Some High Holy Days sermons become words to live by

September 20, 2017

Jennifer Stempel, a Los Angeles-based writer, changed her approach to life after hearing a High Holy Days sermon at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Stempel was shul-hopping when the wife of a Temple Emanuel rabbi gave her and her husband tickets to the synagogue’s holiday services. Little did she know that Temple Emanuel Rabbi Jonathan Aaron would deliver a sermon that, inspired by “A Complaint Free World” — a book by Will Bowen that posits that people can transform their lives if they stop complaining — would have such an impact on her.

Aaron concluded the sermon by challenging his community to go the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without complaining. If they caught themselves complaining, they were to start their 10 days over again. They could keep track of it with bracelets that read, “Be Complaint Free,” distributed to all 1,200 people in the sanctuary that day. He told people to wear the bracelets on their right wrist, and if they caught themselves complaining to move their bracelets to their left wrist.

The sermon so resonated with Stempel that she asked the rabbi for a copy of it and even shared it with her friends who were therapists, with the suggestion that their patients might get something out of it.

Nearly a decade later, she remembers the sermon.

“For me, personally, it was a very profound experience,” she said. “I felt like this was the first time I was engaged in a High Holy Day sermon. I was challenged and I actually took action from it.”

Every year, rabbis across Los Angeles attempt to deliver High Holy Days sermons that will leave a lasting impression on their congregations. The test, perhaps, is whether years later congregants can recall — and live by — what their spiritual leaders said.

In 1992, the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement, did not recognize the rights of gay people to be ordained as rabbis. Moreover, it prohibited its rabbis from officiating same-sex marriages. This, despite the fact that it had been two decades since the Reform movement had admitted Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), an LGBT synagogue in Los Angeles, into what is today known as the Union of Reform Judaism, an umbrella organization for the Reform movement.

It was against this backdrop that Rabbi Harold Schulweis, spiritual leader of Conservative congregation Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), set out to determine whether homosexuality actually was the sin some believe it is described to be in the Torah, which says one man is not to lie with another. He visited BCC and spent time speaking with some of its congregants. He read many scientific studies on the subject. On erev Rosh Hashanah in 1992, he delivered a sermon that addressed his movement’s position on gays in a sermon titled, “Morality, Legality and Homosexuality.”

In part, it said, “It is one thing to quote a verse. It is another thing to look into the pained eyes of a human being. I’m not dealing with words, and I’m not dealing with texts. … I do not regard these people as sinners or their love as abomination. The God I have been raised with is el moleh rachamim — God who art full of mercy — and the attribute which Jews are to emulate is that of compassion.”

Stephen Sass was seated in a pew that day. He was both a member of BCC and of VBS. He was in a same-sex relationship. What he heard made an impact on him.

“To hear him saying, ‘If this is what the tradition is saying, the tradition is wrong and we need to do something about it,’ that was very groundbreaking,” said Sass, an attorney and president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

“It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time, there was a conspiracy of silence where nobody would talk about that,” he said. “Even then in those days, people at BCC would not be identified by their last name; they would just use an initial because they could lose their job or their family.”

Schulweis’ sermon paved the way for the acceptance of gay Jews in the Conservative world. A support group for gays and their families launched at VBS. Eventually, same-sex couples could join the synagogue together as members.

“The Reform movement had made those strides and in a way the Conservative movement was just catching up,” Sass said. “He took this on. He didn’t have to, just like he took on so many issues.”

In 2004, Schulweis, who died in 2014, made another deep impression with a High Holy Days sermon titled, “Globalism and Judaism.” In it, he asked where Jews who said “never again” to the Holocaust stood as a genocide was unfolding in  Rwanda in 2004. Janice Kamenir-Reznik, then an attorney who was an active volunteer at VBS, was in the sanctuary that day. She was struck by Schulweis imploring his congregation to open a newspaper: “You can’t close the newspaper once you believe in a global God,” he said.

“It fortified the theology I had developed anyway about the relevance of Judaism and the relevance of Torah to daily life,” Kamenir-Reznik said. She went on to co-found Jewish World Watch — an anti-genocide nonprofit organization that is active in Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo — with Schulweis.

Last year, Emily Alhadeff, a Seattle resident and member of Temple De Hirsch Sinai, the largest Reform synagogue in the Pacific Northwest, was transfixed as Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen delivered a sermon on Rosh Hashanah about postpartum depression.

“It wasn’t my first dance with depression, and I’ve dealt with anxiety throughout my life. But when the crash came, I felt completely alone and deeply ashamed,” Cohen said in the sermon.

Alhadeff, a chef and founder of Emily’s Granola in Seattle, said the rabbi’s willingness to make herself vulnerable was transformative. 

“This idea — this strong woman having to confront her congregation — I just found it to be so powerful,” Alhadeff said.

Cohen, a Los Angeles native who joined Temple Beth Torah in Ventura this year, said she was nervous about opening up to her congregation that way. She did not know how people would react to a sermon that called on eliminating the stigma around mental illness. So when the community erupted with applause at the end of her remarks, she was at a loss for what to do.

“I was so taken aback, I looked down uncomfortably,” she said. “I said something that mattered. It was really amazing.”

Effective sermons are speaking to the realities of the times, Stempel said.

“What’s going on in the world, the sermon should take that into account,” she said. “I think you should be talking about a universal truth, something everybody in the room can relate to on some level.”

Of course, a profound sermon for one person is a dud for another. Stempel acknowledged that her husband did not respond to Aaron’s “complaint” sermon in 2008 as enthusiastically as she did.

“He likes to complain,” she said.

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