Their subjects will range from anti-Semitism to baseball's Ted Williams, from the messianic era to Disney's "The Lion King." The High Holiday sermons of Orange County's rabbis will be both as topical as today's headlines and as traditional as 2,000-year-old tomes.
Rabbis spend weeks ruminating over topics and scouring scholarly texts before putting pen to paper or hunkering behind a keyboard. Last year, of course, their advance work never was never delivered. Sept. 11's shock wave immediately before Rosh Hashana shredded every prepared text.
This year, the anniversary of the terrorist attack falls between the two High Holidays: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. With fast-shifting events in Israel, spiritual leaders remain a bit leery about committing too early to a subject only to see it turn stale in the wake of a suicide-bombing.
"It's too precious an opportunity not to be purposeful," said Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B'nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Tustin. "It's the one time I have everybody there." His intention is "to give them a fix of the joy of belonging. Living Jewishly is countercultural. I want to remind them of why it's worthwhile and enriching to be in God's presence in a communal setting."
Spitz prepared for the holidays by attending an annual sermon seminar in Los Angeles and reading eclectically. He is the rare rabbi whose remarks are extemporaneous. "I just get up and speak it in the moment," he said, describing his approach as generating the sort of titillation as "high-wire walking." "Sometimes it's better than others."
Others nail down their outlines weeks ahead. Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of Temple Beth Ohr, a Reform synagogue in La Mirada, was ready in July. Among his topics are the philosophy of author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel; anti-Semitism as a guise for anti-Israel sentiment; and the example of congregant Marcia Finkel, who found hope and laughter more effective than antidepressants before dying in June from cancer.
How to keep hope alive is also the focus of one sermon by Rabbi Michael Mayershon of Temple Beth David, a Westminster Reform congregation. His Yom Kippur address about Israel is equally sobering. It asks, "Are we witnessing a funeral for peace?"
A recent trip to Berlin figures in a sermon planned by Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Bat Yahm, a Newport Beach Reform congregation. Visiting a villa where the Nazi hierarchy plotted the Holocaust in 1942, Miller and others attending the legal conference spontaneously held a Shabbat service. "To have those prayers echoing in that room which echoed with 'Heil Hitlers' was overwhelming."
Other Miller topics include the consequences of greed and avarice in corrupting corporate ethics, and the final inning of baseball legend Ted Williams, whose son is seeking his father's immortality through modern-day mummification.
Another celebrity, Simba, will take the spotlight in remarks by Rabbi Neal Weinberg of Temple Judea, an independent congregation in Laguna Woods. Rather than a coming of age movie, Weinberg sees Disney's "The Lion King" as a Jewish parable about returning to Jewish living.
Rabbi Rick Steinberg of Irvine's Congregation Shir Ha Ma'alot, a Reform synagogue, intends to explore spiritually coping with unexplainable events. "The biggest challenge is to give word and voice to things that don't make any sense," he said. An example, Steinberg said, is as close as the traditional "l'chaim; it's a powerful toast. We live for life."
He also intends to draw a historical parallel to current events. "It's not the Holocaust. It's not the crusades. What's going on is not anti-Israel; it's anti-Jewish," he said. "Every Jew no matter where they live is part of that."
Being realistic about apologies and forgiveness is a theme of Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue, Irvine's Reconstructionist congregation. "People have this fantasy that forgiveness should immediately transfer grudges and pain. Sometimes it doesn't," he said. His Yom Kippur sermon is action-oriented, moving from repairing the soul to repairing the world. "We have to move from the hard work of apologizing and forgiving to the hard work of giving funds to social transformation."
Taking the least topical approach are the rabbis of two Orthodox congregations.
"I think it's wrong for rabbis to speak about current events," said Rabbi David Eliezrie of Yorba Linda's Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen, although he concedes to bending the rule last year when he spoke about Israel. "It should be about the spiritual themes of the holidays; for the Jews who come to synagogue once a year, to give them that moment to connect them to their heritage and their spirituality."
Viewing the current conflict through a 2,000-year-old theological perspective is Rabbi Joel Landau of Irvine's Beth Jacob Congregation. His sermon will take an apocalyptic tone.
"It seems to be pretty clear that the Messianic era, whenever it is, it's getting pretty close," he said. "People ought to take their Judaism more seriously."
His subtext is the potency of prayer and Jews who are inhibited by religious expression. By comparison to Muslims, he notes, who, no matter the circumstances, devotedly drop to their prayer rugs five times a day.
"Prayer is not a spectator sport," Landau said. "It's a contact sport."
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