Friday, September 26, 2014

The Sweet Taste of Engagement: Erev Rosh HaShanah, 5775

My Dear Friends,

L ‘Shanah Tovah! 

It’s so good to see you here tonight.  Welcome! 
I want to begin this evening by telling you one of my favorite stories.  Many of you, I am sure have heard this story before, but it bears repeating.  The story is about two people – a baker named Yankel who had a reputation that reached far and wide for his delicious challah.  The other was an impoverished tailor named Shmulik – who had a large family – but could barely keep enough food on the table.

The story begins at a Shabbat morning service.  The Rabbi gave a VERY long and VERY boring sermon (as some rabbis are wont to do….) that dealt with the intricacies of the 12 loaves of Challah that the priests were required to keep in the holy of holies in the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was a brilliant sermon – it was so brilliant that no one understood it – and Yankel the baker, along with most of the congregation was lulled into a sleepy stupor.

After the Rabbi finished his sermon and the congregation woke up, the baker went home to his wife for Shabbat lunch.  “So what did the Rabbi talk about this morning?” she asked.  Now Yankel had not been sleeping throughout the entire sermon.  He heard little bits and pieces as he drifted in and out of consciousness. “I think,” he replied, “…that God wants me to put 12 loaves of Challah into the ark.”  And so, being a pious Jew, and always doing what his Rabbi told him, the next Friday morning, he baked an additional dozen loaves, and brought them to the Synagogue in the late afternoon –just before the beginning of Shabbat.

As Yankel walked into the empty sanctuary and stood in front of the ark with his sack of Challot, he had to admit to himself that he was feeling rather foolish.  He opened the ark and prayed:  “Ribono Shel Olam – Master of the Universe, I am a simple man.  I am a pious man.  I never knew you liked challah – but if the rabbi says this is what I’m supposed to do – then I’ll do it.  I hope you like it.  Have a Gut Shabbes, God!”  Then, the baker closed the ark and went home.

Not two minutes after Yankel left the synagogue, in walked Shmulik the poor tailor.  Now this had been a particularly difficult week for Shmulik.  His wife and 13 children were hungry.  Whatever few coins he could scrabble together by sewing and mending did not begin to meet their basic needs.  He was at wits end.  Finally, in desperation, he went to the only place he could think of to find solace and comfort:  the synagogue.  He walked up to the ark and began to pray with all his heart:  “Ribono Shel Olam – Master of the Universe!  I am a good Jew.  I try my best to feed my family – but I just can’t make it anymore.  God, I’m at wit’s end.  I need Your help.  I need a sign!  Please God – help me!”  And at that moment – he bumped the curtain of the ark and -- you guessed it, out fell a loaf of Challah...  Shmulik quickly found the other 11 loaves - and with grateful prayers, he kissed the ark curtain – and ran home to his family.

The next morning, at services, Yankel was very nervous.   All night long he had wondered what would happen during the Torah service when they opened the ark.  Would his Challot still be there?  Was he a fool for thinking that the Rabbi told him to put Challah in the ark?  The moment came.  The doors open and... no challah!  It was all gone!  Not a crumb was left!  The baker was overjoyed.  “Next week – cinnamon raisin!” he said - half out loud and half to himself.

The next week – at the same time – Yankel came with a dozen freshly baked challas.  He lovingly placed them into the ark, kissed the curtain and said:  “God, I’m so glad you liked my challah.  I promise:  as long as You eat them – I’ll bake them.”
He left the synagogue and went home.
Five minutes later (you guessed it!) in walks Shmulik.  He humbly approached the ark and prayed:  “Ribono Shel Olam—Master of the Universe:  Last week – You performed a miracle for me and my family.  I took the Challahs home – I kept 2, sold 8, gave 2 to Tzeddakah and had enough to feed my family for a week.  Thank you, thank you!  But You know God – things are still tough.  Is there any chance you could perform another little miracle?”  He opened the ark: “Cinnamon Raisin – My favorite!” said the tailor.

According to the story, this went on for 20 years.  Every Friday afternoon, Yankel would bring the Challah, and just after he left the synagogue, Shmulik would come to claim it.  Until one day – the Rabbi stayed just a little bit later than usual.  And Yankel came a little bit early.  You can imagine the Rabbi’s surprise when he heard a voice coming from the sanctuary.  He peeked in and he saw the baker standing in front of the ark. 

“God, sorry about last week,” said Yankel.  “We had an accident at the Bakery.  Somebody switched the sugar and the salt.  My guess is that Your Challahs didn’t taste very good.  I promise it won’t happen again.  Have a Gut Shabbes!”

As he turned to leave, the Rabbi stepped out from behind the shadows:

“What do you think you’re doing!!??”  asked the Rabbi.

“I’m giving God Challah,” replied Yankel.

“You can’t do that!  That’s blasphemy!  God doesn’t eat Challah!”

“Well, you were the one who told me to do it!”  said the baker.

They would have gone on arguing for several more minutes, except for the fact that they were interrupted by someone else entering the synagogue.  The Rabbi and the Baker hid themselves so that they wouldn’t be seen.  Shmulik walked in.  He went up to the ark, and, before he opened the curtain he said:

“God, I don’t mean to be picky, but the Challah tasted a little funny last week…”

He reached into the ark, and started loading his sack with the 12 freshly baked loaves.

Just then Yankel jumped up and screamed:  “What are you doing with those challahs?”

“They’re mine!” said Shmulik.  “God baked them.”

“God didn’t bake those Challahs, I BAKED THEM!”  said Yankel.

And at that moment, the Baker, the Tailor and the Rabbi realized what had been happening every Friday afternoon for the past 20 years.

Now there are several endings to this story.  The first ending is that Yankel and Shmulik were so ashamed and embarrassed that they never set foot into the synagogue again.

The second ending is that the Rabbi said to Yankel:  “You thought you were baking Challah for God.”  And then the Rabbi said to Shmulik:  “You thought God was baking challah for YOU.”  Now your task is to give it directly to each other.

Normally, when I tell this story, I use the second ending.  It’s nice.  It’s cute – it works for small children.  But the truth is that the first ending – when both Yankel and Shmulik never set foot in the synagogue again - is much more realistic than the second.  It doesn’t take much for people to find a reason to leave a synagogue….and Yankel and Shmulik had a pretty good reason to stay far away.  AS a matter of fact, the percentage of Jews who are affiliated with a Congregation is rapidly decreasing.

If we look at national trends there must be plenty of powerful reasons that people are staying away from synagogues.   Here at Temple Emanuel, we have been very fortunate.  Instead of getting smaller, our numbers are staying steady – and, we’re even growing a little bit – and we should feel good about that.  Our religious school is overflowing and last summer we sent over 40 students to Israel on IST.  But I have no illusions that, just because our demographics are bucking national trends, we can rest on our laurels and keep things as they are.  If we are to remain vibrant as a congregation we need to commit ourselves to finding new and engaging ways to ensure that we are not allowing ourselves to become complacent.    

Secondly, numbers aren’t everything – especially when it comes to worship. Think about it - we have approximately 2,000 households in our database – that’s about 6,000 individual members.  And yet, on any given Friday night, we rarely fill our small chapel.  It’s very clear that our current worship offerings are either not compelling or not important to most of our members.  Even on the High holidays, our numbers are dwindling – with some notable exceptions:  Our services at Shwayder Camp on 1st and 2nd day Rosh HaShanah are overflowing.  We had to close reservations due to space concerns on both days.  Similarly, we have made the decision to hold our Rosh HaShanah Unplugged and Shema Koleynu services in the sanctuary because we could not accommodate everyone who wanted to attend those services in the social hall.  Why are these prayer experiences growing and others are not?  I believe it is because they break new ground and provide an entrée into the sacred and somewhat scary world of connection that traditional Reform Shabbat services do not offer to many members of our congregation.  Of course, to some members of our congregation - these services are very powerful and beautiful.

It wasn't always this way.  In the past, we joined Synagogues because that was what we were supposed to do.  To be Jewish meant to be part of a congregation.  It meant attending services and actively participating in all areas of congregational life.  The Synagogue was not just the place where we prayed, it also was the center of our community.  We identified as Jews by and through our synagogue affiliation.

Today, synagogue membership is one of many choices that we can make as to how we will spend our discretionary income and time.  Should we go to services or out to dinner?  Should we go on vacation on join the Shul?  Should we join the synagogue or the JCC?  There are as many – if not more –reasons NOTto  become part of a congregation as there are to become a member.

A story is told of a young rabbi who stood on the bima delivering his Yom Kippur sermon. Wanting to make a strong impression he banged on the lectern as he loudly delivered the first line of his sermon, “Every member of this congregation will die someday!” He paused and looked around at the somber look he had put on everyone’s face. His eyes settled on one man in the front row who responded differently from everyone else. This man was grinning back at him! Certain the man in the front row had not heard him, the rabbi again thundered, “I tell you that everyone in this congregation will one day die!” He looked down at the front row and saw that the man was still smiling. One last time the rabbi shouted, “True it is that eventually everyone in this congregation must die!” Seeing that the man’s grin had only grown larger, the rabbi paused and asked, “Excuse me sir, are you amused by that idea?”

“Oh no,” replied the man, “I’m not amused. I’m relieved… You see, I’m not a member of this congregation!”

I’ve been a rabbi now for 27 years.  For the first 20 years of my rabbinate, I was taught and I taught others that the best way for a synagogue to operate was to design and offer the most innovative and creative programming possible. The more options we had, the more successful we would be. Temple Emanuel surely has a history of amazing and creative programming for which we are regarded in the highest esteem throughout our movement and beond.

But I don’t believe this anymore.  The world has changed. Synagogues are now competing with the many other options Jewish involvement that are being offered in our community. People don’t join congregations for programs - we join because when we walk through the doors of a synagogue we feel that we are part of something important, sacred, meaningful and bigger than ourselves.  A synagogue should be a community where we confront, celebrate and come to understand the most important aspects of our lives. 

That is what these High Holy Days are all about – helping us to readjust our lives so that we can focus on what is powerful – not passing; what is sacred – not superficial; what is essential – not ephemeral.  If there was only one point during this service tonight that you were inspired, or pushed to think a little bit differently about what is important in your life, or even felt a little bit uncomfortable because you realized that there are things in your life that are not the way they should be….then you have touched upon the purpose of this sacred time.   But it goes beyond these 10 days in Tishrei – we should strive to find that meaning and purpose every single day of our lives.  And I am absolutely convinced that it is in the midst of sacred community –here in the synagogue – that we find the pathways that lead us on our quests.  My friends, even though we are over three thousand years old, Judaism is a radical faith.  Torah and the Jewish people exist for one purpose and one purpose only:  To provide a framework for men, women and children to understand that we are not alone and, in the process, to affirm that our lives have meaning, purpose and value.  You can’t get that online, at Starbucks or at the gym.  You can find it in the Synagogue – if we agree that we are partners together in creating a community that matters.

This is the most important mission towards which Temple Emanuel can and must strive – creating a sacred community that truly matters.

It is in sacred community that we sustain and continue an ancient tradition that has defined us as Jews, comforted us through centuries of pain and given us the language of rejoicing in the most beautiful moments in our lives.

It is in sacred community that we address the fact that we live in a world that is increasingly isolating.  The more complex and innovative our technology becomes, the more we hide ourselves behind addictive glowing screens that give us the world at our fingertips while, at the same time, dulling our senses to the real world that exists beyond our devices.

It is in sacred community that we address our generational ache for meaning and purpose.

It is in sacred community where we find the holiness that 21st century life, with all of its technological advances notwithstanding, has systematically stripped away from us.

Now I’m not going to claim that, simply by walking through the door of Temple Emanuel you will suddenly find enlightenment – no, that probably won’t happen.  But I can tell you that by joining together with a community of seekers – seekers of wisdom, tradition, community and comfort, we can and will become intrinsically linked with those who came before us and set the stage for generations yet to come.

Over the next weeks and months and years you are going to be hearing a lot about the concept of Engagement at Temple Emanuel.  Our lay leadership and professional staff have made a conscious effort to reshape and refocus our efforts away from simply providing programs and towards creating opportunities for every member of our congregation to connect with others and find more ways to enhance their spiritual, intellectual and social lives. 

Of course, we will provide programs – but we also will be looking to you – our membership – to tell us what it is that you want from us.  Everything we do should be pointed towards the goal of creating an atmosphere of what our President, Ellen Abrams and what Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism call “Audacious Hospitality.”  Every time you walk into this building, receive open one of our emails, look at our website or Facebook page, call our phone number or have any contact with Temple Emanuel you should feel, instinctively that you are welcomed and that you have made a connection with something much bigger than yourself.

We want to challenge you:  This is your synagogue – take advantage of what we have to offer.  Come to services.  Take a class.  Learn to chant from the Torah or present a d’var torah at services.  Get involved in social justice and social action.  Visit our library.  Make it your business to get to know our clergy and staff – let us take you out for coffee or you take us out for coffee.  We want to know you – and we want you to know us.

I want to return to our story of the baker and the tailor.  I told you earlier about 2 possible endings.  In fact, there is a third ending as well.  After Yankel and Shmulik realize what had been happening all these years, they go home, dejected.  And yet, the next Friday morning, Yankel the baker, out of habit, baked an additional 12 loaves of Challah – out of habit.  He looks at the loaves and thinks to himself: 

“What if what happened last week was a fluke?  Maybe God really does like my challah!  I’ve got to give it one more chance.”

And so, as he had done for so many years, Yankel walked into that empty Sanctuary on that Friday afternoon and placed 12 freshly baked loaves of Challah into the ark.  And then he prayed:

Ribono Shel Olam:  for 20 years I have come here to bring you the best that I had to offer.  I believed that You took my gifts with love. Through coming to this synagogue, I found my purpose in life.    God, I’m not ready to give up on You – and I’m not ready to give up on my synagogue.  I’m going to do this one more time.  If, tomorrow, when we open the ark, the Challahs are still there, I’ll know that You don’t want them – I’ll be sad.   But if they’re not there – I’ll know that You care. ”

And Yankel kissed the ark curtain and he left.

The next morning, the 12 Challahs were gone. 

And, as the story goes, Yankel and Shmulik, to the delight of God and all of the Angels in Heaven, continued giving and receiving Challah for another 36 years.  They believed that the Challah was a gift to and from God. 

They were right.

There are times in all of our lives when we come to this sacred place and feel completely connected to our community and to the sacred dimensions of our lives.  There are other times that we walk through the doors and we don’t.  And yet, something keeps bringing us back – even if it’s only for the High Holy Days.  That urge to return is a gift from God. It is a sacred connection that comes from being part of a holy community.  Remember – Martin Buber taught us that we experience the Divine through relationships and community.  That is what we at Temple Emanuel aspire to become for every member of our sacred congregation - for when we celebrate our community, if we allow ourselves to be truly open to the spiritual potential within us, we can experience moments of transcendence where we can almost taste God’s presence – and that taste is as sweet as freshly baked Challah.

It’s good to see you here.  Come more often. L’shanah Tovah.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Temple Emanuel, Denver's 5775 Rosh HaShanah Video is online!

Each year, our congregational staff creates a new video for Rosh Hashanah.  Here is this year's artistic triumph.  Feel free to share on your Facebook pages and other social media.  Shavuah tov and Shanah Tovah!


Welcome to Emanuel Rosh HaShanah

(To the tune of “Hotel California.)
Lyrics - Rabbi Joe Black

On a Hilltop side street
A mile high in the air
Stands a wonderful Synagogue
Filled with hope, joy and prayer.
There are so many people here
On a normal weekday
But soon we’ll be overflowing
On the first of Tishrei.
Two Rabbis and two Cantors
And a Rabbi Emeritus
Plus a staff that’s amazing
We hire only the best.                                         
We’re getting ready for the New Year
No time to delay
And when the shofar is sounded
You can hear us say:
Welcome to Emanuel Rosh HaShanah
Such a Holy Day…. (Such a Holy Day)
Such a Holy Day.
Seek teshuvah at Emanuel Rosh HaShanah
It’s the Jewish way – when we sing and pray.
We’re vacuuming the hallways
And putting books on the shelf.
‘Cause we know that our synagogue
Won’t get clean by itself.
We dip the apple in the honey
What a special treat
We wish each other Shanah Tovah
May the New Year be sweet.

So many different options
To pray like a good Jew
We’ve got Rosh HaShanah Unplugged
And Shema Koleynu
You can go up to Shwayder
And pray at 10,200 feet
Our cantors and our choir will be singing
Our joy will be complete.

Soon we’ll all be together
As we greet the new year
If you’re looking for a spiritual home
You can find it here.
And with all the changes occurring
One thing you can believe
Once you check out Emanuel
You’ll never want to leave.



Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Four Weeks of Elul 5774 Week Three: Personal and Professional Relationships

Dear Friends,

I have heard from many of you that you found the questions for the first two weeks of Elul meaningful. I’m glad to hear it.  For this next week, I want us to focus on the personal and professional relationships in our lives.
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.
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.
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, I welcome your comments and suggestions for additional questions and formats that we can use.   If answering them causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbi Immerman, Cantors Heit and 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

Monday, September 1, 2014

4 Weeks of Elul 5774: Week Two: Our Communal Lives

Dear Friends,

Over the course of the Yamim Noraim – the High Holy days – this year you will be hearing a lot about the concept of Engagement.  At our Annual Meeting this past May, our president, Ellen Abrams, spoke about the concept of Audacious Hospitality.  What do these two concepts mean and, more important, how do they relate to our lives?

Engagement refers to the many ways that we can be involved in our community.  The technological advancements that we take for granted in our everyday lives have made it possible for us to communicate instantaneously with one another.  We have access to unlimited information.  At the same time, however, these gifts come with a price.  Too many of us are feeling isolated.  We can communicate with anybody – and yet, our methods of communication all too often are impersonal and insulated from real human connection.  It is within the context of the Synagogue community that we have the ability to interact and bond with others on a higher spiritual plane.

Audacious Hospitality is a way of seeing our community through the eyes of each person who walks through our doors or is connected to us through membership, life-cycle or common concerns.  It is up to all of us – lay and professional – to ensure that every person who comes to Temple Emanuel not only feels welcomed, but they also should feel like they are a part of our sacred community.

As we enter into this second week of Elul, let us focus our High Holy Day preparation on the role that community plays in our lives – and the important ways that all of us contribute to creating a loving community.

The following questions can help you to center your Elul preparations on how you can make a difference for good in your congregation, community and, indeed, the world itself.  Again, this is by no means a complete list.  Hopefully these questions will provide you with a starting point for examining and improving your relationship with the Jewish community.

1.      Have I taken advantage of all that my congregation and community have to offer?

2.      Have I allowed my political differences with others to isolate me from those with whom I disagree?

3.      Have I taken my own comfort for granted and “looked the other way" when I saw poverty or despair in my community?

4.      When asked to help support the important institutions in my community, have I given as much as I could or should?

5.      Have I spoken out when I perceived discrimination or inequity based on economics, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation in our community?

6.      Have I been vocally supportive of Israel during her time of need?  How have I dealt with those whose attitudes vis-à-vis Israel are different from mine?

7.      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?

Again, I welcome your comments and suggestions for additional questions and formats that we can use.   If answering them causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbi Immerman, Cantors Heit and 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 Janet Bronitsky -
L’shanah Tovah U’metukah – May you have a good and sweet new year,

Rabbi Joe Black