On no occasion are more Jews sitting in synagogue pews than on the solemn days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In addition to being intent on the worship at hand, synagogue attendees’ legs are cramped from sitting down and standing up in the same place all day, their minds are wandering from the liturgy and they are doing their best to stifle yawns.
That makes it prime time for sermons, as every rabbi knows – the sweeps period of the Jewish calendar, when rabbis have the opportunity to reach congregants who otherwise don’t set foot in a synagogue all year and service attendees are anxious for something to break up the long services.
It is the rabbis’ best chance to inspire large numbers of congregants – to push them toward reflection and observance, to spark their interest in spirituality and to plant the seeds of Jewish values that might influence their decisions in the coming year.
The High Holy Days, in other words, are no time for extemporaneous exegesis.
A random survey of rabbis from across the denominational spectrum reveals that indeed, they are thinking about their sermons long before the first blasts of the shofar usher in the New Year.
And despite the eternal truths of the Torah, in an election year, even the most traditional of rabbis are turning to political themes for that valuable quality known as relevance.
High Holy Day sermons this year will undoubtedly prove that “family values” aren’t the exclusive province of the president and his Republican convention delegates.
Rabbis will be focusing on the very same topic during the Days of Awe; some say that “regaining” Jewish family values must be the community’s goal if it is to improve the depressing picture of intermarriage, disaffiliation and assimilation painted by the recent National Jewish Population Survey.
According to Jeffrey Bienenfeld, rabbi at the Orthodox Young Israel of St. Louis, Mo., “More of a focus has to be on family values. If you have the best Jewish education in the world but it’s not reinforced on the day-to-day mundane level of family life, there can’t be Jewish continuity.”
“Ultimately, even if Jewish continuity is only defined in the barest possible terms, it’s going to be a function of the strength of the family,” he says.
Ronald Roth, rabbi of the West End Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Nashville, Tenn., says that “family values” has been beaten to death and misshapen (by politicians).
“The Jewish value is teaching your children and passing on Judaism, an area we’ve neglected,” he says.
In his High Holy Day remarks, Roth plans to issue a call for parents to take “an active and serious role in the education of their children.”
He’ll also be talking about the “very permeable barrier” between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.
“Today we have to convince Jews to be Jews,” says Roth. “It’s not useful to instill guilt or blame for deserting the past. We need to verbalize the glory and power and simple personal satisfactions of being a Jew.”
Rabbi Jerome Herzog, at Knesseth Israel, an Orthodox congregation in St. Louis Park, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, also plans to discuss family values, by appropriating the initials of the virus that causes AIDS.
“H.I.V.: hypocrisy, indifference and violence in our society,” he explains. “It’s a crazy world, and it frightens me.”
Rabbi JayR (correct spelling) Davis, of Vero Beach, Fla.’s Reform Temple Beth Shalom, will also talk about the elections, but he will focus on more than changes in government administrations.
He will be talking about how the Jewish people influence the elections in Israel and the United States, but his central issue will be the election of the Jewish people, or chosen-ness, and the responsibility that comes along with it.
Davis decided on the election theme because of a recent experience he had leading a regional conclave of Reform teenagers. “These kids take their election seriously,” he says. “These kids are saying we’re the ones who have to make it happen.”
His colleague to the north, Rabbi James Glazier of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in South Burlington, Vt., will also speak about the gift of being a Jew today and what responsibilities come along with that.
Glazier was inspired by recent trips he took to the Nazi death camps in Poland, and to New York’s Ellis Island.
“We should look upon ourselves as a privileged lot who should utilize this blessing to the fullest,” he says.
“We are left with the legacy of living lives that can bring Judaism to greater fruition. We have an opportunity to bring greater vitality to our people. We’re left with this precious opportunity, and we should not fancifully throw it away.”
“We have been blessed for so long that we’re not aware of how unique the American experience has been for Jews. We must recognize this blessing and not let it be lost from our grasp,” Glazier says.
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, a Conservative congregation in Highland Park, Ill., a suburb north of Chicago, will also be discussing personal responsibility.
Motivated by a recent vacation to the Canadian Rockies, where he gazed upon seemingly immutable glaciers hundreds of thousands of years old, Kurtz plans to talk about the constant change of the world and the part that individuals play in that dynamic.
“Rosh Hashanah suggests that individuals with free choice and free will have enormous impact on the world. Having seen the glaciers I realize the little speck we are in human history, but we still have a need to make a difference – like the Righteous Gentiles, ordinary people who were everyday heroes,” he says, referring to non-Jews who helped save Jews during the Holocaust.
He plans to devote his Yom Kippur speeches to the concept of guilt, on both personal and national levels, he explains, and the “recognition that it can be used in a positive way to empower us.”
Bonnie Koppell, a Reconstructionist rabbi at a Conservative synagogue near Phoenix, Temple Beth Sholom in Mesa, Ariz., will talk about Jewish concepts of the after-life, “since Yom Kippur is about an encounter with one’s own mortality.”
Judaism’s view of the afterlife is one of the subjects she is most frequently asked about, Koppell says, adding that she plans to have congregants talk about their own encounters with death.
For Rosh Hashanah, she will be giving a two-part series on incorporating spirituality into everyday life, which she calls “the major challenge of Judaism.”
Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue in New York, a Reform congregation, will talk about spirituality in the context of ritual.
Wasserman will devote at least one of her Rosh Hashanah talks to the significance of ritual in our lives as Jews and the importance of creating new rituals where traditions do not already exist.