Sunday, May 31, 2020

Parashat Naso. We Are Not Nazarites: The Call to Confront Racism.


In this week’s torah portion, Naso, we learn the laws of the Nazarite. Nazarites are those who separate themselves from society by taking a vow of poverty, abstinence or forced separation in order to be closer to God. While the laws around becoming a Nazarite are clearly enunciated in our text, they are also designed to be limited in both time and scope.  Judaism teaches that the act of separating ourselves from the society in which we live is discouraged – actively. We need to live IN society – with all its flaws. We cannot separate ourselves from ugliness around us – any more than we can pick and choose to see the beauty in the world.

During these past 11 weeks that we have been socially distant, it feels like the world has become much smaller. We are so involved in our sheltered selves that we run the risk of losing perspective. And yet, as we know all too well, even though everything seems to have slowed – events are taking place around us at a frantic pace.

Minneapolis is a city that I know and love. I served as Rabbi for 9 years at Temple Israel in Minneapolis. It was where I met my wife Sue.  Both of our children were born there. We still have family and friends in the Twin Cities, and we travel to Minnesota almost every summer to visit.

Seeing the images of violent rioting in the streets, of looting and fires is profoundly upsetting – not only because of the damage and danger that is very real, but because of the fact that these acts are in response to yet another case in which a person of color – George Floyd (z”l) has died in an act of violence.  There have been too many similar incidents like this around the country – where black men are viewed with suspicion, are seen as a threat, are targeted and, all too often have died – not only at the hands of the police.

I do not believe that the rioting in Minneapolis and the responses to it that have arisen all around the country stem from any one particular incident. I also do not see all police officers as evil or racist. Rather, these incidents are the result of a system of White Privilege that most of us who are not African American do not experience directly, do not necessarily agree with, but from which we benefit every day of our lives.

That Mr. Floyd died while he was restrained by the police is a matter of record – but this is not merely a case of police brutality.

How he died. Why he died and the meaning of his death will be determined by both a court of law and the court of public opinion.  If, however, we see this only as an isolated incident, or a court case, or a miscarriage of justice – we will have allowed a painful but necessary window into the ugliness, disparity and despair that separates people of color and everyone else in our society to close without acknowledging the extent of the ugliness that it has illuminated. People are not rioting in the streets because, as some of our national leaders have said, “They are thugs.” What we are witnessing – in Minneapolis, in New York, Los Angeles, here in Denver and around the country is a cry of anger, desperation and frustration that has risen from the depths of over 400 years of systematic racism and oppression that I have benefitted from – as has every person whose skin color is not dark.

One merely has to look at recent protests in State Capitals around the country against sheltering in place orders to see images of armed militias made up of mostly white men – some (not all) of whom are affiliated with White Supremacist ideologies and who exhibited no fear or compunction whatsoever as they threatened lawmakers and peace keepers in order to get their messages across.  Imagine the response if those same rifle-wielding protestors had been people of color. 

Now – please understand – I do not condone violence of any kind. It is wrong. I support our police and first responders as they work to keep the peace.  But I understand it.  The protests that we are witnessing are a visceral reaction to inequality, inequity and intolerance that are part and parcel of our nation and its history.

As Jews who understand the significance and who bear the intergenerational trauma of genocide and hatred, we have a choice. We can shut our eyes to injustice and say that it is not our issue – or we can use our shared experience to build coalitions of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the African-American and Minority communities.

Over the next days and weeks, you will be hearing about ways that we, as Jews, as caring and concerned citizens, can come together in interfaith prayer, public action, and solidarity. I am currently in dialogue with partners in the African American and general interfaith community to formulate a plan that will help us to become partners and allies with our brothers and sisters who are people of color. Now is a time for banding together against the common enemies of racism and hatred.  Now is also a time for us to look deep into ourselves and our souls to identify, acknowledge, come to terms with and work to eradicate the many ways that our society contributes to and perpetuates a system of oppression and persecution – often subconsciously. In order to help us along in this process, I offer the following questions related to our parasha and our current crisis:

1.     For those of us who are not African American, can we see how our “Whiteness” affords us privileges that others do not have? In our heart of hearts, can we truly say that this is acceptable?
2.     If you were to be pulled over by a police officer during a routine traffic stop, would you fear for your life?  Do you think your experience would be different than that of a person of color?
3.     How many times have you found yourself judging another person by the way that they are dressed, the color of their skin, the sound of their voice without knowing who they are, who they love, how they pray, or the extent of their fears?
4.     Watching the protests and violence occurring in our city and around the country, how can we show support without condoning violence?
5.     As Jews, we have inherited the intergenerational trauma of the Shoah. Can we understand how our African-American brothers and sisters may also experience trauma based on 400 years of slavery and its aftermath?
6.     For those who may not agree that White Privilege is an issue, are there areas of common ground upon which we can build  a foundation of healing  - not only from the recent events surrounding the death of George Floyd (z”l), but from the increasing mistrust and anger that has been given voice in the streets of our cities around the country?
7.      As we continue to shelter in place, most of us (but not all) are relatively comfortable. How can we make sense of the fact that this virus has taken a much higher toll in communities of color than affluent White communities?

My dear friends, these are not easy answers. And yet – we cannot allow ourselves to retreat from society. We are not Nazarites. The ugliness in our society has been peeled away by recent events. Now is the time for us to acknowledge our complicity in building the walls of separation and mistrust in our nation. We also must work to tear them down and build a better future for all children. AMEN


Tuesday, May 19, 2020

A Jewish Values Matrix for Reopening Temple Emanuel

After several weeks of sheltering in place, we are beginning to formulate a plan that addresses the issues involved in reopening our facilities at Temple Emanuel. In order to facilitate the decision-making process, we have commissioned a COVID-19 Reopening Task Force made up of lay leaders, Temple Staff, Clergy and professionals from a wide variety of disciplines.  The fluidity surrounding this pandemic makes the process of setting up a timetable for reopening both imprecise and difficult. Nonetheless, we feel it necessary to do all that we can to anticipate and respond to whatever situations might arise. By assembling a group of talented, dedicated and visionary individuals, we feel that we will be strengthened in our decision making process.
In March, when we first realized that we would be closing our facility, we created a Matrix of Jewish Values that guided us in our deliberations.  As we approach the prospect of gradually reopening our building, we feel that it is appropriate to revisit and update this matrix. What follows is an attempt to begin this discussion. Some of the values listed are repeated and/or revised from our previous document.  Others are new.  This should not be seen as a complete listing of values. It is quite possible and probable that it will be revised as we get deeper into the decision making process. We currently do not have a specific timetable in place for opening up Temple Emanuel. We hope that this process will guide us to achieve this goal.
The following Jewish values will guide our discussions, deliberations and decisions as we move forward with re-opening Temple Emanuel facilities in the days, weeks and months to come
  1. Pikuach Nefesh – saving a life.  This most important of all Jewish values once again tops our list. Our sacred texts teach that we can forgo almost any commandment or prohibition in order to preserve life.  In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, our top priority must be the health and safety of all. Every decision around reopening our facilities will be made with this in mind.
  2. Kedusha Uniqueness. Often, we translate Kedusha as “holiness.” But a deeper understanding of kedusha teaches that we experience holiness on the deepest level when we look at every individual, relationship and moment as unique. When two individuals fall in love, for example, their experience is unlike that of any other. But this concept extends into every aspect of our lives. Each of us is holy – not only because we are created in God’s image - but also because our own experience is different, sacred and set apart. This also has practical applications that must be applied when we examine the unique aspects and needs of different parts of our congregation. For example, the essential childcare needs of households in our Rabbi Steven Foster Early Learning Center have a different urgency than those who participate in worship or Torah study. Some program areas (like worship and study) can be effectively and powerfully experienced online.  Others (like childcare) cannot.  Consequently, decisions that are made in one area of our congregation may not apply to others. We will work to find the holiness and uniqueness in every situation and respond as best we can under the circumstances.
  3. Dina d’malchuta dina—“The law of the land is the law” (Shulchan Aruch).  Jewish history has taught us that, as loyal citizens of the countries in which we have lived, we have a sacred responsibility to support and follow the laws of our nation – unless they violate basic and fundamental aspects of our faith. In this light, we believe that we are bound by an essential Mitzvah (commandment) to support whatever decisions our local and national leaders make in response to this pandemic. Rules around safely congregating, social distancing, health and security will be followed. We also affirm our right and responsibility to respectfully and clearly speak out when we see injustices being carried out in the name of the law.
  4. Lo Ta’aShok Sachir“Treat workers Fairly” (Deuteronomy 24:14) Temple Emanuel is a large institution. We employ many people from different walks of life. Each person in our employ is unique and has their own needs. We are committed to doing all that we can to ensure that reopening  will have minimal impacts on our employees’ abilities to care for themselves and their loved ones. We must be very careful to understand, anticipate and support each individual’s unique needs and comfort level when we speak of reentry into our facilities. No one will be forced to comply with any policies that they feel are unsafe.
  5. Simcha “Rejoicing.” Even in times of difficulty, it is important that we look for ways to celebrate Jewish life. This can be challenging when life-cycle events are cancelled, postponed or radically reshaped due to health concerns. We are determined to do all that we can – within the constraints of the reality of our situation – to help everyone achieve this.
  6. Nechama – “comforting the afflicted.” Pastoral care is central to our mission at Temple Emanuel. When personal contact is limited, this can be difficult. We will continue to strive to be present for all who are in need in any way that we can. But comforting others is not limited to our clergy.  Each member of our congregation has a pastoral function in our sacred community. We are fully aware that the past weeks of sheltering in place have been traumatic– on differing levels. We have suffered personal, professional and economic losses. There is a palpable sense of grieving taking place in our homes. Some of this grief is a result of serious illness and potential or actual loss of life. But we also are grieving the loss of normalcy. Painful changes have taken place overnight. These changes can take their toll. In addition, we know that the pain of loss we feel is often amplified by memories of prior experiences. Each new loss can bring up the pain of previous grief. We need to be caring for and sensitive to one another as we navigate these uncharted waters. 
  7. Chazon - “Vision”.  This pandemic has forced us to examine and question every aspect of our congregation. With all the pain and upset caused by our need to close our building, we have also discovered new options and opportunities to celebrate Jewish life. We know that when this crisis is over, the lessons we have learned and the new modalities of worship, learning, communicating and congregating will serve us well as we move into the new normal of Post-COVID-19 life. We also have discovered the centrality and importance of sacred community in our isolation from one another. We need one another and are determined to continue to provide multiple portals of entry into our Kehillah Kedoshah – our sacred community.
  8. Hevei M’tunim “Be Patient”.  In the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 1:1), our ancient rabbis taught that being patient while deliberating is one of the most important values we can possess. While they were most probably speaking of how Rabbis should conduct themselves while in a court of law, this value has much more far-reaching implications for us all. Given the fact that we are dealing with a situation that is constantly changing and unprecedented in our lives, we do not have all of the answers to the problems with which we are confronted. We feel confident in our abilities to make well-reasoned and appropriate decisions most of the time, but we also are prepared to learn from mistakes and missteps that we will make along the way. We are determined to learn from every experience – as well as glean important lessons from other congregations and communities around the country. One concept that we embrace, however, is that every decision we make will have been for what we believe is in the best interest of our congregation.
We hope and pray that soon we will be able to worship, study, celebrate and comfort one another in person. We give thanks for the bonds that keep us connected in this liminal and difficult time.

L'Shalom,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black



Sunday, April 26, 2020

Scapegoating and Sacred Self-Awareness. Questions for Acharei Mot/Kedoshim


Dear Friends,
This week’s double torah portion, Acharei Mot/Kedoshim contains two familiar narratives. The first is the ritual of the Scapegoat: on Yom Kippur, two goats are selected.  One is sacrificed and the other is sent off to Azazeyl with the sins of the people upon its head (Leviticus 16:7-8).  The second passage contains what we now call the “Holiness Code.”  The words, “You will be holy, for I, Adonai your God am Holy, (Leviticus 19:1-2)” resonate as a powerful exhortation to find the holiness implanted within us all as we attempt to uncover God’s presence in our lives.
At face value, these two commandments appear to have very little in common. The Scapegoat – or Seir L’Azazeyl - is an ancient ritual of purgation that, to our modern sensibilities, has little, if any meaning. The commandment for us to find God’s holiness within ourselves, however, resonates strongly within many who seek to understand our purpose in the world.
And yet, if we attempt to dig just a little deeper than the literal meaning of our text, we can find powerful truths that are especially relevant during this difficult time of social distancing.  Scapegoating, as we know, is the act of looking to find others to blame for underlying problems in society. The term comes from the ritual we find in our parasha of banishing a goat into the wilderness with the sins of the people placed upon it by the High Priest. We don’t exactly know how this was observed in ancient days, but the symbolism of finding a target upon which to place our troubles has been part of our history as a people. Scapegoating, in essence, is an attempt to externalize our fears and find ways to explain away those things which plague our society. As Jews, we know all too well the dangers inherent in being scapegoated as well as scapegoating others.
Our second text, however, teaches us that holiness is not some external force that can be captured or controlled. On the contrary – it is part of our very nature.  “You Will be holy, because Adonai our God is holy.” We who are created in the Divine image understand both our ability and the inevitability of experiencing the sacred simply because of how we were created. The text continues on to teach us how to act with holiness:  to honor our parents, form a just society and treat the weakest among us with the respect and dignity deserving of holy beings.
In a very real sense, these two concepts create a dichotomy of human behavior. On one extreme, we all too often look outside of ourselves to point blame and rationalize our actions and missteps. Scapegoating is a refusal to accept responsibility for our failures. The other extreme, however, teaches us that the mitzvah of understanding our intrinsic, internal holiness leads us to own and embrace our actions and our humanity. When we see ourselves as striving to be holy, everything we do leads us towards our goal and helps us to celebrate all of God’s creation rather than looking for easy targets for scorn and hatred.
These past weeks have shown us both sides of our two parashot. We have witnessed how ignorance, fear and prejudice have blinded people and created irrational and racist tropes which begin in the far fringes of society, but all too often are rapidly and eagerly consumed by those looking for easy answers. The targeting of Asians, medical professionals and accusations of conspiracy against leaders who set boundaries in order to help save lives are just a few examples of the kind of ugly behavior brought about by scapegoating. And yes, Jews have been targeted as well.
But we also have found examples of incredible holiness in response to the Pandemic. The selfless caring exhibited by health care professionals, first responders and all those who literally risk their lives by going to work every day so that the rest of us might be safe shows us holiness in real time. Their sacrifice and dedication remind us to look for God’s presence wherever we gaze.
And so, my questions for this week revolve around our tendency to both externalize our fears and embrace the holiness that is within us.
  1. How often, over the past weeks of social distancing, have I found myself blaming others in order to rationalize my fears, anxieties and self-doubts?
  2.   How tolerant have I been of others’ weaknesses – especially those exhibited by our leaders?
  3.  Have I been quick to judge policies and emergency measures without looking for the underlying reasons they were put in place?   
  4. How often have I allowed myself to give thanks for the ability to shelter in place and be safe in the midst of this pandemic?
  5.  Have I been able to see the holiness in myself?
  6. Have I been able to see the holiness in others in my household?
  7.  As a sacred “work-in progress,” have I been able to acknowledge that only God is perfect – even though I have the capacity for holiness within me?  Have I been able to see my mistakes and flaws as benchmarks towards my personal journey to find internal holiness?
Again – these questions are in no way complete.  They are designed to help us look within ourselves and our souls as we journey together through the unknown.
May we all learn to accept, embrace and anticipate our growth as imperfect beings with the capacity to seek out holiness and celebrate it in our lives.
AMEN

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Tazria Metzora - Confronting Our Fears


My Dear Friends,

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria Metzora is difficult. It also has a reputation for inspiring fear and dread of any bar or Bat Mitzvah student who receives it for their shabbat service.  Tazria Metzora speaks of bodily functions, illness and quarantine.  It talks about:
o   Childbirth
o   Disease
o   Contact with bodily fluids
o   Afflictions of the skin
It also speaks of how, when a person contracts this condition, they need to go through a series of ritual cleansings, inspections and separation before they are allowed back into the community.

The disease, Tzaraat (which I’ll talk more about below) is not only a human disease – it can affect the walls of people’s homes as well – thereby giving it another dimension that expands its reach from that of a human disease – to a more global condition

It’s tempting to try and draw parallels from the fact that these two torah portions speak of disease and quarantine while our community, state, nation and, indeed, the entire world is coping with the corona virus – but, rather than succumbing to this temptation, I want to talk instead about why these chapters are included in our sacred text in the first place.  What lessons can we learn – not only from the content of our parasha, but the context in which the discussion takes place? You see, I don’t think that all of these laws about tzaraat – which we translate as leprosy – but clearly is something else – are included in the narrative to teach us about cleanliness, diagnosis or medical care, rather, I think they are about our fears.

Tzaraat, in our text, is a disease that clearly has a powerful impact on the Ancient Israelite community. It is not only experienced physically, but spiritually.  The fact that houses can be infected as well as humans should give us a clue that there is more going on beneath the surface than is readily apparent.

This past month has taken its toll on all of us. The facts that we cannot be physically close to one another; that our economy is suffering; that our national political discourse has become so toxic are taking a toll on us physically, emotionally and spiritually. We do not know how long this will continue. We worry about our health and those of our loved ones – some of whom are dealing with the virus, others who are vulnerable, and others who are on the front lines providing medical care, research, support and other crucial services that allow us to function. We worry about how we will emerge from our isolation and what our world will look like once we do.

In Tazaria Metzora, our ancestors had to deal with the unknown. They were afraid of something over which they had no control. The rituals of isolation, immersion, and re-entry were designed to provide a safe framework for the people to feel that they were not endangered by this unseen enemy.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how psychologists and other mental health professionals are keenly aware of the fact that everyone is affected (infected?) by COVID-19 – regardless of whether or not they contract the virus. The radical overturning of our daily lives that we are experiencing is enough to shift our emotional equilibrium.  This can manifest itself in many different forms – from depression to compulsive behaviors, to denial, revolt and even other physical ailments.

Perhaps one of our key tasks at this time is to try to understand and anticipate our fear of the unknown and our reactions to it. As such, I want to propose the following 7 questions for us to explore as we continue on our journey:
  1.  Research has shown that staying physically active during quarantine is an essential part of staying healthy. Am I engaging in enough physical activity?
  2.  For those who are in quarantine with others: Am I aware of the needs of others in my home? Am I doing all that I can to understand what they are going through as well me? Am I tolerant of my own missteps as well as those of those with whom  am living?
  3. Am I doing all that I can to be productive during this time? Are there tasks that need to be completed? Do I have outlets for creativity and meaningful outlets other than Television, the internet and other passive activities?
  4. Am I looking for ways to help others? Are there ways that I can volunteer my time or expertise as well as my financial resources?
  5. Am I willing to receive help from others?
  6. Psychologists teach us that it is important that we not dwell too long on the length of time that we have been – or will be – socially distant. We need to remind ourselves that this is a temporary situation that will be resolved someday. We also need to be “in the moment” as much as we can.
  7. There will be times when our fears will get the best of us. No one can be strong all the time. Have I been able to forgive myself for those moments when I don’t feel productive or give into the despair of the moment?
Again - these are only a few questions designed to help us process our fears of the unknown. Like our ancestors wandering in the Wilderness, there is much that we do not know. At the same time, however, we also have the blessing of being part of a sacred community that cares for one another.

If there is anything that I – or any of us at Temple  - can do for you – now or in the future; or if you need a referral for help – please let us know.  Send an email to Shalom@EmanuelDenver.org and we will get back to you as soon as we can.

I look forward to seeing you soon!

L’Shalom,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Friday, April 17, 2020

Annual Report to the Congregation - 2019-20


Dear Friends,

For the past 24 years that I have been writing annual reports, I have utilized the ancient Kabbalistic art of Gematria – finding meaning in the connection between numbers and words – and applied it to the number of years our congregation has been in existence.  This year, Temple Emanuel is celebrating 145 years. As such, I searched for an appropriate word or phrase that might encapsulate our experiences over the past 12 months since last we came together, I found a word that, I believe is directly related to our experience as a kehillah kedoshah – a sacred community – over the past year.  This word is מַטְמוֹן֙, (Matmon) which means “treasure.”  Here is how the gematria works:
מַ = 40
טְ = 9
וֹ =6
מַ = 40
ן֙ =  50
_______
145


At a time when we are acutely aware of the fragility of a world that is being severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, a great deal of angst and anxiety is being projected on the global economy.
Given the exponential rise is unemployment and business losses, this anxiety is real and our fears appear to be well founded. We worry about the loss of our livelihood, our investments, our financial stability – our treasure.
At yet, not all treasures are material – their value cannot always be measured in terms of capital and trade.
An important concept that I’ve come to realize over the past 4 weeks of sheltering in place is that Temple Emanuel possesses treasures that have value far beyond our wildest dreams – not in a material sense, necessarily, but rather, in the fact that we have compiled a portfolio of programmatic, social and spiritual capital that is far more valuable than any bottom line on a financial ledger. The clergy, staff, lay leadership and members of our community have repeatedly demonstrated during this difficult time their commitment to sustaining and increasing the importance and centrality of our congregation in their own lives and in the life of the greater Denver community.
Due to the unique situation in which we find ourselves due to the global Pandemic, I am not going to go through a list of all our programmatic successes over the past year – although there were many. We have come to expect a high level of excellence from all aspects of our congregation – The Rabbi Steven Foster Early Learning Center, Shwayder Camp, Max Frankel Religious School, Friedman Club, Our Adult Engagement offerings, Religious Services, Pastoral Care, Life Cycle Events, Social Action, Interfaith Engagement and Community Leadership. Once again, we have met and many cases, exceeded our expectations. Yes – there have been some bumps along the road – particularly in the areas of Religious Education and Youth engagement – largely due to the unexpected and untimely departures of key members of our professional team who left us in the last minute for personal and professional reasons that were unrelated to job performance or personal satisfaction with Temple.  This meant that we had to scramble to find interim replacements for the positions of Directors of Religious Education and Youth Programming. Luckily, we were able to retain the services of Scott Esserman and Ben Cohen who helped us maintain our programs while we embarked on national searches for their replacements. I want to take this time to thank both Scott and Ben for their partnership and professionalism. We wish them well on their future endeavors.
We are very excited that we will have a new member of our professional team in place this July. Bradley Cohen is a nationally recognized educator who will be moving from his position of Director of Education at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation to become our new Director of Youth and Family Learning. We are very excited to be welcoming Brad and his family to Denver this summer. You will be hearing more soon about ways that we will be introducing him to our Temple Community. We are also actively interviewing candidates for the position of Director of Youth Engagement and hope to be able to make an offer soon.  Stay tuned.
I want to say a few words about how we are planning to continue serving our membership in the days and weeks to come. While we currently do not have an exact timeline regarding how long we will be separated from one another, we are not allowing the lack of dates and deadlines to impact our commitment to serve our community. From the moment we understood that things were going to have to be radically different in the shadow of the pandemic, our first action was to compile a matrix of Jewish Values that could guide our response. This fluid document – which you can find on our website, my blog, our Temple Emanuel Denver Facebook page and which was shared (with permission) by our National Reform Movement – has helped us to be thoughtful, deliberate and clear in our actions. Knowing that every decision we make reflects our core values brings us a sense of clarity of purpose. [For a link to this document - click here.]
Our first response was to scramble to create radically new forms of worship, study, and pastoral care that addressed the difficulties of sheltering in place. We made a conscious decision not to stream services from our building because we wanted to lead by example and demonstrate the importance of social distancing. We found that utilizing Zoom and Facebook Live was the best avenue to accomplish our goals – despite some clear technical limitations. We also know that it is somewhat confusing and that not all our members are able to access Facebook – but we made the decision to utilize this platform because it would reach the most people in the short term. We also wanted worship to “feel” as much like Temple Emanuel as possible and, thanks to the fact that we have archives of visual tefilah (or worship) slides already on file -and thanks to the perfectionism of our own Steve Brodsky (more on this later) we were able to create a worship experience that, while different, still reflects our history and skill set. I want to stress that this is a team effort. In order to be successful, we needed a team of clergy, greeters, technological support and creative minds to pull it off.  I am proud of what we have accomplished and I hope you are as well.
Looking ahead to Temple Emanuel Online 2.0 – we want to expand our offerings and move away from a modality of frontal presentation to one that is more engaging and participatory. We hope to create multiple portals of entry for our wide and growing congregational community. For example, we know that healthcare workers have unique challenges in the face of the pandemic. We want to be there for you. So do parents with young children, those living alone, those caring for those who are ill, households with children graduating from high school and college, Jews by Choice, interfaith households – the list is long and we hope to be there for all of you.  I ask for your patience as we roll out these initiatives as we are currently in the process of creating them.
Steve Stark, in his remarks, spoke about members of our professional team who are involved with operations of the temple.  I appreciate all of their efforts greatly. I want to also take this time to speak about some of the other “Matmonim” – treasures – that we share here at Temple – the people who work and volunteer on our behalf.
Mark Idelberg, our outgoing president, has served our congregation with distinction these past three years. He is a visionary who cares deeply about out Temple Emanuel. Mark is an excellent leader who does not shy away from addressing issues in our community with a direct and clear understanding about multiple sides of every concern. He has had to make some difficult calls during his tenure. He and I have not always agreed on everything – but these times were rare, and we had enough trust in one another that we could work through our disagreements with respect. Most importantly, we have been able to continue our deep friendship through his term – and Sue and I are so greatly appreciative of the love that we share for both he and Jamie. I feel blessed to be able to call him both a friend and a colleague and we, as a congregation are in a better place because of his leadership.
Mark’s dogged determinism to reinvigorate our Board of Trustees has resulted in a group of lay leaders who care deeply about our community and want to make a difference. One need only to see how, in the immediate aftermath of the decision to close the Temple last month- prior to the Governor’s mandate – our Trustees rallied together and called every member of our congregation over the age of 70 to let them know that we care about them and that we wanted to reach out.
I am looking forward to partnering with our incoming President, Danny Foster, whose life-long connection to Temple Emanuel, brilliant insights, deep caring and sterling reputation will keep us strong as we move into our 150th year.
Now a few words about the partners with whom I am blessed to work on a daily basis.

My Co-CEO, Steve Stark – our Executive Director -  is a gift. Steve loves being Jewish. He approaches his work as a sacred calling and he understand and embraces the concept that the pastoral nature of running the facilities, budget and properties of Temple Emanuel is more than simply crunching numbers. He cares deeply about every member of our community and wants to help them feel as excited about their Jewish identity as he, and his family feel as well. Steve is a warm, loving and fun person to be around. We have created a synergy together is a reflection of the mutual admiration we share for one another.
I also am incredibly blessed to work with an outstanding clergy team. If Cantor Elizabeth Sacks were just a brilliant musician whose voice has the power and grace to move us to tears - dayenu. And yet, she is so much more than a beautiful voice. Her deep spiritual sense is coupled with a passion for organization, education and leadership that is both invaluable and inspiring. She is a teacher’s teacher and an amazing resource – not only to our congregation and the Denver community – but to the Jewish people as a whole. Her stewardship of our B’nai Mitzvah program has brought us to new heights of excellence. I rely on her wise counsel and partnership.  We are so fortunate to have her and her family in our midst.
Rabbi Emily Hyatt brings another “superstar” dimension to our team. Her brilliance, compassion, vision, sense of humor and professionalism have been invaluable. She is a team player who will take on any task with a desire to lead, teach, learn and grow from each encounter. She is a national leader who strives for excellence and inspires all of us to live by her example. She is a role model for so many in our congregation – young and old alike. Adding to all of this, the fact that she is fluent in the use of Zoom, Facebook and other social media platforms has been invaluable during this time of transition to our “Virtual” synagogue.
Our Cantoral Soloist and Music Director, Steve Brodsky is yet another jewel in the crown of Temple Emanuel. We all are inspired by his soulful voice and brilliant guitar playing, but he also has a sense of perfectionism that we see in the way that he labors over each project in his portfolio – from working with Cantor Sacks to create a superb B’nai Mitzvah program that approaches each child as a unique and sacred gift, to every note, slide and reading in our Unplugged and now “virtual” online shabbat services. I have known Steve for over 30 years and our musical and professional partnership continues to expand. We are blessed to have him, Jill, Ben and Ari in our community.
Rabbi Eliot Baskin has been an important part of our Clergy team. He has helped to coordinate our pastoral care by creating healing, mourning and solidarity groups and programs in our congregation. His classes and lectures are inspiring – he even throws in the occasional magic trick or “Dad Joke” to see if we are listening. His compassionate caring and soothing presence add an important aspect to our work together.
Our Rabbi Emeritus, Steve Foster and his family have been an inspiration to all of us. Steve – to be able to bless you on your 50th Anniversary at Temple and in the Rabbinate is a rare and profound moment for me. To be able to share it on this historic occasion of welcoming your son. Danny, to be the next president of Temple Emanuel adds yet another layer of joy and holiness. You and I often brag about our relationship as Senior Rabbi and Rabbi Emeritus. I am truly blessed to call you a colleague, partner, mentor and friend. I love our relationship and I love you –even when we disagree (which is infrequent) and I look forward to many more years of health and partnership.
Jodie Abrams Schafer, our Shwayder Camp Director continues to impress everyone with her many talents. She is a visionary leader and all of her staff, our parents, counselors, alumni and donors appreciate her dogged determinism to maintain the Shwayder magic while moving ahead to the future. At this time of uncertainty, Jodie’s optimism and professionalism bring so many of us a sense of comfort knowing that not matter what happens, Shwayder will continue to thrive under her leadership. Jodie is very involved nationally in Jewish Camping. She makes us proud as she represents Temple Emanuel and Shwayder camp year-round. We also want to wish her a Mazal Tov for her marriage this past year to Chris Schafer.  We wish you both much happiness and success.
Zahava Davis, Shwayder Assistant Director continues to grow and impress all of us. She, like Jodie, loves camp. She cares deeply about every person connected to Shwayder – campers, counselors, staff and alumni. Her organizational skills, easygoing and caring nature, deep commitment to Judaism and Jewish values and incredible work ethic all combine to create a dynamic duo with Jodie.  She also is very involved on a national basis with other assistant directors and makes us proud.
Susan Wartchow and her Foster ELC leadership team are committed to ensuring that every child that passes through our doorway will be loved, cared for and understood on multiple modalities. Susan is a pied piper of early childhood. She advocates for her students, teachers and staff with a passion that is unequalled. Susan has taught us all about the intricacies of a child’s inner self. She is a lifelong student and a compelling teacher. Through her vision – and that of her excellent team – we have an Early Childhood Center that ranks among the top – not only in Denver, but in the nation.
Sarah Brown – our Director of Membership and Adult Engagement has more energy than anyone I know. She is the perfect ambassador of Temple Emanuel to the community at large. Her contagious laughter and irrepressible desire to build bridges of connection to every member of our congregation is breathtaking. She is constantly generating new programmatic ideas for us to consider. One example of Sarah’s vision can be seen in the way she coordinated the delivery of over 200 passover meals to members of our congregation in concert with our Caterer’s, “A Perfect Pair.” We are blessed to have her as a part of our team.
Rita Dahlke, our Librarian and Assistant Religious School Principal has been an important link to the continuity of the past as we have undergone a year of transition in our Religious School. She cares for each teacher and student she encounters and runs the library like a well-oiled machine. She loves creating new programs – whether in the Library, the Religious school or for her dedicated adult students.
The newest member of our professional team is our Audiovisual Coordinator, Shaun Wall. Shaun has been an invaluable resource as we have increased our commitment to excellence in sound and presentation. He works closely with the clergy to ensure that we sound our absolute best at services, concerts and now, online as we move into this new world of streaming services and programming. Shaun has quickly become an integral part of all that we do at Temple.
I also want to take this opportunity to recognize Fred and Lundy Reynolds whose generosity has made it possible for us to hire Shaun. The Reynolds Family Foundation have also sponsored many other important additions to our facilities and programs – including, but certainly not limited to our beautiful adult education classrooms and their most recent gift – sponsoring our B’nai Mitzvah program – making it possible for every household at Temple Emanuel to receive B’nai Mitzvah preparation with minimal cost. There are many other ways that they have made a huge difference at Temple Emanuel and I want to let them know just how much we appreciate their generosity, vision and support.

For me – this has been a year of contrasts. I was humbled to be honored at the Fundraiser in January on the occasion of my 10th Anniversary at Temple.  In February, I took the first month of my 3 months of Sabbatical. I travelled in Israel, studied and taught music, composed new pieces, travelled with my beloved wife, Sue and took advantage of the opportunity to regroup, relax and realize how fortunate I am to serve as your Rabbi. Of course, these past 4 weeks of Sheltering in place have created new challenges for all of us. Your clergy and professional staff have had to learn new skillsets overnight as we transformed our multi-faceted congregation into a virtual center of prayer, study, pastoral care and community. I believe that we have been successful thus far – largely because of the Matmon – the Treasure of our partners – both lay and professional. I thank you for the gift of your confidence, and I know that when we emerge from our current situation things will be different. We will have a new skills and perspectives as well as a greater appreciation for the strengths and holiness that make Temple Emanuel such a unique and remarkable place. I look forward to seeing everyone in person – very soon!
L’Shalom,

Rabbi Joe Black


Sunday, April 12, 2020

Finding Anchors in Uncertainty: Week Four of Distant Socializing


Each year during Pesach, after the Seders are concluded (or logged off – which might be better vernacular for this year’s Zoom Seders), when the Haggadot are put away and the Seder plates and all of the ritual objects are stored for the next year, I have a recurring experience – usually around day 3 – when I realize that the fun is over and I will still be eating Matzah for the rest of the week. By day 4, I start to dream about crusty bread, pizza and pasta. Days 5 and 6 are worse. While the chicken soup and matzah balls were delicious for the Seders, after a while, the leftovers begin to lose their luster and the thought of the matzah brei that tasted so delicious on the first day becomes loathsome – I know that I have been infected by the dreaded mid-Pesach Matzah Plague. I begin to count the days until I can once again eat Chametz.

I thought about this when I realized that we are beginning the 4th week of sheltering in place and are starting to find a rhythm and routine during our isolation and distant socializing. Although we long for the ability to go to restaurants, attend services in person, take in concerts or plays, or even walk outside without face masks, we know that these simple pleasures are out of reach – and we don’t know for how long.

The Passover story tells us how the Israelites were delivered from the bondage of Egypt. This message of the power and beauty of our liberation has shaped us as a people. It is one of the most important foundation narratives of our faith and culture. And yet, our story does not end with God’s deliverance. It continues with a new beginning – as we wander for 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai. If you will recall, the Torah teaches that things don’t go all that smoothly in the beginning. We rebel. We make a Golden Calf. We complain about food – soon after we begin our journey when the Manna that God provides us becomes loathsome. We crave what we cannot have and we long for “The good old days in Egypt.”

Our ancient ancestors had no idea how long they would be journeying from Egypt to the Promised Land. The Torah, on the other hand, tells us the number of days, weeks and years of our journey. We know that we wandered in the Wilderness for 40 years. We also know that the journey from Egypt to the foot of Mt. Sinai took seven weeks. In Jewish Tradition, we count each of these 49 days in a ritual called Sefirat Ha-Omer – or counting the Omer. This also corresponds to the period between the first day of Pesach to the festival of Shavuot. This is traditionally a time of introspection and self-examination – much like the month of Elul that precedes the High Holy Days.

Just like the Israelites had no idea how long they would be wandering, we too, are facing the unknown. In many ways, the uncertainty of our situation makes it even more difficult.

One way that we can help ourselves in the midst of the unknown, is to focus on those things that ARE concrete. And so, this week, as we celebrate Pesach and begin counting the days to Shavuot, I want to suggest that we focus on those areas of our lives that are consistent, grounding and unchanging. As we sail together on uncertain seas, it’s important to know that we have both lifelines and anchors. The following are seven questions that might help to ground ourselves as we navigate this unfamiliar territory together:
  1. What relationships in my life sustain me and give me strength?
  2. How have I maintained these relationships?
  3. Are there people to whom I should reach out with whom I have lost contact that might appreciate hearing from me?
  4. Have I looked within my faith tradition to find rituals and practices that can give me comfort and strength during this time of uncertainty?
  5. Are there ways that I might give of my time and resources to help others find stability and solace?
  6. Am I taking care of myself physically, emotionally and spiritually in such a way as to allow myself to feel good about who I am and how I am coping with stress?
  7. If I am not happy with myself, have I reached out to others who can help – family, friends, counselors or Clergy?

Again – these questions are designed to help us think about ways that we might find the tools to ground ourselves during this uncertain time. Just like Pesach will soon end and we will once again be able to eat Chametz, so too will this period of staying at home will come to a conclusion. Let us strive to find that when that day comes, we will emerge from our isolation stronger, healthier and resolved to make a difference.

I look forward to seeing you soon – either online or in person.

L’Shalom,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black


Sunday, April 5, 2020

Ridding ourselves of Pre-Pesach "Bloatedness"


Dear Friends,

These days of Sheltering in place have been challenging for all of us. Last week, I spoke about the need for creating rituals and routines that help us to stay focused and healthy. As I was thinking about what I would say to you this week, my thoughts turned to the fact that in just a few days we will be celebrating the joyous festival of Pesach. Of course, this year, our seder tables will be much different than in years past. Due to our need to stay safe and protect ourselves and others, we cannot gather together in person to tell our ancient story, sing the songs and give thanks for God’s redemptive acts as retold in our Haggadot. While we will be celebrating “virtually,” we will miss the family and friends whose presence has always made our celebrations special.

Passover (Pesach) is a time of renewal. The preparation for our festival is often as intense (if not more) than the festival itself. The cooking, cleaning, and anticipation for this week of celebration can be all consuming – and this year, truth be told, it is a welcome diversion from the cloistered nature of our Corona-lives.

One traditional ritual that many people follow is called B’dikat Chametz – the search for Chametz. Chametz is a word that we translate into “leavening,” but it means much more – I’ll come back to that in a minute. I remember, as a small child, how, after my parents thoroughly cleaned our home and got rid of all of the chametz, my father would hide a few bread crumbs in strategic locations around the house and my sister and I would go and look for them with a feather, a dustpan and a small broom. We would gather up all the hidden pieces, take them outside and symbolically burn them in a ritual that signified that our house was officially kosher for Pesach. Now, gathering up stale crumbs couldn’t compare to the elaborate Easter Egg hunts our Catholic next-door neighbors would throw that yielded them chocolate bunnies, marshmellow peeps and chewy candies in bright green baskets, but we like it nonetheless.

So what exactly IS Chametz anyways.  As I mentioned earlier, we translate it as “leavening,” but it means much more. According to the tradition among Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews, Chametz is anything that rises when it comes in contact with water. All raw grains like flour, barley, and spelt are considered to be Chametz. Legumes and rice are considered by most Ashkenazi authorities to be not kosher for Pesach, while Sephardic (or Spanish/North African) Jews are permitted to eat them.

Whatever your custom, it is important that, on Pesach, we make a distinction between Chametz and Matzah. The Torah teaches us that we eat Matzah to remember the unleavened cakes of bread that our Ancestors ate when they went forth out of Egypt. But there are other ways to understand the difference between Chametz and Matzah as well.  In the Jewish mystical tradition, Chametz also signifies bloatedness or arrogance, while Matzah represents humility and simplicity. As grain expands when it comes in contact with water, so too, we “expand” when we get too cocky or self-confident. Matza is Lakhma Anya – and Aramaic term that means the bread of the poor people, or the “bread of affliction.” In this context, ridding our homes of Chametz is a powerful metaphor for our personal journeys of self-awareness and mindfulness. What better time than the festival of Springtime to rid ourselves of any notions of selfishness and arrogance?

During this period of social distancing (or “distant socializing”), many of us are spending time cleaning out our closets, cabinets, sock drawers, or garages in order to stay busy. Maybe we also can go through a process of Bedikat Chametz -  searching for the leavening in our souls as well.  Once again, I offer these 7 questions for the week to come to help us along our journeys:
  1. What “baggage” am I carrying around that I need to discard of at this time of preparation?
  2. How have I become “bloated” over the past year – physically? Mentally? Spiritually?
  3.  During this time of isolation, have I tried to reach out to others and make sure that they, too are healthy?
  4. On Pesach, we read the story of the Plagues that God visited upon the Egyptians. There are those who are stating that the COVID-19 virus is a divine punishment as well. This kind of Theology is dangerous because it can be used to justify hatred and racism. Have I done all that I can to confront and challenge these ideas when it is safe to do so?
  5.  In ridding my home of non-essential items, have I considered how others might be able to use them as well? 
  6. Bloatedness can also be a metaphor for hoarding items that are desperately needed by others. Have I been part of the problem or the solution of this phenomenon in our society?
  7. When we are loaded down with symbolic Chametz, we can forget to see and appreciate the beauty and joy around us.  Have I taken the time to see the positive relationships and opportunities in my life – even in these worrisome times?

Again – these are just a few suggestions.  Feel free to add more and share them with me or others. May you and all whom you love have a safe, healthy and joyous Pesach.

L’Shalom,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black