With an Influx Expected at Synagogues, Rabbis Prepare Their Sermons (Updated)

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Update: The original article was corrected on Sept. 29, 2019 to correct information. 

For months, rabbis across Greater Philadelphia have prepared for this moment: With an overflow High Holidays crowd comes big pressure to deliver a meaningful sermon.

Senior Rabbi Gregory Marx of Congregation Beth Or started preparing in early June. Unlike on Shabbat, when Marx generally speaks from notes, every word in his High Holiday sermons is written out.

His aim is to craft something contemporary and relevant to his congregation. This year’s subject matter includes the need for revitalizing social infrastructure, such as synagogues, and the recent rise in anti-Semitism.

“On a High Holiday I’ve got 2,000 people listening to me at each service, and people expect something serious, well thought-out, delivered well and not thrown together,” Marx said. “I don’t want to use the words ‘It’s kind of like the Emmys,’ but in many ways it is. I have many congregants who come for the High Holidays and they’re not regulars the rest of the year, so I want to make sure that when they come in that they have a meaningful, inspiring and thoughtful presentation.”

The Reform congregation in Montgomery County is also served by Associate Rabbi Jason Bonder. This will be his second year at the congregation. He hopes to use his sermons to inspire action to make the world a better place. Shying away from telling people which causes to make their own, he instead encourages commitment to action rather than ignoring problems,

Many new rabbis like Bonder come to a congregation during the slow summer period, then are thrown into the busiest part of the year. That experience can be stressful, so Bonder said he’ll find it comforting this time around to see familiar faces.

“It’s funny, new rabbis, you start with the Super Bowl,” Bonder said. “Generally, the way the hiring cycle works, you get there in the summer, it’s dead quiet. And then all of a sudden you have more people than you’ll see all year packed in the sanctuary, ready to see you in action, so that can be really overwhelming.”

Rabbi Kami Knapp is in the same shoes Bonder was a year ago. This will be her first High Holiday sermon at Congregation Or Shalom. In July, she came to the Conservative synagogue in Chester County after running the Diller Teen Fellows program for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia for nearly two years.

When it comes to the pulpit, Knapp shies away from political issues, or keeps it bipartisan. Her sermons will center on the themes of renewal, repair and regrowth. She said these topics are embedded in the holidays and parallel her transition into the congregation. Since mid-August, she’s worked to get her sermons just right.

“Every rabbi is nervous, even if you’ve been at your congregation for a long time,” Knapp said of High Holiday sermons. “It’s always nerve-racking to write down your thoughts and come forth with a message and not know how it’s going to be received. We can try to tailor our sermons to our congregations, but we don’t know how, ultimately, it is going to be received.”

Even though Rabbi Howard Cove has been a rabbi for more than three decades, writing sermons for the High Holidays hasn’t gotten any easier. For the past five years, he has been with Beiteinu Synagogue, an unaffiliated “Synagogue Without Walls.” For High Holiday sermons, he gives himself about a month to write, adding that it’s not uncommon for him to scrap ideas or change topics.

“I always personally struggle. I struggle. I want to be relevant. I want to try to be meaningful to the people sitting in front of me,” Cove said. “It’s important to bring in the human element, as we’re all trying to assess ourselves and judge ourselves and come out of the holidays with a commitment to be better than we were the year before.”

What compounds the pressure for Cove is that this is one of the few sermons he delivers all year, favoring a more conversational approach during other services. But the High Holidays are when he gets traditional. This year he’ll talk about the polarization of the country and explore compromise, as well as discuss the shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway.

For Rabbi Eliott N. Perlstein of Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, his first High Holidays sermon will come from a personal place. His wife, Janie, died over the summer, and his sermon “What I Learned from Janie” recounts her contributions to the Conservative congregation. Another of his sermons, “Rabbis and Robots,” was inspired by an article about jobs robots could potentially replace. The piece also listed professions that machines cannot replace.

“One of them was clergy, which I was very happy to hear,” Perlstein said.

The rabbi’s sermons don’t generally focus on world events, but rather on shareable teaching opportunities, and how the weekly Torah portion relates to Perlstein or what’s on his mind. But for the High Holidays, Perlstein spends months in preparation, frequently revisiting his writing to make tweaks. It’s something he could never see himself doing in one or two sittings.

“I never intend to be political. My intention is to speak on values and from what I consider to be a Jewish base and to share Jewish values on contemporary issues,” Perlstein said. “The bottom line is that I hope people may be inspired to think about their lives and the world around them more deeply and more fully, and be so moved to move in a positive direction for themselves and others around them in the year ahead.”

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