September 23, 2019

High Holy Days: How campus rabbis sermonize

Jonathan Gordon didn’t grow up particularly observant. Until his bar mitzvah, he attended High Holy Days services with his parents, but once he turned 13 he stopped going — he felt unengaged.

That is until he started his undergraduate education at the University of Southern California, where he resumed attending High Holy Days services at the Chabad Jewish Student Center at USC. 

There, Gordon, who graduated in 2005, found more than just prayer. He found community, food and learning that he calls “readily digestible in today’s world.” 

Now 32 and an attorney living in West Hollywood, Gordon returns almost every year to the historic Victorian Chabad House just north of campus to spend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the family of Rabbi Dov Wagner, his wife, Runya, and the dozens of Jewish USC students who come for the holidays.

For campus rabbis like Wagner, the secret to a successful High Holy Days service isn’t a great half-hour (or longer) sermon placed strategically right before or after the Torah reading. In fact, some stay far away from the sermon that so many Jewish college students remember sitting through as kids.

The key — and it’s not a new one — is finding the right mix between teaching and leading. For Bailey London, the executive director of Hillel at USC, the High Holy Days, if done well, can serve as an “entry point” into Jewish campus life for USC students.

“We are making ourselves as acceptable as possible to as many Jews as possible on campus,” said London, who added that Hillel will offer study sessions on High Holy Days afternoons for any students who wish to add some learning to the abundance of food, prayer and singing that Hillel will provide over the holidays.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, executive director of the Hillel at UCLA, said he tries to sprinkle ideas and clarifications throughout the services.

“I’m teaching people basic ideas in Judaism, and about the nature of prayer and the service,” he said.

In his early years at UCLA, the energetic, fast-speaking rabbi said he didn’t give any speeches at all on the High Holy Days.

“I didn’t think I had anything to say,” he remembered thinking.

Now, after carefully considering the topics he wants to discuss, he hands out texts to students to help supplement his teachings. On Rosh Hashanah, he likes to focus on a macro contemporary issue of importance for the Jewish people — feminism, Israel, and the compatibility of science and creation are three topics he has covered in the past. His remarks during the Kol Nidrei service tend to home in on a “more spiritual and personal” topic.

What’s important, he said, is that students leave with some piece of wisdom, not how they do it. That’s why Seidler-Feller also encourages people to bring any Jewish text with them — in case they don’t find prayer sufficiently engaging.

“If you already invested the time in coming to a service, you should get something out of it,” Seidler-Feller said. 

Zach Dorfman, 25, of Beverly Hills said he resumed attending High Holy Days services while he was a student at California State University, Northridge, where he attended the ones led by Chabad Rabbi Chaim Brook. Like Gordon, Dorfman found holiday services to be “very boring” when he was growing up. 

“I really had no connection and really had no patience,” he said, remembering his disconnect with services when he was a teenager. 

Dorfman’s favorite aspect of of how Brook leads services?

“Throughout the service, there are explanations of the prayers, why we say the things we say,” he said.

Brook, who was quick to say that he’s wary of “scaring” the students with sermons, likes to focus on a major theme in the five- to 10-minute speech he gives before Neilah, the concluding service of Yom Kippur.

“When I do speak by Neilah, in the times when I feel that the students are ready to listen, I always speak about the idea of dating Jewish,” Brook said. 

Neither Brook, Seidler-Feller nor Wagner write speeches or sermons for the High Holy Days. Some of them jot down notes or simply speak extemporaneously.

“Most people don’t want a 45-minute sermon,” Wagner said. “They want relevant, meaningful ideas — inspirational ideas and stories that relate to their lives.” Instead of the “45-minute sermon,” Wagner relates most of his ideas through brief, five-minute talks and Chasidic stories, peppered throughout the service.

The hope, Seidler-Feller said, is that the relatively long time spent with students on these sacred days will prove an ideal time for growth to begin.

“One of the things that I hope to accomplish and look forward to doing is planting a seed, so that some students and participants will come to study during the year.”