Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari headed to the U.S.-Mexico border last month as part of a group of clergy on a mission to deliver water to crossing migrants.
His experience will form the basis of one of his sermons during Rosh Hashanah at Kol Tzedek, the Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia.
“I’m going to be talking about spiritual truth I learned while on the border, and U.S. immigration policy and the need for us to humanize and re-humanize each other as a resistance to this administration and to government and borders,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out exactly the thing that I’ll be taking away from it, but [I’m] thinking a lot about the story of Hagar and the connection to all the places that water is life.”
Rosh Hashanah sees one of the largest synagogue turnouts throughout the year, but it’s not only the number of congregants that causes rabbis to put more thought into their sermon during the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah is a holiday for renewal, increased introspection and teshuvah, and many rabbis spend more time on their sermons as a result.
“I have a sense of responsibility and privilege to speak to a large, attentive audience,” Fornari said. “I’m thinking about what are the core truths that I have within me to share and how do they intersect with this political moment and this spiritual moment and what do people need to hear and what do they want to hear and where can I comfort them and where can I challenge them and what can I say that will allow us all to grow spiritually and became more whole and make teshuvah on the many levels we need to make teshuvah.”
Fornari also plans on using a sermon to discuss divine kingship and human rulership in the face of fascism.
While some rabbis like Fornari choose to discuss politics — immigration policy is a big political topic this year — others choose to stay away from partisan issues.
Not Rabbi Jon Cutler of Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County, a Conservative synagogue in Eagle, who plans to use a sermon to address immigration. Specifically, he will look at Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael as a metaphor for how some children are more privileged than others.
“Even though God said he would protect Ishmael, the reality is that Ishmael still suffered,” Cutler said. “Even in our own society today, with what’s happening with the detention of children in the past and still continues to happen, we have privileged children in our society and then we have those who are in cages or separated from their parents.”
Cutler said the lesson of the story is that people have to act like God and intervene for those children, especially people in the Jewish community. The point of Rosh Hashanah, he said, is to wake up to responsibility and to break us out of our complacency with the blast of the shofar.
“The children in our community are privileged like Isaac,” he said. “What do we do with the children who are vulnerable, those who are imprisoned, specifically separated from their parents? The fact that I’m trying to emphasize here is that we do have a responsibility that we can’t relegate, we can’t ignore.”
In contrast, Rabbi Yochonon Goldman of B’nai Abraham Chabad in Society Hill said he doesn’t usually talk about politics in his sermons. He does discuss current events, though, such as advancements in technology, and tries to draw lessons.
“They say that the two things rabbis shouldn’t speak about are religion and politics, right?” Goldman said. “I try to stay away from political things, but at the same time, there is so much we could learn from the world around us, including current events and how to incorporate that into our Jewish lives, into our spiritual lives. That’s the goal. That’s the general theme that we’re going to explore.”
This year, he might talk about 9/11, as the second day of Rosh Hashanah falls on that day.
“The pulpit is not a platform for political views. Everyone knows that,” Goldman said. “At the same time, we live in a society [that] influences us. We should be open to learning lessons from the events around us. There’s definitely a lot of lessons we can learn from what is happening in the world today.”
Rabbi Leah Berkowitz of Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in Elkins Park, moved to the Philadelphia area earlier this summer. She wants to take advantage of the larger turnout during Rosh Hashanah — this will be the first time that some in her congregation see her — to introduce herself to the community in her sermon.
“There’s a lot more pressure to speak to everything at once because you have people’s undivided attention in a way that you don’t on a regular Shabbat,” Berkowitz said.
For a typical Shabbat, she might spend just a few hours preparing her sermon. For the High Holidays, though, she might spend the entire summer. To prepare for writing these sermons, she read The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt. She is also reading If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir by Ilana Kurshan.
Though she doesn’t like to make her sermons entirely about politics, she might touch on the importance of civic engagement.
“There’s always a tension with these sermons, especially the big ones,” Berkowitz said. “Of course, we think about this every week, of how much we provide a refuge from the current moment. How much do we say, in here, we’re just going to say words of comfort or we’re just going to study text or we’re just going to think about the Jewish people, and how much are we going to talk about responsibility in the outside world?
“A lot of rabbis are struggling with that right now. One of my main goals during the High Holidays is to strike a balance between those two things.”
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