In 1963, Richard Levy was in his mid-20s and in his last year of rabbinical school when he was sent on an internship to a synagogue in Jasper, Ala. About the time of Rosh Hashanah, not far away in the town of Birmingham, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church, an African-American place of worship, and four girls were killed.
Segregation ruled in the South and African-Americans lived in awful conditions, violence targeting blacks was common, and tensions between white and blacks were high. And there was Levy, finding himself on the pulpit during the High Holy Days, with an audience of Southern Jews looking to him for inspiration.
Did this 20-something have the life experience to give an effective sermon under such turbulent circumstances?
Levy, now a faculty member at his alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), found that he was able to inspire people, despite his age and the fact that the civil rights movement in the South was happening around him. And it changed him, too.
“My experience in Jasper as a student rabbi with contacts in the Jewish community added hugely to my own life,” Levy told the Journal in an interview.
Every year during the High Holy Days, prominent rabbis in the community offer up sermons that are stirring, emotional and meaningful. These clergy have been doing this for years, if not decades.
But what of the student rabbis who give High Holy Days sermons? Every year, HUC-JIR, American Jewish University and the Academy of Jewish Religion, California — local rabbinical colleges where students embark on programs to be ordained as rabbis — send their students to congregations as part of internships, or student pulpits, that are intended to give them hands-on experience. This includes delivering sermons during the holiest time of the year.
Jaclyn Fromer Cohen, who is entering her fifth and final year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR this fall, pondered the question of whether the limited life experience of students hinders their ability to give an effective sermon of such importance. Yes and no, she said.
Last year, the 29-year-old from Brentwood gave the sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at Pacific Palisades congregation Kehillat Israel, and she plans to return to the Reconstructionist synagogue this year to do the same.
Cohen says she understands the ambivalence that congregants who are older — sometimes several decades older — might have sitting in a synagogue while a student in his or her 20s links life wisdom with Jewish text on the biggest days of the Jewish calendar.
“You stand in front of the firing squad and hope for the best,” she said.
The trick, Cohen continued, is to realize one’s age and limitations, rather than overcompensating for them and pretending to have lived more than one has — and to draw from what one has experienced, all the while remaining humble.
“I am very much aware of what I’ve been through, and I am very much aware of what I haven’t been through,” she said. “I am not going to speak in a way that says, ‘I’m a 29-year-old, and I have been through X, Y and Z, and now I will talk to you because [I know everything].’ I don’t think most people do that.
“But I do think what I try to do is I try to say, ‘Listen, I’ve had life experiences, the people I’m talking to have had their own, the person sitting next to the person I’m talking to has had their own. We come with our respective baggage and our respective things and our skeletons in the closet.’ And I try to honor that, and I try never to speak to things I don’t know,” she said.
This thinking has worked for her so far, she said, reporting that congregants offered positive feedback to her sermon that connected a contemporary issue — gun violence — with the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, which Cohen says is the “first mention of love in the Torah.”
Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, has given more than 40 High Holy Days sermons at one of the largest Conservative congregations in the area. He said that those who wonder if student rabbis have sufficient life experience to be giving High Holy Days sermons is a completely valid concern for an outside party to have.
Valid but also ultimately irrelevant, he argued. To give a good High Holy Days sermon — or any sermon, for that matter — one needs two things: an in-depth knowledge of Torah and an open heart, Feinstein said.
“It’s not you speaking, you are channeling Torah. If you are saying something important, from the heart, about the human condition, and you are talking about how Torah is bringing wisdom to this, then people will listen to you,” he said. “You can’t speak on your own. You don’t know. What do you know about these things? But you have something important from the world of Torah to say, and people have come to hear your Torah, and that’s what they hear.”
Sometimes students will make the mistake, however, of overcompensating for their age, said Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple, who works with rabbinic students on sermons as an HUC-JIR instructor on homiletics, a required course for students that focuses on the development of sermons. The mistake these students make is trying to make up for experience by overloading their sermons with traditional text that, to the unschooled people in the audience, sounds like a foreign language. In such cases, “sermons become academic presentations,” he said.
As for Levy — the rabbi of the campus synagogue and director of spiritual growth at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus — his days of student pulpits are long behind him.
In some respects, however, Levy says students have an edge over seasoned rabbis.
“Freshness always bring an advantage,” he said.
And if the student takes that freshness, is humble, aware of his or her lack of life experience and still fails to connect?
“They’re still students,” he said. “Hopefully people [will be] forgiving or understanding.”