Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Invocation for the Colorado State Senate, February 13th, 2019,                      Erev Presidents' Day Seventy-Second General Assembly, 41th Legislative Day.

As our 2019 Legislature meets during this week of important birthdays, President Abraham Lincoln, President George Washington and, yours truly, grant, O God, that you Senators and staff be imbued with the spirit of mission, purpose and vision of our great presidents. 

President Lincoln said, “When I do good, I feel good.”  May you all feel good after a session of doing good for the ever expanding needs of our state during this promising time.

President Washington cautioned, “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.” May you take responsivity as you govern with integrity and offer no excuses!

May the Source of Wisdom, Chonein haDaat, continue to favor all of you who legislate here in Colorado with presidential goodness, integrity and insight!


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Guatemala's Adat Israel, Third Time's a Mitzvah!

How did you spend Martin Luther King Day 2019?  I traveled back to Guatemala City to participate in a Bet Din, a religious court of three rabbis, to convert 19 Jews by choice at the Reform synagogue, Adat Israel AND to ascertain what would motivate Guatemalans to travel North with caravans to an uncertain future in the United States.  This was my sixth time in Guatemala: two shore excursions on trans Panama canal cruises years ago, one with a dozen rabbis as part of American Jewish World Services AJWS Global Justice Fellowship in 2015, and twice serving as visiting rabbi for the High Holy Days in 2015 and Yom Kippur 2017.

I was appalled by the recent account of the two Guatemalan children who died in American custody as refugees on the Mexican border along with the Central American babies being taken from nursing mothers.  I've been attending Moral Minyans afternoon prayer services in support of refugees at the Aurora ICE facility in Colorado (coincidentally, the same name as the Guatemalan airport, La Aurora).

I joined Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, the regular visiting spiritual leader from Toronto and Rabbi Leah Kroll of Los Angeles, to be part of a conversion of a group of Jews by Choice who had attended services and learned together each shabbat and Jewish holidays for over two years, completed an extensive examination, and were prepared to meet with us three rabbis to discuss their spiritual journey.  I was given an additional task, to initiate the gentlemen into the covenant of Abraham with the ceremony of HaTafat Brit, the taking of a drop of blood to symbolically ritually circumcise the prospective converts.

"community embracing conversion" is the subtitle for my experience where prospective converts are taught by members of the community along with Rabbinic teachings and visits, attend shabbat and holiday services each week (some traveling great distances of an hour and a half each way), participated in a special shabbaton of welcoming.  What struck me most was the solidarity of the small but vibrant community who showed up for all activities from ten in the morning to the conversion bet din twelve hours later and cheered mazel tov as each candidate came out from the bet din.  In the bet din we listened to heartfelt spiritual journeys of the candidates, many of whom related that their parents or grandparents telling them they were conversos or Crypto Jews on the their death beds.  The same bonding happened the next morning when I led the men in a hinei ma tov song (Psalm 133), behold how good and pleasant it is when men come together to support one another as they bravely prepared for the quick and painless entry into the covenant of Abraham.

We then left in a convoy for the hour ride to the colonial capital of Antigua for volcanically heated hot springs where the candidates immersed three times in private chambers where the same sex rabbi observed the proper immersion and blessings declaring "Kasher!" and the other two rabbis remained outside the door listening to the splash and blessings.  After dressing the newly immersed Jews came out to a chorus of mazel tovs, embraces, tears and small gifts of Judaica.

After a celebration luncheon at the delicious restaurant serving typical Guatemalan cuisine and of course some of the best hot chocolate tin the in the world, we returned to the synagogue for the wedding of two couples who had been married for many years, but never had a Jewish wedding.  The community brought flowers and hand decorated a home made chuppah (marital canopy) for a traditional Jewish wedding followed by the breaking of the class with another chorus of singing and mazel tovs along with toasts of L'chaim with strong Guatemalan rum and sweet cakes.  The sweetness of a welcoming community for Jews by choice will never be forgotten!

Visit The New Jews of Guatemala for an engaging 3 minute trailer for the documentary weekend!

Certificates of conversion proudly displayed after immersion in volcanically heated hot springs in Antigua

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Seas the Day: Lessons about Aloneness, Loneliness and Interconnectedness

“Seas the Day:  Lessons about Aloneness, Loneliness and Interconnectedness ” 
delivered Erev Rosh Hashana 2018 5779 Temple Emanuel  Denver, Colorado

“Welcome home” our TEMPLE tagline beckons.  But what exactly does it mean to “come home for the holidays?”  This is my first time here on the holidays as YOUR rabbi and frankly I’m a little nervous.   I’m the leadoff hitter, Hyatt’s on deck and Black, man (cf. Colorado Rockies' center fielder Charlie Blackmon), he’s the cleanup hitter who will bring us all home!

There are so many new faces in our overflowing sanctuary and it’s a little overwhelming.  Maybe some of you feel the same way.  Some of you are here for the first time and might feel alone.  Some of you regulars are looking forward to seeing old friends.  Some come just for the holidays.  I can almost hear you saying, “Every time I come to Temple, they blow the shofar!”  However you feel, I want to say, “welcome home.”  I’m glad you’re here!

Let me tell you why I’m here.  I had a difficult time last year:  my dad died, I turned sixty, we became empty nesters, there were changes in leadership at my job.  I needed a spiritual reset.  For the first time in almost four decades in my rabbinate, I chose not to lead Rosh Hashanah services, but instead to be a Jew in the pew.  I chose to spend Rosh HaShana at Temple’s Shwayder Camp with my family.  I felt I had come home to the warmth of a spiritual community where I belonged!

Before I accepted this position as your rabbi, I had committed to serving as a cruise rabbi for the summer.  Tonight, at this dawn of our New Year, I’d like to share with you my lessons learned from my forty days at sea volunteering as the Jewish Chaplain on Holland America's Voyage of the Vikings from Boston to Rotterdam and back.

Images of Noah’s and Jonah’s voyages dangled ominously before me.  I was intrigued by Martin Buber’s adage, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware."
What would be my secret destination?  Perhaps this sermon, about aloneness, loneliness and interconnectedness. 

How would I manage on such a long voyage?  My wife, Hilary, with commitments here, was only interested in being onboard for half of the cruise.  What would it be like to travel solo for three weeks until my wife and sons met me?  After reflecting on previous trips when I’d traveled alone as a student rabbi Down Under, I knew a younger self had been able to thrive.  Back, then, traveling solo made me feel competent, centered, and confident --ready for any adventure.   Would the same be true at this stage of my life? Wanting to share the experience, I called my brother-in-law who agreed to join me on this voyage.  I felt relieved.  I knew the difference between aloneness and loneliness--both are existential conditions of being alone, one by choice and the other, not by choice.  Like most of us, I was concerned about feeling lonely without my family and community, but found one in our minyan at sea, a group of three dozen Jews of all denominations from the world over, including Temples’ Diane and Jack Zalinger, who showed up for our weekly shabbat experiences -- and even for Tisha B’Av, a traditional fast day, on a cruise ship with endless buffets, no less!  We came aboard alone as individuals, but left together as a community that enabled us to literally “Seas the Day”.

Let me share with you someone who lives alone without community.  Someone who mastered his aloneness for a mission.  I met an environmental artist, Vilmundur ├×orgrimsson, (pronounced “Villi Thorgrimsson”) who lives alone with his dog that he trains with eye blinks in the tiny port of Dj├║pivogur in Eastern Iceland.  His gallery museum is housed in the hillside of his eclectic seaside home:  a collection of bones, stones, minerals, driftwood, and other interesting tchotchkes from the rugged maritime environment.   Living alone, he works tirelessly, advocating for environmental justice by sending samples of the marine life bones he collects for analysis and by running the always open  FreeVilli gallery, a conglomeration of his nickname and the 1993 film where Keiko, the killer whale, was a movie star.

“Free Willy” is the story of the rescue of an orca whale from a run-down Mexican Marineland theme park back to freedom in the wild.  Villi shared the true end of the story. The sad ending of the whale that was returned to Iceland, but never was able to reconnect with his family pod and died five years later of pneumonia in a Norwegian fjord. Orcas are unable to live alone, they need each other to hunt and survive. While Villi lives a full and meaningful life all alone as an environmental activist, imagine what he could do as part of a community!  Keiko couldn’t find his family.  Keiko died alone of loneliness.

Loneliness is a chronic problem worldwide.  Just this year the UK appointed a loneliness minister to combat ‘sad reality of modern life’ Journalist Tamar Lapin wrote that (New York Post January 17, 2018) for a “United” Kingdom, they’re pretty lonely.”

The new and world’s only Loneliness Minister, Tracey Crouch, knows what it’s like to feel frighteningly alone. After giving birth to her first child, Freddie, in 2016, the British lawmaker says that despite having a “network of friends, family and a wonderful partner,” she began feeling cut off from the world. It wasn’t a new sensation; Crouch says she also suffered from depression six years earlier, when she first became a member of parliament. It felt like she was “in a very dark place, a very lonely place” she recalls. (Retrieved from  Thankfully, some brisk exercise and getting out with the stroller, was the fix she needed when she was low. Helping an entire nation will be more complicated, but she’s up for the task!  Crouch related:  “I could be the minister for happiness, because that’s exactly what I’m trying to achieve.”

When announcing the appointment, Prime Minister Theresa May cited research stating around 14% of the population often or always feels lonely.
“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.”
The creation of this cabinet post comes after a report by a British commission that identified loneliness as a social epidemic—listen to that choice of words, an epidemic—literally, life threatening.  The government report also found that feeling alone was as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! (Retrieved from

On our side of the Pond, loneliness may even be contributing to the escalating rate of suicide up 25% since 1999 in the US.  Dr. Clay Routledge recently wrote in the New York Times (6/23/2018) that “the suicide rate has increased even as more people are seeking treatment for depression and anxiety, and even as treatment for those conditions has become more widely available.”   (Retrieved from

As a behavioral scientist, he is convinced that our nation’s suicide crisis is in part a crisis of meaninglessness.  How do we find meaning and purpose in our lives? There are many paths, but the psychological literature suggests that close relationships with other people are our greatest existential resource. Regardless of social class, age, gender, religion or nationality, people report that the life experiences they find most personally meaningful, typically involve loved ones.

Critically, it isn’t enough to simply be around or even liked by other people. We need to feel valued by them, to feel we are making important contributions to a world that matters. This helps explain why people can feel lonely and meaningless even if they are regularly surrounded by others who treat them well:  Merely pleasant or enjoyable social encounters aren’t enough to stave off despair.

I found this to be true of one of my fellow cruisers, Ethel Guttenberg, a member of Wise Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio, who gave me permission to share her story--in fact she encouraged me to do so.  Ethel, and her husband Marvin, have outlived both their son and granddaughter. Their son, Michael, was an emergency medical physician with the New York Fire Department.  He died last year of pancreatic cancer linked to the toxins he was exposed to as he treated others at ground zero on September 11th (-- whose 17th anniversary corresponds this year to Rosh HaShana II).  Four months after Michael died, their granddaughter, Jaime, a fourteen year old dancer, died.  She was one of the seventeen students who were shot in a senseless act of violence six months ago at Marjorie Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland, Florida.

I wouldn’t blame Ethel if she wallowed forever in her grief:  never left her home, never got dressed and never went out, but there she was with her husband on our Voyage of the Vikings.  She could easily be spotted around our ship wearing bright orange ribbons or shirts memorializing Jamie’s legacy.  At every conversation she brought up the importance of gun safety and holding governmental representatives accountable so that other parents wouldn’t have to suffer their devastation.  When I asked her how she was able to get through this horrific loss, she told me of her synagogue community, and their rabbi, my friend and classmate, Lewis Kamrass, who was there to support them during their loss with shiva minyanim, pastoral counselling, weekly saying of the kaddish memorial prayer at services and support of meals and visits from their Caring Community.

Ethel now works tirelessly for gun safety causes.  She knows each of her congressional representatives on a first name basis!  She implored me to get everyone I knew to vote this election and to raise the issue with candidates. She became the mortar of our congregation at sea, and inspiration on creating a caring network focused on meaning and deep relationships.

And maybe that’s why you’ve come home for the holidays.  I know that’s why I’m here.  I am honored to be a part of such a dynamic and caring clergy team—a team that works tirelessly with all of you to create this spiritual home.

We come here, to this sacred place, for this holy community, to be connected.  Instinctively we know that this where we can relate on the meaning or soul level with others.  We need to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

What is the biggest organism on earth?  If asked most people think of our friend Willy the whale or giant redwood trees as the largest living things, but it’s something closer to home as you can see from this picture I took last year at Rosh Hashanah services at Shwayder Camp.    It’s a quaking aspen clone in the Kebler pass near Crested Butte, Colorado.  According to Michael Grant, University of Colorado scientist, who made the  discovery this aspen forest consists of 47,000 tree trunks covering over 100 acres . It is calculated to weigh 13 million pounds (Retrieved from

Grant pointed out that Aspen trees commonly grow by the “vegetative method” called suckering. An individual stem can send out lateral roots that, under the right conditions, send up other stems; from all above-ground appearances the new stems look just like individual trees. This process of reproduction can grow vast forests of aspen that are all interconnected by roots and are one genetic individual.  That’s why at this time of year you can see a clone of aspen all turn golden at the same time because they are interconnected.

Here in the Chai country I’ve had the privilege of meeting thousands of Jews these past twenty years before I was offered this position by my colleague and friend, Rabbi Black, when I had the privilege of serving as Denver’s Jewish community Chaplain and part time as the visiting rabbi in Evergreen and Durango.  I got to know the Rocky Mountain mythos of the rugged individualistic cowboy riding off into the sunset by themself.  Everyone, it seems, was spiritual, but not religious and was institutionally suspicious and wary of organized religion—I always told them, “don’t worry, we’re very disorganized and there’s nothing to fear!”

At this season “Mountain Jews” loved telling me how they like to go to the mountains for a solitary hike as they cast tashlich stones into a creek and to atone for their sins, but here at Temple we know praying in the aspens are not enough--although there is something special at camp –it’s not just the physical surroundings--it’s the community.  Sometimes it’s hard to see the communal forest from the individual trees, but we know that like the aspens, they are all interconnected.

Our Temple can be like an aspen clone, eitz chayim, a tree of life, where we are all interconnected as one holy community through sacred study, communal worship and deeds of care.  Affinity groups like our Caring Community, Sisterhood and Brotherhood, Chavurahs, Anshei Mitzva /Adult Bnei Mitzva, Free Birds/Empty Nesters, Youth and Young Adults groups, spiritual support groups for bereavement and divorce, Family Promise and Mitzvah Day, help us connect not only to find meaning in life, but to give meaning through helping others.

I love our Torah Study, not just because I love learning Torah in my preparation for teaching or attending it, but the insight of others that deepen our learning together as we explore our Tree of Life!

When my father died last year, we sat shiva in Toronto.  There I was in my dad’s condo surrounded by many people, but feeling very lonely.  It wasn’t until we got back to Denver and sat the final days here with many of you that I truly felt connected and comforted by community.

Our sages teach when God saw the first human without a partner God said, “It is not good for an earthling to be alone.” This, state our Rabbis, is one of the defining tensions of all human life; we are independent, but we are also interdependent.  That’s why so much of our High Holiday liturgy is in the plural form—we’re all in the same boat!

So nu, back to the forty days at sea.  Why forty?  Like Noah tonight we embark on a forty day voyage exploring not the outer space of the flood, but the inner space of our soul.  These are the forty days between the first day of Elul, when we begin to blow the Shofar to prepare for Rosh Hashana, until Yom Kippur, the end of the annual teshuva (repentance) period. These forty days are the most auspicious time for personal growth and renewal. 

So for whatever reason you are here tonight, be it a first timer or a regular, either alone or with someone, let us join hands for our teshuva journey of return. May the activism of Villi, the promise of Tracey Crouch, the courage of Ethel, together with the warmth of Temple, inspire us for a New Year filled with activism, meaning, and connection!   Welcome home!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Free Us From The Narrows of Capital Punishment