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Jewish Journal

The Annual Rabbi Sermon Seminar

July 30, 1998 | 8:00 pm

It sounds almost like the start of a joke, a crafty scenario waiting for a punch line: a roomful of rabbis, forced to sit for hours, listening to each other's High Holiday sermons.

But for the 100 or so clergy members gathered at the lush hilltop campus of Stephen S. Wise Temple last week, this event was, if not somber, certainly to be taken seriously.

For many, the annual sermon seminar, sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, is the kickoff to the busiest season of the year. After lazy summer months of vacations and light schedules, it's time for rabbis to get pumped, to motivate themselves so that they can begin to inspire the thousands who will show up at their doors come Rosh Hashanah.

"Many rabbis have two or four or a half dozen High Holiday talks to write," said Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, president of the Board of Rabbis. "There is a lot of pressure and stress, and this is a kind of support group."

Every year, the sermon seminar is one of the largest events held by the Board of Rabbis, attracting everyone from rabbinic students to rabbis emeritus. They come from as far as San Bernardino, Anaheim and Bakersfield.

Perhaps it's because the speakers are so good. With themes as far-flung as the pure power of the shofar, the necessity of tears, Clinton's lies and Ishmael's injustice, time passes quickly. This is no doubt helped along by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, the event's chairman. His jokes and anecdotes fly from the podium, some of them falling flat, some of them taking off as rabbis jot down the one-liners for their own sermons.

In fact, it seems to be such stories and jokes that get picked up most often. Goldmark admits that, beyond themes or entire sermons, he scans through the pile of printed sermons (placed before each participant) and listens for parables that illustrate a point he will make in his sermon. Often, one well-crafted phrase will spark a whole sermon on an entirely different subject.

Some valuable tips are offered, too: Make sermons shorter, create visual images, don't read verbatim from a typewritten speech. Teach Torah, talk politics, avoid politics. Don't bore the congregants.

Says Rabbi Jack Riemer from Florida, who often speaks at this event: Never start with text; always start with the world.

Bring it back to the basics, says Temple Aliyah's Rabbi Stewart Vogel. Don't grapple with chaos in the universe when subjects as mundane as gossip, honoring your parents or doing the right thing hit closer to home, he says.

The wide-ranging sermon topics and ideas reflect a wisdom that is palpable. Moses, Malamud, Hagar, Diana, Deepak Chopra and the Ba'al Shem Tov. Atonement, addiction, memory and spirituality. Baba Batra, America Online, The Wall Street Journal, "Cats in the Cradle."

For most rabbis here, however, it seems to be the sense of camaraderie that keeps them coming back. Many of these rabbis haven't seen each other all year, haven't had a chance to act as the community within a community they inherently are. Breaks find them milling about, renewing acquaintances -- like old friends who know that, though they rarely speak to one another, there is a bond that sustains them.

"Rabbis never get to be rabbied to," says Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the new executive director of the Board of Rabbis. "It gives us the opportunity to hear pearls of the spirit, of wisdom and then it percolates and gets us in the mood for the holidays."

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