‘Challenging in a Different Way’: Rabbis Discuss High Holiday Sermons

Rabbi Julie Greenberg     Photo by Rosi Greenberg

Every year, rabbis in Philadelphia and across the world work to strike a certain balance in their High Holiday sermons.

How much do you talk about politics, if at all? How much do you focus on the affairs of the day, and how much do you speak to what is perennially relevant, unbound by the events of a particular year? Can such a thing even be done? Is that a desirable path?

The pandemic, then, presents an interesting problem, according to congregational rabbis. Even if you wanted to keep direct discussion of the coronavirus to a minimum, the simple fact that most sermons will be delivered via pixelated pulpits serves as an unavoidable reminder.

In many cases, rabbis have adjusted more than just their presentation styles for these upcoming High Holiday sermons; the content of their speeches has been affected as well. But for others, the volatility of the moment was a reason to hew just as close to universal themes as always. And for just a few, there was no contradiction there.

When it comes to writing a sermon, every year is a new trial. This one was no exception.

“It was challenging in a different way,” said Rabbi Kami Knapp Schechter of Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn. “I really had to channel my thinking to what might my congregants want to hear, but also, what is most authentic to me in this moment. What I didn’t want to do is give a sermon that I didn’t believe in myself, and so I really struggled with trying to balance those two.”

In the end, Knapp Shechter said, she decided to deliver her sermon on a fairly portable theme — resilience — but the pandemic has left its mark on the speech. It will be given via Zoom and, echoing the intuition of many a rabbi, the sermon will be on the shorter side. In Knapp Shechter’s case, it will be about half its typical length. That is a frequent refrain among local rabbis.

Rabbi Aaron Gaber Photo by Rabbi Aaron Gaber

Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown is feeling the same squeeze, as he will shorten his normal 20-25 minute speech into a 10-12 minute edition. Gaber, in deciding how he would prepare this year’s speech, thought back to his writing process for the High Holidays that followed 9/11; then, as now, the enormity of what had happened was such that all roads seemed to lead back to universal themes. In that case, it was shiva; this year, it will be healing.

“It’s always the eternal teachings,” Gaber said. “It’s always the Jewish values first.”

Put even more specifically, by Rabbi Dovid Max of the Community Torah Center of Bucks County: His focus will be on the bolded and underlined meaning of Unetaneh Tokef.

At Congregation Dibrot Eliyahu, a small Sephardi synagogue in Rhawnhurst, Rabbi Elchanan Abergel will deliver his sermon in person to a socially distanced, masked congregation. Abergel was straightforward: Besides the necessary health considerations, he will do his best to keep the High Holidays as close to normal as possible, sermon included. The fundamentals of the holiday, and what it means for the Jewish people.

“The basic idea probably will stay the same,” he said.

This is more or less in line with what Rabbi Yossi Kaplan is planning to do at Chabad Lubavitch of Chester County, though he was a bit more pointed in his reasoning. He will speak directly to the suffering that his congregants have felt in these last few months, but the synagogue, Kaplan believes, is the place to think about the eternal.
It’s not an escape — “God forbid, to say synagogue is an escape” — but is an “escape from the mundane,” as he put it.

“Every rabbi should be talking about those things that are eternal,” he said. “Our relationship to God, how we’re speaking to God this year.” Some may talk politics from the bimah, but he will not, Kaplan said.

To Rabbi Julie Greenberg of Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir, it’s a different calculation. The spiritual leader of the Center City-based congregation is inclined to see spirituality as “essentially political.”

“It’s not about telling people who to vote for,” she said. “It’s about values, wisdom, consciousness.” In general, Greenberg said, she and the members of Leyv Ha-ir are taking this time to reassess.

“We’re really reconceptualizing,” she said. “What’s meaningful about this? What’s essential about this? What’s engaging? What’s the real purpose? That’s been an amazing activity and, in Reconstructing Judaism, we do that in a very democratic, participatory way.”

Glenn Ettman, senior rabbi at Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill, is similarly inclined. Part of what he’ll speak about this year, he said, is “our obligation to hear the voices of the prophets, and to speak truth to power, and to embrace the moment of need to stand up against systematic racial injustice, and ageism, and sexism, and gun violence, and what we can do to stand with others.”

To Rabbi Linda Potemken of Congregation Beth Israel in Media, applying the teachings of the High Holidays to the present moment hardly represents a contradiction.

“The messages are always relevant, but I think that they’re even more relevant,” she said. “They’re shouting right now.”


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