Jewish Journal

What will your rabbi be talking about?

by Jane Ulman

Posted on Sep. 13, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom speaks at Board of Rabbis High Holy Days Seminar

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom speaks at Board of Rabbis High Holy Days Seminar

"Too late. To be continued. Get over it."

Rabbi Laurence Goldmark, of the Reform Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada, can summarize his main High Holy Days sermon in just those eight words. After 29 years at the shul, he plans to retire next summer, and he wants to take this season to reinforce those three fundamental themes, which he believes define his rabbinate.

Rabbi Laura Geller, of Reform Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, will launch a Greening the Synagogue campaign in her Rosh Hashanah sermon, springboarding off a Judgment Day question posed by the fourth-century Babylonian sage Rava. While Rava inquired about involving ourselves in procreation, Geller plans to reframe the question, asking congregants to reflect upon the world we will leave for our children.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy, of the Reconstructionist Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, spent nearly four weeks this summer in a rabbinic leadership program at Jerusalem's Hartman Institute. On Rosh Hashanah, she will talk about Israel at age 60 -- comparing the reality versus the dream. While her overall theme is to explore the notion of "one people," she believes the relationship between Israel and America must be "a two-way street."

In sermons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur throughout Southern California this year, rabbis will continue to exhort their congregants to look inward and outward, to reflect upon and repair themselves, their families and communities, the nation and the world.

Almost every rabbi interviewed for this article said they will discuss the timeless High Holy Day theme of teshuvah (repentance), and examine American Jews' ever-important relationship to Israel. Many will talk about global warming and the environmental consequences, and for some, though not an easy subject, the war in Iraq is on the agenda.

But it is often the case that the most successful sermons, the ones deemed most inspirational and most powerful, are those that emanate directly from the rabbi's heart. "It has to be spoken from the truest place of a rabbi's being," said Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Conservative Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Feinstein described the process of creating a sermon as "a profound work of teshuvah for the rabbi." He said the process forces rabbis to sit down with himself or herself and really examine where they are this year, what matters to them and what motivates them.

Feinstein's two sermons will focus on Israel and its 60th anniversary and on the question of power and powerlessness.

Feinstein worries that most Americans have given up on their ability to affect the condition of our national existence -- and even our communal existence -- and have become very private.

"This is a terrible sign for our democracy and a terrible spiritual disease," he said. He wants his sermon to motivate people to engage in "significant acts of volunteerism," which he believes is the remedy.

It isn't easy to write these sermons, and to help facilitate the process, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California holds an annual High Holy Days seminar, which this year took place on Aug. 14 at Stephen S. Wise Temple. More than 100 rabbis from synagogues extending from San Luis Obispo to San Diego attended, as well as about 35 student rabbis from the three local seminaries.

This year's seminar featured Valley Beth Shalom's Feinstein as both morning and afternoon keynote speaker, talking about the Yamim Nora'im (Days of Awe) as a window to change our lives and our world and also discussing the challenges and opportunities of preaching and teaching about Israel at 60. The seminar also offered six different workshops, from Rabbi Richard Levy's "Troubling Passages in the High Holy Day Machzor" to Rabbi Daniel Bouskila's "Revolutionary Traditionalism: Reading Theology in S.Y Agnon" (for a review of the book by Bouskila, see p. 21). Each participant selected two sessions.

"[The purpose] is to spark interest in ideas they've been turning around, to provide stories for mini-sermons and divrei Torah and to debunk the popular myth out there that rabbis copy sermons lock, stock and barrel," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Diamond also added that the finest sermons combine some kind of serious engagement with Jewish text and Jewish tradition with a specific issue of the day or a personal issue that people are facing.

For veteran Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, returning to Southern California as the new rabbi of Conservative Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, the most pressing communal issue is Jewish hospitality and the tradition of welcoming the stranger. Gartenberg will devote his main Rosh Hashanah sermon to the subject, introducing hospitality as the synagogue's yearlong theme. This is an extension of "Panim Hadashot: New Faces of Judaism," the program of Shabbat-centered learning and outreach Gartenberg founded while serving as rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin, of the Orthodox Young Israel of Century City, will deliver four High Holy Days sermons: on hearing the cry from the shofar and recognizing the pain of other Jews; on parenting as the ultimate gauge of success in life; on the importance of community; and on caring for the poor.

But the sermon he finds most challenging -- and the one on which he spends the most time pondering and preparing -- is the one he'll be giving on the afternoon of Shabbat Teshuvah, the Shabbat of Repentance, which this year immediately follows Rosh Hashanah. Hundreds of his congregants as well as others in the Pico-Robertson community will attend the hour-plus presentation, which he has titled "In Search of Spirituality."

"Spirituality is the key word today, but what does it mean?" Muskin asked. "A lot of people think it just means warm and fuzzy, but it's a question of really pursuing and trying to find a spiritual direction in one's life."

Rabbi Jan Goldstein is inaugurating a nondenominational High Holy Days experience this year, called "Bayit Shelanu," or "Our House" with singer/composer Debbie Friedman. Their goal is to reach out to Los Angeles' unaffiliated Jews. The services will be held at UCLA's Ackerman Grand Ballroom. Goldstein will focus one sermon on "Spending Your Jewish Capital," and he will ask participants what they intend to do with the history, folklore, language and connection to Israel that are part of our Jewish legacy. Another will address the topic "Islam and Judaism: Our Shared Heritage."

"I hope that this experience touches their hearts and touches the Judaism in them," said Goldstein, expressing the wish that afterward many will become motivated to affiliate.

Rabbi Joshua B. Gordon, spiritual leader of Chabad of Encino and executive director of Chabad of the Valley, will devote one of his five sermons to Israel, as he always does. He points out, however, that while this is the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel, the Jews' relationship to Israel goes back thousands of years to the time of Abraham.

For all of his talks, however, whatever the topic, Gordon has one goal that very likely sums up the goal of all rabbis sermonizing this season: "It is my vision that when people walk out of the synagogue after I've delivered a sermon, that they feel uplifted, they feel invigorated and they feel charged."

More on Bayit Shelanu information is available at http://www.bayitshelanu.org

For Rabbi Geller's sermon (MS Word format), click here.

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