Words of Light: 27 Voices, 27 Messages and Countless Blessings for 5781

L.A. communal leaders offered words of inspiration, resilience and redemption to their communities leading up to the High Holy Days. Here's what they said.
September 16, 2020

A global pandemic is not what anyone expected when we welcomed the new year last Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish year of 5780 was supposed to be a fresh start, providing hope and inspiration. Instead, we have witnessed a year of turmoil, illness, dissent and disruption. Everything has changed. But what have we learned? 

How will our current challenges change the way we read liturgical messages —  about who will live or die by fire and plague — in a time when we are actively experiencing both? And how will we find strength and motivation for the challenges that await us in the year ahead?

In advance of 5781’s arrival, the Journal reached out to an array of communal leaders to ask what messages of inspiration, resilience and redemption they will be offering their communities during the High Holy Days season. Here’s what they had to say:

Amid Darkness, Looking Forward
We are in the midst of a historic pandemic that has caused our community enormous suffering and loss. It has significantly increased the number of vulnerable living among us and intensified their needs. This pandemic has  dramatically impacted our treasured Jewish ecosystem. We are all being tested. I am deeply proud of how our Jewish Federation has led and supported our community during these trying times. I am equally proud of my professional and lay partners including our rabbis, who continue to lead and inspire us all.

Even in the midst of this darkness, we need to look forward. It’s clear that our economy will take years to recover and our communal needs will continue to increase. The Jewish community won’t look the same the day after. We need to challenge ourselves to create a new, inclusive and inspired community. We need to ask ourselves tough questions and at the same time allow ourselves to dream.
— Jay Sanderson, president and CEO, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

From Chaos, Creation
As I look out my window, I see a world that feels like chaos. There are fires raging in Western States, hurricanes pounding the South and everywhere in between is beset by violence and plague. Life can feel hopeless and dark. It’s enough to make the heavens tremble. But then I remember our world, according to the Torah, was built out of chaos and that Rosh Hashanah celebrates that truth. God’s first role in life was that of Creator. God looked out upon the void, saw just how very bad it was and decided to act. God reached into the primordial swirl and pulled the light out of the darkness to bring order, goodness and blessing. I believe this moment calls upon us to make the same furtive choice and to act with godliness. In this New Year, let us all look upon the present chaos and choose to boldly fashion the future. Let us reach into the darkness and pull out the light. This year, let us commit ourselves to not just celebrate the world, let us create a better one. And if we make that divine choice, I hope we find ourselves in a future that is peaceful and just, one that we can look upon and say that it is indeed “good.”
— Rabbi Noah Farkas, Valley Beth Shalom

“Improvise, Adapt, Overcome”
The High Holy Days definitely will be the most creative and different we’ve ever had. Like most things, they will be a mixed-blessing. This High Holy Days season, I will be sharing a message of resilience, hope and the importance of community. We may be apart from one another physically, but we are definitely not alone. We are still a beautiful, heimish, caring community. In this time, the two main things we’ve learned are, first, not to take anything for granted. 

The second lesson is that of creativity and innovation. A quote I like says, “If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.” I have used this time of not being able to physically go to shul to try to be innovative and creative with our services and other programs. I am grateful for the technology we have so we can still see one another and “get together.” There’s a saying in the Army: “Improvise, adapt, overcome.” These ideas have helped Jewish people and Jewish life survive through the centuries and I use these words as my motto today.
— Rabbi Michele Paskow, Congregation B’nai Emet, Simi Valley

Emerging From the Breakers
I am thinking about when I nearly drowned one summer off the New Jersey shore; how I got caught in the breakers right where the waves were crashing. I became vulnerable so quickly, well before the terror arrived. I emerged alive, although I don’t really know how. Some combination of gut instinct, fortune, raw energy and tremendous luck. And something new was born from that crucible — an even greater appreciation for the power of the sea, the magnitude of nature and the preciousness of life. That memory has been swirling for me as we all are stuck in seemingly endlessly breaking waves, unable to catch our breath. COVID-19. A convulsing, fractured society. Fires raging. 

Melila Hellner Eshed notes that the root that gives us mishb’rei yam, or breakers, built /mashber. That word, itself, is pluripotent. It means both crisis and birthing-stool, upon which the midwife would sit when coaxing a baby into life. How evocative, and hopefully uplifting for us — that twisted into our terrifying, hope-breaking reality may be the seeds of new life, new breath, new opportunities and a renewed awe for what it means to be alive.
— Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am

Creating Change and Thinking Differently
A new year always provides an opportunity to look at things differently and create change. In 5781, I’ll be working hard to create change in our nonprofits so that they can survive and thrive long-term. This was important even before the pandemic changed everything, but our current reality demands that our nonprofits think differently about how they do business, whether it’s understanding the way that fundraising is done, reviewing the makeup of boards or recognizing the importance of millennials as important contributors. I hope to incorporate a symbolic shofar in my work, sounding the alarm about the immediate, critical need for fundamental change in how we raise money to support our missions, and how we can use that change to facilitate long-term, mutually respectful relationships between donors and fundraisers.
— Lisa Greer, philanthropist and author

Sacred Awe Calls Us Forward
This New Year brings with it the opportunity to draw near to much of what we normally run from; the uncertainty and unknown of life, grief and loss, fear and awe. These holy days invite us each year to do so as we are a people who have become versed and skilled in these paths. Yet we often do not. This year because of the profound reckonings of health, racism, democracy, economy, climate and survival, we find ourselves more open to the possibility of transformation that drawing near can bring us. We can look into our fear as an invitation to a sacred awe that calls us forward in new ways. We can grieve for our losses and, in that grief, feel our interconnection and a renewed energy to transform ourselves and our society. We can surrender to the wilderness of the unknown to find our path to the Promised Land.
— Rabbi Susan Goldberg, Nefesh

Judging Us Leniently
We live in a book of questions moment, in which a hypothetical question elicits self-revelation and core values: “Would you help a neighbor during a global pandemic that shut down society for months with no reliable way of knowing who was infected in any given moment?”

This New Year, our Jewish tradition forces us to answer and it’s not hypothetical. All told, I would judge us leniently. I have been the beneficiary of countless acts of compassion, and I have seen it offered to others — ready forgiveness among strangers, colleagues and friends. Daily, I notice a pattern. We excuse failings and oversights. We ask after one another with uncommon attention to the answers and we withhold our natural rush to judgment. Although we often, appropriately, focus on the atonement side of the New Year equation, this year, who among us is left untouched by the forgiving side?
— Joshua Holo, dean of the HUC-JIR Jack H. Skirball campus and associate professor of Jewish history

Celebrating the Miracles Around Us
Growing up, I always wondered why my grandfather made a blessing over things that seemed mundane — from eating a fruit to smelling a flower to a plane taking flight. I was taught that the idea was to show gratitude to our Creator. Living through this COVID-19 crisis as a father of young children reminded me of my late grandfather’s ubiquitous blessings. It took a dark time to realize that, with those blessings, my grandfather was choosing to focus on the beauty of the world rather than the darkness. He was sanctifying the mundane, celebrating the miracles around us. This Rosh Hashanah, no matter how we feel today about our religion, our divided Jewish community or our tiny homeland of Israel, we should cherish these blessings of faith, community and nationhood as true miracles. We should use these solemn days of awe to reflect upon, express love for and pass down these blessings to our next generation. And only then, to paraphrase [poet William] Wordsworth: “What we loved, will others love.” Shanah tovah.
— Sam Yebri, president, 30 Years After 

Teshuvah as a Path to Excellence
Today’s world demands that we be bold and cautious, improvisational and intentional. Teshuvah is an essential tool for this moment of risk-taking, because it is our assurance that we can retrace our steps and try again. We need to create brave spaces where hard questions, honest ideas and constructive critique can surface, where language can be refined and where ideas grow into new creative solutions.

Teshuvah also is an essential tool for keeping ourselves afloat. We are working under tremendous pressure, and often without enough time or sleep. We need to be able to ask forgiveness graciously when we make mistakes, when we unwittingly or thoughtlessly compromise others, and graciously forgive one another and help each other get it right the next time.

Knowing that teshuvah is inevitable, however, isn’t a crutch or an excuse to shirk accountability. We cannot take the easy way out, knowing we can just “say sorry.” We must aspire to excellence, but with forgiveness in our back pocket.
— Miriam Heller Stern, national director of the School of Education and associate professor at HUC-JIR

Seeing Unseen Needs, Confronting Our Fears
Many of us are feeling loss: loss of time with family, normalcy, community and ritual, even of our holy buildings we’ve spent years in. How do we talk with our kids about the plague mentioned in Unetaneh Tokef as we fight the coronavirus? How can a person who is home alone have a meaningful and moving davening experience? We are being challenged to face these questions and to be creative, loving, generous and flexible — to see the needs that are unseen and to confront our greatest fears. 

It’s now that we need to turn to the machzor, which is written in the plural, in the language of community. Connection — remembering we are not alone — can dispel the heaviest fears, doubts and sorrows. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that God is with us always, even in loss and darkness. We yearn to remember and realize this, and to emulate God’s ways with one another.
— Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Turn Our Souls Toward the Changes
Every year at this time, Rabbi Laura Geller reminded us that “shanah tovah” can mean “a good change.” The past six months has brought on more change in the world than we’ve ever seen before. But did we change with the world? This year, especially, we need to open our hearts and turn our souls toward the changes around us. Just as the gates are open for us during this season, we must open up ourselves to really listen, to really see, how we feel and how we have lived. How will we open our hearts? Some will do it quietly with eyes closed, others will break it open against their will, still others will need to heal it first through compassion and courage. This season: turn inward, toward your soul, and outward, toward the world, with an open heart.
— Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, senior rabbi, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

Renovating and Rebuilding Our Community
On my daily walks with our new dog, I’ve been able to watch the step-by-step process of homes being built. This new year is our chance to engage in some serious personal and collective renovations. How can the lessons we’ve learned from “Safer at Home” lead to the permanent reprioritization of how we spend our own time and resources? 

Our houses of worship require another layer of renovation. We must do more than just stream services and life-cycle events. We must develop virtual community — building strategies that become permanent fixtures of our institutions and enable us to enter congregants’ homes in profound ways. And nationally, we’re witnessing a growing house divided. This New Year requires each of us to actively participate in the rebuilding of a values-based foundation for our country. Our tradition offers us a blueprint. May we build 5781 with justice, inclusivity, empathy, hope and health.
— Rabbi Joel Nickerson, Wilshire Boulevard Temple

A Persian Rosh Hashanah Seder (Header image design by Grace Yagel; original illustration by art-skvortsova/Getty images)

Be a Prophet and Tell Your Story
How will we tell the story of 2020? Our ancestors spent 40 years in the wilderness. Some of the generation described it as a dark and dismal place in which our faith was tested and our beliefs were dismantled. But others, namely the prophet Hosea, told a different story. In the wilderness, Israel betrothed God with the words: And I will betroth you forever; I will betroth you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, And I will I will betroth you with faithfulness (2:21-22), which nowadays today recite under the chuppah and some of us each morning as we wrap the tefillin.

Hosea described the wilderness as the most intimate place between God and Israel, for it was there that Israel trusted God even in the discomfort of not knowing what the future held. And it was that trust, according to Hosea, that enabled us to reach the Promised Land. During these holidays, think about Hosea, be a prophet and then retell your story of 2020.
— Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, chief innovation officer, American Jewish University

Advocating for Change
For me, the Unetaneh Tokef (“Who shall live and who shall die?”) prayer is the most provocative of the High Holy Days liturgy. The prayer makes clear that we are not passive actors in that judgment. It is clear that death and harsh decrees are averted by repentance and righteousness. It challenges and inspires us to acknowledge, with humility and courage, the impact of our behavior on others. 

This year, the holidays occur as almost 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, yet there are Americans who refuse to wear masks, complaining that masks and social distancing impede their liberty. This year, the High Holy Days occur as America is reckoning with the unjustified shootings of Black men and women, yet there are Americans who are angrier about the protests against the unjustified killings than about the underlying racism and causes of the shootings. We must find the courage to see how our behavior hurts others, and then find the humility to change.  

And, where others act in morally indefensible ways, we must speak up — loudly — and advocate for change. Our actions can annul the harsh decrees and our actions of justice, compassion and righteousness, can perfect the world.
— Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder, Jewish World Watch and Jews United for Democracy & Justice     

Our Community Will Stay Connected
Socially distant, spiritually close. On Rosh Hashanah, we won’t hear the call of the shofar in our services. Instead, we will hear the still, small voice. That is the charge to our Sinai Temple community. Listen to the sound of silence; hear the calls of our friends and family we do not see. Understand that community exists. The doors are closed but the gates of heaven are open. As a sacred community, we will practice ritual together, within our homes with our High Holy Days kits distributed to our members. We will stay connected, finding moments of simcha in challenging times with virtual services and a shofar drive-in service. We will follow the words of our prophet Zechariah, “prisoners of hope,” knowing the world is pregnant with possibility tomorrow and the day after that.
— Rabbi Erez Sherman, Sinai Temple

Finding Strength, Nurturing Compassion
This past spring, writing in The New York Times, Rebecca Solnit contended that “every disaster shakes loose the old order … changes the rules and demands new and different responses … shift[s] people’s sense of who they and their society are, what matters and what’s possible, and lead[s], often, to deeper and more lasting change.” 

As we approach the Days of Awe, I’m struck by how similar her words are to Isaiah’s insistence that God wants us “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free.” If there was ever a year to heed that call, this is the year. We have seen how vulnerable the status quo left us, witnessed the consequences of failing to be the keeper of our brothers’ and sisters’ health, felt the pain of Black lives not mattering. The High Holy Days call on our conscience to confront us with questions that demand our moral imagination and courage. 

This year, in the midst of surging racism and anti-Semitism, a bitter presidential campaign and a pandemic and economic crisis that have battered the world — and especially, in America, communities of color — the questions our members must ask are deeper and more pointed: How can I find the strength to endure? How do I nurture the compassion to help? How must I embody the principles that give life meaning: doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly? More than any other year, these questions sink into our flesh and bones as matters of life and death. And again, I am reminded of scripture: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life, that you and your descendants may live.”
— Eric Greene, civil rights activist, diversity consultant and board member of Jewish Multiracial Network

Pandemic as Revelation
The first step of any Anonymous program is to admit powerlessness over substances, behaviors, people, places and things and to accept that the need to control them makes our life unmanageable. You don’t have to be an addict to be in recovery. The pandemic has revealed that we are all powerless. Our addiction to certainty, routines, familiarity and predictability was/is an illusion. Our spiritual challenges in the coming year are to find hope in uncertainty, discover the “makom kavua” (fixed place for prayer) within us rather than in the synagogue or other physical places. 

Deprived of the traditional High Holy Days rituals, we are invited to discover new meaning in the coming Days of Awe. How do I accept this year’s losses and find the hidden blessings? Relieved of the trappings of external definition, how do I rediscover my essential self-worth? How do I embrace what is and what will be instead of continuing to mourn what was and may never be again? 

The second step is to “come to believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity.” May we take the time during this Yamim Noraim season to discover this power. 

May we nurture our relationships with the power, with our world, community, friends, family and ourselves.
— Harriet Rossetto, founder, Beit T’shuvah

Using COVID-19 Lessons to Create a Better World
5780 has been a year of relearning how to exist. We are witnessing a plague, and everything has changed. Yet our resilience, adaptability and optimism have found a way to shine through the uncertainty as we talk of silver linings, ingenuity and creativity amid our new tales of braving the outside world. 

My hope for 5781 is first and foremost that we do all we can to ensure an end to the death and destruction of COVID-19 but then, that we not just go back to the way things were. Rather, that we carry with us the lessons of this difficult time: to create a more just society, to cultivate a renewed sense of presence, to recognize that our true needs are different and more universal than we thought, to recalibrate our understanding of essential services and workers, to live in greater harmony with our planet and all her inhabitants, and that we are stronger united than divided.
— Rabbi Jillian R. Cameron, Beth Chayim Chadashim

People Can Be Extraordinary
COVID-19 has laid bare the realities of the tasks before us: the day is short, the work overwhelming, and those to whom we are accountable are rightly insistent. And yet, people can be extraordinary when we lift the barriers to collaboration — the silos and the politics and the bureaucracies that keep us isolated and fragmented. 

It has been inspiring to witness and support public service professionals as they respond to COVID-19, to economic crises, and to the urgency of the calls for real equity, many with suddenly uncertain job prospects and all on a budgetary shoestring as local revenues evaporate. And it has been galvanizing to see so many Jewish leaders cut through the commentary to affirm, without qualification, that Black Lives Matter.
— Shawn Landres, co-founder of Jumpstart Labs; commissioner for the county of Los Angeles and the city of Santa Monica

Creating the New World With Our Heart-Filled Actions
When you see suffering, offer kindness. When it feels like everything is falling apart, create something new. When you see and hear injustice or cruelty, act with integrity. This world is crumbling in many ways. When the ancient Temple and center of Jewish life was destroyed and we were dispersed, can you even imagine the despair of our ancestors? Yet, from the ashes, the rabbis created a new Judaism of the heart. You and I will create the new world that is coming by our heart-filled actions. We have more power than we realize. We will soon recite the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, in which we proclaim that in the face of not knowing, we have control of our actions: to turn (teshuvah), reflect (tefilah) and give generously (tzedakah). It is what we do in this moment that will build a world worthy of the goodness of which God speaks of in Genesis: It is good, very good.
— Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, founder, Path With Heart and Hineni, Your Path to Presence

Connecting to Community While Wandering in the Wilderness
Four months ago, I started a Rosh Hashanah sermon tentatively titled “What will we take from the experience of the pandemic?” It would focus on the lessons learned, the blessings realized and how to bring them into our post-pandemic lives. At that time, conventional wisdom declared that the pandemic would pass by the summer. Unfortunately, I won’t be giving that sermon … yet. 

Six months later, while many people are struggling to find meaning, most are just struggling. We need perspective to find meaning. It is after the fact that we can look back in reflection. 

This year, our challenge is to help our congregants find comfort while still wandering in the wilderness. Estranged from others, we will strive to provide connections to community through the unlikely and challenging medium of Zoom and live streaming. While we can begin to search for some of the blessings, this year is a message more about human resilience and endurance.
— Rabbi Stewart Vogel, Temple Aliyah Woodland Hills; international president of the Rabbinical Assembly

Boldly Reimagine Jewish Education
This generation of parents in Jewish day schools, my generation, lives in an America where the Jewish community has achieved unparalleled financial, political and social success. Even with the devastating impact of the pandemic, we are wealthier and more influential than any other time in our nation’s history. Many of us were born into a world where Israel existed and an America where anti-Semitism was largely quiet. And yet, we have done a very poor job securing the Jewish future. We have built symphonies and art museums and universities. But we have not built our schools to last, and COVID-19 has accelerated this crisis. Now is the time for a bold reimagining of Jewish education in our city. We must build thriving, sustainable, excellent schools that will be here for our great-grandchildren. Because the world our children will create tomorrow is born in the schools we build today, there is no question that it is urgent work.
— Sarah Shulkind, Head of School, Milken Community Schools

The Message is Visible and Stark
I cannot help reflecting that last year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we uttered the words of Unetaneh Tokef — “who will live, who will die; who will die after a long life and who before his time … who by upheaval, and who by plague …” — we had absolutely no inkling of what would happen in the months ahead. None of us had ever heard the word COVID, nor could we have imagined that the entire world as we know it would be gripped by a devastating pandemic that would cause the deaths of so many, including loved ones and dear friends. Nor could we have ever foreseen that the safe world we all took for granted would be so completely upended. 

Truthfully, I don’t need to dig deep this year to find a message for the High Holy Days. There it is, right in front of us, visible and stark. First, don’t take anything for granted. Second, God is in control. And third, we must do our best to fulfill our mission using the life that He gives us and with the resources we have while we have them.
— Rabbi Pini Dunner, senior rabbi, Beverly Hills Synagogue

We Are One Community, Responding to This Moment
The Talmud argues whether one should pray the traveler’s prayer in the singular when on a journey since one is alone. The answer is that a person should still pray in the plural because we are part of the larger body that is the Jewish people as well as that of travelers everywhere who are praying for the same things: protection from illness, violence, accident and other dangers. We may feel alone this year but we are one community with Jews everywhere celebrating the holidays and we are one collective responding to the dangers, anxieties and responsibilities of this moment. 

Another message is that at Sukkot, we celebrate all that we have in structures made to bring us into close touch with our fragility and vulnerability. We celebrate the harvest even as we pray for the rain that is necessary (in ancient Israel) to survive the next growing season. We celebrate our blessings even as we acknowledge our vulnerability. We are called to do exactly that this year.
— Rabbi Amy Bernstein, senior rabbi, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation

Photo by Getty Images

Pray for Strength and Courage
Our liturgy for the Days of Awe asks: Who shall live and who shall die? As we confront the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, we pray for strength and courage. Our tradition shows us the way.
— Yoshi Zweiback, senior rabbi, Stephen Wise Temple and schools

Do Whatever It Takes
At Jewish Free Loan, we’ve seen the financial devastation of the pandemic firsthand. We quickly pivoted to create new programs to help the most impacted, even if these programs didn’t conform to our historical guidelines. My message to the community in this season of self-reflection is to have the courage to do whatever it takes to meet the challenges you face, rethink your assumptions, find a different way, even if you have to leave your comfort zone to do it.
— Rachel Grose, executive director, Jewish Free Loan of Los Angeles

Vigilance and Optimism
I’ve tried to convey vigilance and optimism. Our traditional celebration is completely disrupted, yet tradition still tells us that God will “muster, number and consider every soul.” 

This universality of precious souls is what makes Jewish inclusion powerful, and yet on this day of awesomeness and dread, it gives us all the responsibility to make sure that each soul is cared for. The disruption creates optimistic opportunity, in that many will access virtual services who would not have had physical access even without the pandemic. Accommodations such as sign language and captioning, digitally broadcast can reach a wider audience than ever before. Yet, we must be vigilant for those who, because of observance, disability or both, will not share these virtual experiences. We must be vigilant in conveying in word and action that their community sees the value of their precious soul, and will look for ways to connect.
— Matan Koch, director of RespectAbility California and Jewish Leadership

Repairing Relationships
Every year, I imagine the Unetane Tokef as an opportunity for each of us to clear out and repair all of our relationships. Teshuvah — repairing the relationships with the people I am closest to. Tefilah — repairing my relationship with God and my sense of integrity. Tzedakah – repairing my relationship with the world and contributing to the repair of my society. When we do this — individually and communally — it is an opportunity to reknit the broken threads in our personal and communal safety nets. It does not “change the decree” we receive in the upcoming year, but with all of our relationships strengthened it changes the way we experience these decrees. This year, the sound of the shofar is louder than ever before. In our great brokenness, let us look inward and recommit to this process; strengthening ourselves and all of our intersecting communities so we can stand strong together.
— Andrea Hodos, associate director, NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change

Update: This article has been updated to include a 28th voice. 

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

EXCLUSIVE: Inside Hollywood’s “Meeting of the Masters” Brunch

Guy Shalem’s Meeting of the Masters is more than just a dinner club; it’s a testament to the power of food, conversation, and community in bringing people together and creating a space where everyone, regardless of background or belief, can find common ground and friendship.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.