A native of Staten Island, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld has served for a decade as spiritual leader of Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., which bills itself as the city’s oldest Orthodox congregation. The rabbi, who was ordained by Yeshiva University and served for five years as associate rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, has helped revive Ohev Sholom by conducting a high-visibility outreach to unaffiliated Jews. He also teaches a regular class on Judaism at the U.S. Senate.
Rabbi Herzfeld’s latest book, “Food for the Spirit: Inspirational Lessons from the Yom Kippur Service” (Gefen Publishing) will come out in time for Yom Kippur this year. Based on High Holiday sermons he has delivered since joining Ohev Sholom, the book is a collection of personal stories — many of them dealing with taxis — that carry a theological message. The Jewish Week interviewed Rabbi Herzfeld by email.
Q: Most Jews’ favorite holiday is Passover or Chanukah or Purim. Who starts a book by declaring, “Yom Kippur is my favorite?” You like afflicting your soul?
A: First of all, I love fasting. I love the feeling at the end of a fast day where I have not eaten for 24 hours. I find that that feeling produces a spiritual high. Second, Yom Kippur is such a joyous day because we are all given a second chance in life. The ability to have a do-over in life is truly a great opportunity.
We usually associate the Day of Repentance with serious introspection and profound thoughts of regret. What inspired you to write a book of personal stories?
I am trying to use these stories to help people understand the deeper message of Yom Kippur. The stories are light but the messages are serious and uplifting. Rather than making our Yom Kippur focus exclusively on what we did wrong, I want our Yom Kippurs also to focus more on what we did right so that we can do it even better in the coming year.
Standing on one leg, what is the Yom Kippur message of your book?
Yom Kippur is an opportunity. Hashem created us all in His image. He therefore created us to be great. We should use Yom Kippur to help us strive to reach our potential.
A lot of your stories center around taxis, an old one that your shul inherited and a fleet of cabs that carried ads for your synagogues. What spiritual symbolism do you find in taxis?
Taxi drivers are a lot like rabbis. We are both trying to help someone get from one place to another.
Do your congregants always appreciate your story-based sermons on the most solemn day of the Jewish year?
Many Jews only come to shul on Yom Kippur. If the dvar Torah didn’t have any light stories in it, then I fear I would lose the opportunity to connect with those souls. So on Yom Kippur I specifically try to make my talks lighter than usual in order to be able to connect to a broader demographic.
Does every experience you have grow into a story, does every story have a lesson or spiritual message?
I think we all have these stories happening to us. One of challenges we all have in life is to stop and realize the spiritual significance of every moment. If we do that then every story will have a spiritual lesson and message.
Do you expect to add some new stories on this Yom Kippur?
For sure. For starters this year, my taxi had to go through inspection. It has over 300,000 miles and it is over 15 years old. It failed inspection three times. There has to be a sermon there! Also, this year I now get around town on a Segway [electric scooter]. The sermons from the Segway is a whole new genre of sermons just waiting to be shared.