Rabbis Face New Year In ‘Harrowing Times’ Post-Pittsburgh


Pittsburgh is 370 miles from New York City. That distance will dissolve, geographically and spiritually, next week as Jews flock to High Holiday services — the first since 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue were gunned down last October on Shabbat morning.

The Pittsburgh killings sparked a national debate about synagogue security and guns in shul, and temple goers this High Holiday season will notice the stepped-up security. The brazen synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., near San Diego came in a Jewish year that included a rise in anti-Semitic incidents here and across the nation, as measured by the Anti-Defamation League and the NYPD.

In their Rosh HaShanah sermons, the most well-attended ones of the year, rabbis are finding the topics of anti-Semitism and security unavoidable, although they may not agree on the solutions or the politics — or whether politics belong in their sermons at all.

“I’m going back to basics, talking about what it means to be Jews in these harrowing times,” said Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, “both in terms of sticking together as a people and in terms of the Torah teachings and lived wisdom that have enabled us to make it through difficult times in the past.”

Many rabbis told The Jewish Week that their Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services will take place in buildings where enhanced security measures — both visible, like armed guards and body searches, and subtle measures like security cameras and other high- and low-tech steps not immediately evident —have been instituted.

“They’re going to see it. They’re going to feel it,” said Rabbi Lester Bronstein of Beth Am Shalom Synagogue in White Plains. He said volunteers from the Community Service Security organization will stand guard next week at his congregation — “many more than last year.”

In the city that is home to the largest number of Jews and Jewish organizations in the United States, security “is on people’s minds,” said Rabbi Adir Posy, the Orthodox Union’s director of synagogue and community services.

In its annual pre-High Holidays meeting with leaders of the local Jewish community, New York City Police Department officials said last week that patrols of synagogues and other Jewish institutions, particularly in neighborhoods with a high number of Jewish residents, will be increased during the High Holiday period.

The briefing followed several attacks on Jews in such areas as Crown Heights and Williamsburg in recent months.

“Some synagogues will find it easier than others to afford extra measures. But all will be more on alert,” said Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The rabbi, who leads services at Congregation B’nai Olam in Fire Island Pines, L.I., said she will devote one sermon to anti-Semitism and “racial justice and what it means to honor our fellow humans, and what we need to repent for as a nation.”

Sutton Place Synagogue, which has hardened the building’s security for several years, has hired more guards to screen and protect worshippers.

Rabbi Rachel Ain will devote one of her sermons to the growing threat of anti-Semitism in the United States and the need for growing diligence about security.

Sutton Place is not alone. While most rabbis and officials contacted by The Jewish Week declined to discuss specifics of synagogues’ security systems, they said High Holiday sermons will approach the topic of anti-Semitism from different directions.

“I hear from many rabbinic colleagues that they will be talking about anti-Semitism this year,” said Rabbi Erica Asch of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine.

“People feel less safe,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, chief executive of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm.

Some rabbis say they will focus on the related topics of the white supremacy movement, and on gun control, and others on such issues as Israel, immigrant justice, the environment, and the growing sense of incivility in the U.S.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side said he will stress to his progressive congregation that the threat of anti-Semitism “comes from both the right wing and the left.”

In the charedi — chasidic and yeshivishe — community, most rabbis’ sermons are likely to concentrate on the traditional religious themes of the Days of Awe, said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the charedi Agudath Israel of America organization. “If the past is evidence, they will be focused exclusively on personal growth and shmirat hamitzvot (observance of the Torah’s commandments), not on social or political issues, important as they may be. The High Holy Days in the Orthodox community, particularly in the charedi one, are a time of introspection, not news commentary.”

“Anti-Semitism is not political at all,” agreed Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of the Orthodox Congregation Kelilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side, who said he “will not be speaking about politics, as usual. Oftentimes the argument is made that one needs to speak about politics because it is ‘relevant.’ But I cannot think of anything more relevant to talk about in a synagogue than the spiritual and existential needs of the congregation.”

Rabbi Eli Blokh of Chabad of Rego Park, Queens, said he may refer to anti-Semitism in a wider sense, “without being political.”

“People hear political commentary all year long,” said Rabbi Mark Kaiserman of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills; he said he plans to sermonize on “the power of community … atonement … [and] the value of kindness between people. I hope to bring something more ethically and personally focused on the holidays and not a variation of what they might hear on cable news.”

Rabbis in other cities said they also will be speaking about anti-Semitism during their High Holy Days sermons.

“These pogroms [in Pittsburgh and Poway] took place in synagogues, with Jews at prayer,” said Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn. “It would defy all logic and be irresponsible not to discuss these things.”

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles said he will mention anti-Semitism, while stressing that “Judaism is best regarded as a ‘religious family’ and that ideological differences should not tear families apart.”

Such sermons, according to Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, typically are a combination of “the head and the heart … the personal and the global,” and attacks on Jews in a synagogue during worship services are at the intersection of both concerns.

Some rabbis said they will stress congregants’ spiritual response to anti-Semitism during High Holiday remarks, urging congregants to lead more dedicated Jewish lives.

“Be proudly and uncompromisingly Jewish,” Rabbi Ain said she will tell her congregants on Rosh HaShanah.

“One important way to combat anti-Semitism and white nationalism is to engage more deeply with our beliefs, traditions, rituals and community,” Rabbi Asch said.

Rabbi Andrea Merrow of Elkins Park, Pa., will discuss “living with joy, especially with the rise of anti-Semitism.”