I have observed how some people are reacting to the election results. 

Some are seething with anger.  They are marching in the streets and screaming for justice.  They refuse to accept the will of the electorate and are lashing out at a system that they believe has failed them.

Others are expressing dismay and grief.  They see disaster looming around the corner and are preparing themselves for the worst. 

Some are gloating.  They see Trump’s victory as a vindication and an opportunity to express their darkest impulses of racism and xenophobia.

Others are conciliatory.  They seek to smooth over differences and “begin the healing process.”  They look for signs of normalcy in meetings in the White house and political pronouncements.

The truth is, none of these responses, in and of themselves, are healthy in the long term.  Anger, fear, self-congratulations and denial are all part of a continuum of response that are to be expected in a diverse population,. And yet, all of them, taken to an extreme are self-defeating.

Last night, at the panel at Iliff, one of the comments that made an impact on me came from a couple who identified themselves as physicians and social-justice missionaries.  They had spent the past 30 years travelling around the world and volunteering at disaster sights in the aftermath of earthquakes, Hurricanes, typhoons and war.  They said that one thing that they had learned during their travels was that if an infection occurs, no amount of medicine or bandaging can be effective unless and until the wound is opened and the toxins within are released.  A boil will fester if it is not lanced. 

Today we must take stock in and learn from our new reality.  Covering up our emotions and praying for healing sounds nice – but it won’t work.  Our task is to pause in order to feel our pain, our division, our fear – and then expose it to the light and the fresh air.  Only after we do this can we begin to talk about healing and finding the strength to choose our path.

Remember - healing does not mean complacency. Let us not forget that another test faced by Abraham and Sarah was when God told them about the plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorah. The fact that Abraham, unlike Noah, challenged God and passionately argued for mercy and compassion bore witness to both his character and his leadership.

Our task, as we go forth in the aftermath of a difficult and destructive  election is to speak up and make our voices heard if and when we see injustice and bigotry injected into our daily lives. Our character will be on display as we go forth into this wilderness. Will we be able to speak truth to power?  Will we be voices of conscience, compassion and consistency, or will we allow the waves of ugliness that this election has unleashed go unchecked?

As we take our first steps today, let us remember that our faith, our values and our footsteps are all intertwined.

One concrete step that we can take is to continue the dialogue on racism that we began on Yom Kippur afternoon.  We have set up our next meeting in December.  If you are interested in participating, contact Rabbi Immerman at temple.

Two days ago – the day after the election –was November 9th – the 78th anniversary of Kristalnacht – the night of broken glass.  My nephew, Rabbi Ari Hart wrote the following facebook post about my mother – his grandmother, Sophie Black.

“On this day – November 9th, 1938, my grandmother, living in Leipzig, Germany woke up to shattered glass. It was the morning after Kristallnacht, the night where Nazi sympathizers burnt synagogues, smashed windows, and let the Jewish people know once and for all they were not welcome in Germany. My grandmother’s love for Germany and German culture made the trauma of Kristallnacht and her family’s refugee flight to this country that much more painful. November 9th is seared into her being as the day her world changed forever.

Today is November 9th, 2016.

Right around now, that same grandmother, now 90 years old, is waking up. She, the first female president of her synagogue, voted for a woman to be the first female president of the US. She was hoping to shatter a different kind of glass – a glass ceiling. This morning, that glass remains unbroken.

But she, and we, are waking up to a different world. It’s not Kristallnacht. Yet, the world feels changed. For many that change feels right, like things are finally getting back on track. For many others, that change feels wrong and dark. Many are afraid, and given what’s been said over the past campaign those who are afraid have a right to be. No matter who you supported, these days, weeks and months are a time of reaching out, of listening to one another, and of affirming our most basic American values - freedom, equality, and tolerance. It’s especially a time to reach out to those who are most vulnerable in these times and stand with them, shoulder to shoulder. We all have work to do to try and piece together the pieces of our union which feel so fractured.

Ari continues:
At the end of [a] wedding, as we do at every Jewish wedding, we … shatter glass. We shatter glass at times of joy to remind ourselves that there is brokenness is in the world. If you're feeling like the world is broken today, I would challenge you to do the opposite - lift up a full glass. Make a toast to all the values you will continue to fight for no matter who is president. Remember that love is not a politician, faith is not a political party, hope is not a president. The power of these are just as real today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow. Regardless of who would have won last night, we all have so much work to do to manifest those values in our world.

Rebbe Nachman says that if you believe breaking is possible, you must believe that fixing is possible.

Leeonard Cohen died yesterday.  He taught us: There is a crack, a crack in everything that's how the light gets in.

The glass breaks, the glass is fixed, Lechaim - to life.”

My friends, as we enter into this new journey – as a nation, as a community concerned with social justice and equality, as men and women who care deeply about affirming the holiness in every one of God’s creation – regardless of ethnic or racial background; regardless of gender or sexual orientation; regardless of political proclivities – let us commit to working and journeying together – with our eyes open and our voices raised.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Lech Lecha and the 2016 Election

Waking up to election results, I'm thinking about this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha. Abram is challenged to "go forth"  to a new place - " a land that I will show you."      Our tradition teaches that the commandment to leave every thing that they knew  was one of many tests that Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah would face throughout their lives.

As a nation, we have been cast into uncharted territory. Like Abram and Sarai, we do not know what we will encounter as we travel on our journey into the future. Each step we take brings us further away from the touchstones we thought we could count on to steady ourselves as individuals and as a nation. Now is a time for grief, shock and mourning.

Today we must take stock in and learn from this brutal new reality.  We must pause in order to feel and, yes, begin to heal. Only then can we find the strength to choose our path.

But healing does not mean complacency. Let us not forget that another test faced by Abraham and Sarah was when God told them about the plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorah. The fact that Abraham, unlike Noah, challenged God and passionately argued for mercy and compassion bore witness to both his character and his leadership.

Our task, as we go forth in the aftermath of a brutal, ugly, frightening and vastly disappointing election is to speak up and make our voices heard if and when we see injustice and bigotry injected into our daily lives. Our character will be on display as we go forth into this wilderness. Will we be able to  speak truth to power?  Will we be voices of conscience, compassion and consistency, or will we allow the waves of ugliness that this election has unleashed go unchecked?

As we take our first steps today, let us remember that our faith, our values and our footsteps are all intertwined.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Day Janet Reno Came to Shabbat Dinner

When I read of Janet Reno's death yesterday morning, I was immediately transported back 15 years to a weekend in 2001 when the just-retired and embattled former Attorney General came to Albuquerque and had dinner in our home.
Ms. Reno was still feeling the backlash of the Elan Gonzales situation when a girl in our congregation who was about to celebrate becoming a bat mitzvah wrote her a note inviting her to come to the service. This girl came from a troubled family. Her mother was born in a DP camp in Europe and Gonzalez's story of being sent away from and then being reunited with family touched her. To everyone's surprise, she accepted. The important aspect of this story was not Janet Reno's attendance, but her compassion. She came without fanfare or seeking publicity, but simply because of a 13 year old girl she didn't know who reached out and needed to feel special. During the service, this young girl got very emotional. Without blinking an eye, the former Attorney General of the United States jumped up the on the Bema, walked up to her and gave her a big hug. She quietly spoke to her with kindness and compassion and showed true greatness-for no other reason than she wanted to help.
No press covered the story.
She was kind. She was Caring. She was funny.
I was honored to be her host in New Mexico. We spent time together in the car and she came to our home for a small Shabbat dinner with a few friends.
A coda to the story:  about 4 years later, I was traveling through the Denver Airport and I saw Ms. Reno in the baggage claim. I went up to her, and before I said anything, she recognized me. She said: "Rabbi Black!  How are you?  And how is _________ doing?"  She had been keeping in regular contact with this girl - checking in on her and providing ongoing counsel and support.
How many current political figures share her values today?
Zichronah Livracha- may the memory of Janet Reno be for a blessing.