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Talk of the Day: It's About Cash, Community, Even Politics

September 17, 2009 By:
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Rabbi Lance Sussman and Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy

The year 5769 would seem to have provided no shortage of material for High Holiday sermons.

The last 12 months have been defined in part by a deepening recession; a war in Gaza, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan; financial scandals; the growing threat from Iran; as well as a heated debate over the future of health insurance on the home front.

In fact, last month President Barack Obama took the unusual step of placing a conference call to more than 1,000 religious leaders -- many of them rabbis -- asking for help to get his health-care bill passed.

Yet a sampling of area rabbis from different movements shows that some are steering clear of the headlines and tackling a topic much closer to home: the state of the American synagogue.

"In these very difficult times, when so many members of our congregations and so many Americans in general are suffering economically, the thing that keeps us afloat emotionally and spiritually is our connection to our community and our faith," said Rabbi Jeff Pivo of Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Yardley. "It's exactly at this time that we need the synagogue more than any other."

On Rosh Hashanah, Pivo plans to speak about the relevance of the synagogue as a community, and tie it to the theme of preserving hope in tough times.

"We have to retain the faith that things will get better for us," said Pivo, who on Yom Kippur will speak about having realistic expectations as a new year begins.

Another Bucks County rabbi, Anna Boswell-Levy of Tzedek v'Shalom, a Reconstructionist Congregation in Newtown, expects to use her Rosh Hashanah sermon to make a pitch for engagement in the community -- not just with synagogue activities, but also regarding civic action, volunteerism and even political activism.

She argued that many rabbis have decided to discuss the situation of synagogues because many are strapped financially.

"People are really scared this year," said Boswell-Levy. "We may be adding a couple more members. But it's really hard to get new members.

"Synagogue membership is decreasing by and large," she continued, adding that individuals and families that are struggling financially might instinctively shy away from communal involvement. "There is a feeling of shame when you lose your job, and you want to hide from the community."

Yet on Yom Kippur, Boswell-Levy expects to address a far more political and, in some circles, controversial topic -- the lobbying organization J Street, which she views as a welcome alternative to the long-standing AIPAC.

Re-Examining the Model

Rabbi Lance Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park has long thought about the changing role of the synagogue in Jewish life, and has watched over the past year as many congregations in the area have lost members and grappled with finances.

"There are long-term trends in the Jewish community; there are demographic trends; there are institutional trends -- and synagogues are being challenged by those trends. The whole membership model is under pretty serious review," he said. "We're in an ironic moment, where personal spirituality might be on the rise, but institutional membership might be declining."

Over the course of the summer, the rabbi, who also holds a Ph.D. in history, prepared "The Sanctuary of Israel: A Three-Part Series on the Synagogue as the Spiritual Home of the Jewish People." He will start his series of sermons with the post-biblical origins of synagogues, and conclude with some ideas about where he thinks the congregational model is heading.

Said Sussman: "People have to make a lot of decisions today about what they're going to support, and the synagogue could be vulnerable in that scenario. It's also possible that people will rally to the synagogue and say that we need a strong spiritual home. I want to help them deepen their commitment to our congregation and to the concept of the synagogue in general."

Of course, the region's rabbis have a whole host of other topics on their minds as well. Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski of Congregation Beth Medrash Harav B'nai Jacob, an Orthodox congregation in Northeast Philadelphia, said that he plans to hew close to the classic themes of "repentance, taking stock of a year gone by, planning for the coming year and seeing if we can improve our actions, both as Jews and human beings. God repays those who do good. We do mitzvot -- that's the basis of our religion."

Although he hasn't decided when would be the best time to approach the subject, he said that it's important for him to address the fiscal situation as well.

"The difficulties in the economic situation not only impact people personally, individually, in their daily lives, but probably where it impacts the greatest is Jewish education and Jewish communal life," said Leizerowski.

Health Care on the Agenda

At least one area rabbi was inspired by the Aug. 19 Obama conference call to address the health-care debate.

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann of Kol Tzedek, a Reform synagogue in West Philadelphia, has decided to recite a special prayer for health-care reform on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

She said that such reform is a moral issue -- she was framing it within the social-justice rubric -- that religious leaders should address.

For her sermon, she plans to wrap the health issue into her talk, although she had debated over whether or not to do this; after all, what can the average citizen really do about it?

Nevertheless, she decided to go ahead with it anyway.

Declared Grabelle Herrmann: "It could still be empowering to hear about."

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