High Holiday Sermons to Focus on Community

Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel in Merion Station (Michelle Camperson Photography)

Rabbis say that High Holiday sermons are about enlightening and motivating individual souls for the year ahead, the goal being to help people understand how to live as productive members of their communities.

But what is a community now that COVID has shown us that we can be together without being in the same room? And how can we, as individuals, focus on our communities when the larger world has so many problems? Area rabbis will open 5782 by using their sermons to try and answer these fundamental and profound questions.

Rosh Hashanah starts on Sept. 6 at sundown and Yom Kippur ends on Sept. 16.

Rabbi Moshe Brennan leads the Chabad of Penn Wynne, and his High Holiday sermons will reach hundreds of congregants. And his message is clear.

“We need to change the conversation,” he said. “Instead of trying to solve the world’s problems, we should try to make a difference where we can.”

According to Brennan, this means looking inward. It also means looking around in your physical space.

“Focus on people,” he said.

Once you do that, you will realize that your sphere of influence is bigger than you thought, he said. You can impact family members, friends, even acquaintances.

“If everybody does that, the amount of positivity is immeasurable,” Brennan said.

Rabbi Eric Yanoff leads Adath Israel, a Conservative congregation on the Main Line. This year, when he speaks to members, Yanoff is going to explain the theory of Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter, whose work examines the layers of relationships that form our communities.

Our strongest connections are with family members, friends and co-workers, according to the professor. Our intermediate relationships are with those we serve, those who serve us and our wider social network in general; that can be our barbers, baristas and fellow synagogue congregants, among others.

And our weakest connections are the random interactions beyond the intermediate layer, like when we yell at people in traffic.

During COVID, with all of its social restrictions, the weakest layer faded, Yanoff said. But so did the intermediate layer, and that’s a problem we now need to correct.

Yanoff said those middle connections make up the fabric of society. Without them, we tend to huddle with our own people and become clannish.

“We’ve lost something,” Yanoff said. “The ties that connect us to a larger society.”

Rabbi Nathan Weiner leads Congregation Beth Tikvah, a Conservative synagogue in Marlton, New Jersey. Weiner agrees with both Brennan and Yanoff: We should start with our closest relationships and build out to those vital intermediate ties.

In his Rosh Hashanah sermon, Weiner will emphasize how the pandemic, even as it kept us apart, taught us how to come together again.

Beth Tikvah members went grocery shopping for each other. They picked up prescriptions for each other. They used technology to maintain and deepen their community.

In addition to virtual services, Weiner runs a weekly study group on Zoom with 20 people. One member takes another to the doctor. A different participant was a shut-in before the group started.

“They have come to love one another,” he said. “The connections are real.”

The rabbi’s speech will remind congregants that the digital space can deepen community. But it also will remind them that technology can’t replace community.

Joy, warmth and meaning come from real connections with people around you. As the rabbi put it, real joy does not emerge from a Facebook like. It comes from your neighbor helping you up after you’ve fallen.

Rabbi Nathan Weiner of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, New Jersey (Sharon Savitz)

“People have rediscovered that,” he said. “It’s almost like we’ve hit the reset button.”

The pandemic, though, is not yet over, and it continues to lay bare the American conflict between individual liberty and communal good. And, too often, according to Weiner, individual liberty is winning.

That’s why Weiner will use his Yom Kippur sermon to remind congregants to prioritize the communal good.

Individual freedom is essential for achieving that good, according to the rabbi. But with freedom comes a social obligation to live the mitzvot, to do justice, love in kindness and walk humbly with God.

“If we don’t have a common sense of obligation to one another, the system falls apart,” Weiner said. “Society crumbles.”

Reconstructionist Rabbi Alanna Sklover of Or Hadash in Fort Washington is planning to delve into 5782 being a Shmita, or sabbatical, year. That’s when Jews are supposed to let the land lay fallow to prepare it for future harvests.

The Shmita year is about stepping back and reflecting on lessons, according to the rabbi. Then, we apply those lessons in year one of the new agricultural cycle.

So it’s a Shmita year in a communal sense, too, Sklover said.

“We get this opportunity to start with a fresh field,” she said.

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