Their faces are lined with exhaustion, these young men and women who seem suddenly so much older than their years. Nervous laughter reverberates off the walls of the classroom as their professor outlines the changes they must make for their efforts to have merit and direction. Perhaps they feel as if they are standing at the edge of the abyss, perhaps they think the stakes have become unbelievably high, and perhaps they are right. By choosing to answer an ancient calling, they have stood up and asked the Jewish community to place its future in their hands.
They are seven rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) days before delivering their first High Holy Days sermons, and watching this scene it’s easy to wonder: Are these young adults up to the challenge?
Jaclyn Fromer, a second-year student, may have answered the question with the subject of her Rosh Hashanah morning sermon. It focuses on the concept of hineini. The word literally means, “Here I am,” and is included not just at the opening of the Reform machzor, but also appears at several pivotal points throughout the Talmud.
“I thought of myself,” Fromer said about writing the sermon, “a young, inexperienced second-year rabbinical student, traveling down to an already established community to lead them in High Holiday worship ... I’m still going to stand up there before this community and say ‘Hineini’ — I am here. I’m going to deliver.”
Fromer’s sermon articulates the importance of simply showing up in life and of making an effort to serve a higher purpose, which is precisely what these students have committed to do.
Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple is teaching this homiletic class. He points out to the students that “the two greatest characters in the entire Torah [Abraham and Moses] both said the same thing when called by God: Hineini, here I am.”
They “were flawed; they were imperfect, but they showed up,” Leder said.
Rabbinical students face many of the same pressures and responsibilities other master’s level students do — managing the intense pressure of high-level studies. But for them, there is an added dimension: These students must learn even as they lead others in spiritual growth.
Student pulpits “aren’t so much jobs as they are learning experiences,” said Dvora Weisberg, director of rabbinical studies at HUC-JIR. “This is how our students grow.” At no time is that more clear than when these students set out to write their first sermons. The ones who are successful tend to follow a simple piece of advice: Speak about something that speaks to you.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, said, “if it’s not interesting to you, it can’t possibly be interesting to anyone else.”
“People are curious about who they are and what they bring,” added Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California’s rabbinical school and chaplaincy program.
“Many things run through your head in writing a sermon,” Fromer said, “but you do your best — you write honestly and from the heart.”
There are a few common pitfalls experienced rabbis caution against: Be careful about the length of the sermon (15 minutes is the average suggested time), avoid racy or outwardly political topics and, perhaps toughest of all, try not to fall prey to the handicap or naïveté of youth and inexperience.
With all this advice flooding their minds, the students also must narrow their focus and find a clear theme for each sermon, keeping in mind that the High Holy Days are often the only time some Jews attend synagogue.
“This is an audience who may not come back,” Gottlieb said, “and this is your opportunity to touch them.”
As if the concern of composition were not enough, the rabbinical students must be mindful of their delivery.
“Sermon giving is performance art,” Artson said. “You need to engage them with appropriate theatrical techniques that keep people compelled.”
Between the helpful hints and tips and countless pieces of wisdom offered to the students as they prepare their first sermons, it seems the final piece of advice is simple:
“Inhale, exhale,” Weisberg said. “Seriously. The last thing I need is a hyperventilating rabbinical student.”