September 22, 2019

Will the summer of war affect High Holy Days sermons?

Every year, synagogue rabbis face the often-daunting task of coming up with compelling High Holy Days sermons.

This summer’s 50-day Israel-Gaza conflict, during which 66 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians were killed, and more than 2,100 Palestinians died, could make this already difficult activity even tougher as rabbis face large and small congregations, many with differing points of view.

Rabbi Eli Herscher, senior rabbi at the Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple, for example, will have addressed approximately 8,000 people by the time Yom Kippur is over. Among his sermons will be one about what makes people love Israel and what makes people critical of the Jewish homeland. 

In preparation, he asked himself, “What kind of Israel narrative works today? Not just for people like me, who grew up with Israel, where the love is just in my DNA?” Herscher spoke during an interview in his office at the Bel-Air synagogue. “What kind of narrative works that, when people are more inclined to be critical — how do you make sure that when we are critical, it is in fact a criticism that is grounded and steeped in love?”

By the time Rosh Hashanah rolls around, it will be more than one month since a cease-fire was brokered on Aug. 26. That some time has passed makes it easier to prepare the sermon, said Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, a nontraditional congregation.

“I don’t know what I am going to address, but I do think that the conflict is very much alive in people’s hearts, and they are yearning for some way to make sense out of the incredible pain and confusion that so many experienced over the summer.… The distance between the cease-fire and the holidays gives us an opportunity to speak about it [more clearly],” said Brous, who said she plans to deliver her sermon about Israel on Rosh Hashanah.

As of press time, many rabbis were still mulling over how they might address the topic.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at the Conservative congregation Valley Beth Shalom, said he was still working on his sermon. “Everyone is sort of stumped,” Feinstein said. Indeed, he had reached out to Israel experts, including “journalists and writers and scholars,” in preparation for his sermon.

But he knows how he will begin. On Rosh Hashanah, he will begin his sermon by spotlighting Rachel Frankel, whose son, Naftali Frankel, was one of the three Israeli teens kidnapped and murdered by members of Hamas, an incident that, many believe, sparked the war.

Despite her loss, Frankel extended an olive branch to the Palestinian community in the wake of the death of her 16-year-old son, making her an inspirational figure, Feinstein said.

“It was such a statement of Israel at its best, and I am going to begin my sermon with her. The resistance, the faith, the morality, the sensitivity, that is what I admire in Israel, that is where we have to start and end,” he said.

Frankel also provides a template for how to react to the other side in the face of tragedy, Feinstein said. 

“I am going to yell at my congregation, because I don’t want to hear racism. Not all Palestinians, not all Arabs and Muslims are terrorists, and we have to resist the temptation to become racist. And we have to resist the temptation to be selfish,” Feinstein said.

Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation, said he also plans to challenge the viewpoints of his community members. During a sermon titled “For Jews, Despair Is Not an Option,” he will ask those in the pews who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to come back into the fold of “legitimate Jewish criticism,” he said.

“If you choose not to come back … critique it, I’ll respect that, but don’t do it as a Jew,” he said. “That’s [one of] the general themes of the sermon,” which Rosove said he will deliver on Rosh Hashanah morning. 

 Perhaps one way to sermonize about Israel is to discuss what’s happening in other parts of the world. A debate about this idea between American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris and Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Senior Rabbi Laura Geller played out in the pages of the Times of Israel. 

Harris’ Aug. 17 article, “What I Hope to Hear at High Holy Day Services,” provoked Geller’s Aug. 22 piece, “A Congregational Rabbi Responds to What David Harris Hopes to Hear at High Holy Day Services: Yes…And.” 

Harris wrote that he wants rabbis to address the increase in anti-Semitism in Europe — including incidents in France that are generally perceived as connected to the war in Gaza. He wants American rabbis to reaffirm their support for Israel during sermons.

Geller said Emanuel will do the former during the synagogue’s annual Contemporary Issues forum, where the congregation will discuss “Is It Time to Worry? Anti-Semitism in Europe,” but, she argued in her essay, discussing crises elsewhere is as important as addressing what’s happened in Israel. 

Between terrorist group ISIS’ increasingly worrisome death-grip on Iraq; the demonstrations that erupted on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., following the police shooting of an unarmed black male in August; and the more than 200 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped in April, a lot has happened outside of Israel this summer that is worth discussing, Geller wrote.

Whatever rabbis end up talking about in their sermons, Geller said in an interview, the objective of the sermon should be to move people toward purposeful action. 

“What people really want to hear is a message of hopefulness and that the things we do in the world make a difference,” she said.