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High Holidays Feature Speaking Words of Wisdom, Rabbis Hone in on Their Holiday Messages

September 8, 2004
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With Rosh Hashanah just days away, rabbis across America are fine-tuning their High Holiday messages in preparation for the annual influx of congregants to their synagogues. Issues of the day will figure prominently in many holiday sermons this year, as rabbis choose particularistic Jewish themes to address universal concerns in what they say is an age of uncertainty, materialism and danger.

“The need a lot of people have is to hear that God is with us,” said Rabbi Harold Berman, spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Columbus, Ohio.

“This is a very scary world that we live in — scary in the way that it was scary to our ancestors and has not generally been scary to us.”

Citing anti-Semitism, widespread hostility against Israel and the consequences of the Sept. 11 attacks, Berman said that a Torah passage read on Yom Kippur, which provides appropriate solace for these times, will be the central theme ! of one of his major sermons.

“And God visited Sarah as He said, and God did to Sarah as He had spoken,” reads the passage from Genesis, chapter 21, in which God fulfills his pledge to Abraham’s wife and enables Sarah to become pregnant.

“I think they really need to hear that there’s hope for the future, and that hope emerges from our tradition,” Berman said.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., an Orthodox congregation, said crafting a High Holiday message is no small job.

“As rabbis, we must help our congregants recharge their spiritual batteries and mend their emotional lives. The sermon must impact on the lifestyle or mind-set of the congregant,” he said.

“The congregation on the High Holidays is hungry for an understanding of existence and the meaning of human destiny. They are bewildered by the state of the world, the Jewish people, the family — and they are confused about their own ideals and beliefs.”

Given such! high expectations, coming up with the right message for what one rabb i described as the Jewish version of the State of the Union address can be a major source of anxiety for some spiritual leaders.

“I know from personal observation how in these weeks rabbis become frantic in search of an idea or a story,” Schneier said.

Judging from interviews with rabbis across the country, the messages this High Holiday season are as diverse as they are topical.

“For Rosh Hashanah, I’m writing a sermon about gratitude and thanksgiving,” said Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, associate rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, Calif., a Reform congregation.

The sermon talks about “how life sometimes is very trying and very difficult, and that we don’t recognize the necessity as human beings to be grateful.”

The Hebrew “word ‘hodaya’ means not only thanksgiving, but also means confession,” Missaghieh noted, linking her sermon topic to another High Holiday theme: The Yom Kippur prayer service, as well as early morning prayers before and during the 10 Days ! of Repentance, include special confessional prayers detailing personal and Jewish communal sins.

Though Missaghieh said her theme was inspired by the personal stories of her own synagogue members — such as the woman fighting ovarian cancer who expressed unending gratitude for being able to go food shopping with her young daughter — global developments have helped universalize the sermon’s message.

“In the post 9/11 world, when we Americans are often very shielded, it’s important to realize that life is so tenuous and be thankful for it,” Missaghieh said.

As every year, Israel will figure prominently in many High Holiday sermons. Berman said he devotes a sermon to Israel every year that ends in a plea to buy Israel Bonds.

This year, he will be talking about how troublesome it is that many people around the world have a problem with Jews in Israel defending themselves.

Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, one of three rabbis at New York’s popular B’nai Jeshurun synagogu! e, a Conservative congregation in Manhattan, will be taking a slightly different approach.

“It’s a catastrophe of the Jewish people that Israel has fostered policies that have been narrow-minded, that have brought economic disaster and the absence of peace, and have left violence to prevail,” he said.

“By trying to rule another people against its will, it has brought pain and violence and hatred.”

Matalon has sent a letter to 1,800 congregant homes asking shul-goers to read a book by Great Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, called “The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations,” which will serve as a primer for a text-study session during the holidays.

The rabbi will discuss the book’s themes and talk about the crisis of vision, morality and compassion in the Jewish community.

“We are entrenched in tribalisms and particularism, and we have not been able to unfold a vision that is larger, that is inclusive, that is conducive to peace, to human dignity,” Matalon said.

The message applies not only to Isr! ael, but to America as well, he said.

“The fact that there are nearly 40 million Americans in this country without health insurance in the wealthiest country on the earth is a catastrophe. It is a Jewish catastrophe, because Judaism teaches about dignity for all.”

Many rabbis are deliberately steering away from current events in favor of more traditionally Jewish themes.

“I very rarely if ever will speak about current events or politics on the yamim noraim,” said Rabbi Menachem Greenblatt of Agudas Israel in St. Louis, Mo., using the Hebrew term for High Holidays, “because I think current events they’ll get from other sources, and the High Holidays are days we need to be introspective.”

Greenblatt, who heads what he calls a “yeshivish” Orthodox congregation, said that up to 95 percent of his congregants attend services weekly or daily, so his High Holiday sermons — he delivers seven during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — are not as freighted! with importance as those of rabbis whose congregants go to synagogue only occasionally.

Greenblatt’s sermons, which he says he doesn’t draft very far in advance, focus on spiritual improvement, community involvement and personal introspection. The goal, he said, is to get people that are serious about observance of the mitzvot, or commandments, to the next level of observance.

Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, of Temple Beth Zion, a nondenominational congregation in Brookline, Mass., said he, too, is struggling to get congregants to the next level of observance — in his case, observance of the Sabbath.

“I’m making a big push for Shabbos again,” Waldoks said. He’ll talk about “why it’s important, not only for themselves, but also for the community.”

Ultimately, the more successful rabbis’ High Holiday messages are at getting congregants back to the synagogue, the less central a place High Holiday sermons will occupy in the pantheon of American Jewish religious rituals.

But “the real issue,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, lead rabbi at Congrega! tion Mount Sinai, a Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn, are “the invisible Jews, the Jews who are not there for Rosh Hashanah.”

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