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Jewish Journal

New Year Sermons Take Political Turn

"It pains me to stand before you on this eve of the new year 5765 and say without qualification that I have never lived in worse times than these."

by David Finnigan

September 23, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Southern California rabbis welcomed 5765 with words both patriotic and angry as they used their Rosh Hashanah pulpits to speak out against indifference, bigotry and other issues large and small.

"This is a congregation that is passionate about Israel, something of which we should be enormously proud," said Sinai Temple's Rabbi David Wolpe, as he spoke before High Holiday worshipers at the Westwood synagogue. "But there is a world ablaze out there, and it's not enough to care only about one thing."

While not downplaying the Holocaust, Wolpe's call for greater Jewish public witness to the world's woes found the rabbi quoting French author Albert Camus and, while reiterating the importance of remembering the Holocaust, also saying, "But 'never again' can't only apply to Jews."

Like other Southern California synagogues, security was omnipresent at Sinai Temple, which used three layers of synagogue door greeters checking Rosh Hashanah tickets, then uniformed security guards and plainclothes, off-duty police officers.

The Los Angeles Police Department increased patrols near synagogues during Rosh Hashanah, but a police spokesman said there were no reports of violence or vandalism.

The show of security did not dampen the High Holiday sentiment, as old friends from Sinai Temple greeted each other, including a smartly dressed young mother steering a pram who greeted a friend saying, "I remember that skirt!" Inside Sinai, as the ark was being opened, the Conservative sanctuary's back rows carried a low hum of friends chatting amidst the prayers.

On Pico Boulevard, Temple Isaiah played host to a sister Reform congregation, the gay- and lesbian-oriented Beth Chayim Chadashim and its overflow crowd of 400. Beth Chayim's board secretary, Steven Leider, is a UCLA student affairs officer whose gay and lesbian student outreach center had just been vandalized.

"My office at UCLA was attacked twice this week," Leider said. "We know that anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism and misogyny all travel hand in hand."

At the Reconstructionist congregation Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, homosexual issues were the backdrop of Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben's sermon denouncing those who oppose gay marriage rites as bigots.

"What a tragic commentary it makes upon our society, that just one day after our [state] Supreme Court invalidated California's 4,000 same-sex marriages," the rabbi said, "James McGreevy, the married governor of New Jersey, announced, 'I am a gay American,' and had to quit the governorship in public humiliation for among other things, having an affair with a man."

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, synagogue staffers saw at least 150 tickets sold through the shul's expanded Web site. Rabbi John Rosove's sermon mentioned the grand issues of modern Judaism as a stepping stone to discuss the Reform shul's new $18 million capital campaign to fund expansion.

"Stated simply, we've completely outgrown our facility, and this has become a serious problem and an unacceptable reality, because we're now turning away many individuals and families, including many young people in interfaith marriages, from our nursery school, which has acted as the entry point into our community and into Jewish life itself," Rosove said.

"Imagine what we could do with a renovated and expanded shul," he continued. "Imagine how many people's needs could be met over the next 75 years!"

At Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air, Rabbi Kenneth Chasen gave his second High Holidays sermon to his new congregation and painted the world as still deeply anti-Semitic and still filled with hatred, especially in this presidential campaign.

"It pains me to stand before you on this eve of the new year 5765 and say without qualification that I have never lived in worse times than these," the Reform rabbi said. "We live not only in dangerous time, we live in the most openly vitriolic times that I can remember.... It's hard to deny that we've become much more comfortable with being haters than we used to be."

Although many sermons spoke for peace in the Middle East and against genocide in Sudan, Sinai Temple's Wolpe struck a positive chord by noting that the new year marks the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in America, a land unlike others for Jews.

"America was different, because throughout our history, there was always the majority and the Jews," he said. "But in America, there were no Americans and Jews; we were of the country, not apart from it."

Then Wolpe said to those gathered before him for the High Holidays, "Look around you; this is happening all over America this morning."

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