June 26, 2019

Rabbis share insights in Rosh Hashanah sermons

Jared Stein (L) and Daniel Levitch (R) blow the shofar as Gillian Levitch, 4, watches at a Tashlich ceremony, a Rosh Hashanah ritual to symbolically cast away sins, during the Nashuva Spiritual Community Jewish New Year celebration on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California, United States Sept. 21. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS.

In their 2017 Rosh Hashanah sermons, rabbis from across the denominational spectrum called for their communities to act out Jewish values to combat hate and bigotry, citing a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the past year. Others avoided politics and provided guidance for self-improvement, drawing on biblical texts to offer teachings relevant to how people live today. The following are excerpts from some of those sermons.

Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous
We are here to cry out against injustice, to fight for human dignity. To give love and to receive it. To pry open hearts and minds, to lift the fallen and strengthen the vulnerable, give voice to the voiceless, to advance the causes of dignity and peace — for our people and for all people. We must not abandon our core commitments when things get tough; we must make justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a mighty stream. Read full sermon here. 

Wilshire Boulevard Temple
Senior Rabbi Steve Leder
Why is Torah so filled with negative examples of human behavior? Why of the 613 commandments in the Torah are 248 positive “Thou shalts” but 365 are negative “Thou shalt nots”? Because the Torah knows we can become better people by choosing how not to behave. Because what we choose not to do, not to say, not to envy, not to hold on to from within any longer, because of what we remove from our hearts and lives, the true light of Torah, of God, of who we really can be, shines upon our innermost soul.  Read full sermon here. 

Wilshire Boulevard Temple
Rabbi Beaumont Shapiro
The well-known sports psychologist Bob Rotella explains that the majority of amateur golfers approach a shot by thinking about where they do not want to hit the ball. Don’t hit it into the water. Don’t hit it into the trees. Don’t hit it into the sand. You get the idea. Instead, Rotella gives some incredibly simple advice — focus on the target, not the hazards — where you want the ball to go, not what you want to avoid. Filling one’s mind with negative thoughts about what not to do makes it exponentially more difficult to accomplish what one sets out to do. In other words, think about the positive, rather than the negative. Rosh Hashanah is the same. Today should be all about the positive.

Sinai Temple
Max Webb Senior Rabbi David Wolpe
There are times in order to have peace you have to take a step back. In other words, you have to make room for other people to make peace. You have to let them in. You have to allow them to have a say. You can’t discount them immediately because they are on the other side of a religious or political or familial divide. You can’t do that. You can’t scream every time somebody disagrees with you or even offends you. There is no discussion anymore once you push them off the bridge. But if you take their hand and step back, you will discover there is a lot to talk about.

Congregation Or Ami
Rabbi Paul Kipnes
Well, if I may be so bold, like [Theodor] Herzl and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I too have a dream, that any two of you, passionate people both, will sit down and talk about the most difficult issues facing our country, and you will converse with kavod (respect) and chesed (kindness), patiently listening to each other to uncover the nuance and complexity of your opinions. Without destroying each other. Without resorting to the “shock and awe” which characterizes the “ridicule and destroy” sloganeering that tries to pass as debate today on both sides of the aisle, and in the middle, too. Im tirtzu — If we will it, it is no dream. Read full sermon here. 

Temple Isaiah
Senior Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles
Make yourself an ark. We are the ark when we build not borders, but bridges. We are the ark when we build not separations, but support. We are the ark when we build not contention, but confidence. We are the ark when we build not sarcasm, but security. We are the ark when we build not towers, but trust. We are the ark when we build not feuds, but friendships. We are the ark when we build more compassion, more kindness, more generosity, more understanding, more patience, more joy, more thoughtfulness, more equality, more love. We are the ark when we build upon our best values, when we reflect on ourselves, adjust our sails, make room for others, support and celebrate each other, practice equanimity so that when the floods do come, our inner waters remain calm.

We are sailing over some choppy seas. Darkness on the face of the deep. We don’t always know what lurks beneath, but together we can be prepared for any adventure, until that day when the ark comes to rest, arms linked not to save but to sing, God’s spirit hovering over us with all the colors of the rainbow. Read full sermon here. 

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills
Senior Rabbi Jonathan Aaron
There may be some of you here who are unsure how you want to react to the actions of certain people or groups. You’re affected by Charlottesville and racism and sexism and any other “ism,” discrimination, intolerance, hate, genocide, and the subversion of the rights of those who cannot help themselves. But you are unsure as to how or where you can participate. Perhaps these 10 days can be reflections on what really matters to you and where you want to make a difference in the world. That is our opportunity. That is our challenge. (By the way, bringing food for the hungry and diapers for refugees is a great start.) Read full sermon here.

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills
Associate Rabbi Sarah Bassin
We do not calibrate our moral compass by what we see around us. We do not adjust to tolerate a new normal. We do not lower our expectations because the world is backsliding. We strive to hold on to the same purpose we had since the start of creation — to gather light and drive out darkness.

Temple Israel of Hollywood
Rabbi Jocee Hudson
We have to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable, to say the wrong thing and apologize, to learn from others, and to do so with real humility. Because when we show up together at the Isla Mosque in South Los Angeles to protest white supremacy, and when we show up on Olvera Square in downtown L.A. together to protest the repeal of DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], we show up way more authentically, having done the real work of community building. We have to work to be in relationship with our neighbors, even when we don’t yet fully understand each other. Actually, we need to show up because we don’t yet fully understand each other.

Valley Beth Shalom
Rabbi Noah Farkas
The first paragraph of the Shema, our holiest prayer begins, v’ahavta et Adonai elohecha bchol levavcha, uvechol nafshecha — “Love Adonai your God with all your heart and might.” The word for heart, lev, is spelled with two bets. The rabbis teach that each bet is meant to teach us something different. The Jewish heart has two chambers that beat as one. Do not let anyone, my children, split your Judaism with your Zionism. The Jewish heart has two chambers that beat as one.

Temple Ner Simcha
Rabbi Michael Barclay
God’s love is so overwhelming, so awesome. If we can just for a moment realize at a deep emotional level that every aspect of life has been choreographed in a holy way specifically for each of our individual needs. Every sound, color and vibration is a gift from God — feeding our souls with exactly what we really need in that very moment! It truly is overwhelming.

And the only response as human beings that we can have to such an infinite love is to surrender and love God back. To teach our children in every moment and to remind ourselves at all times the depth of God’s love. To allow ourselves to truly feel the only response to that awesome love: loving God back with a passion, honesty and openness that allows us to truly have a sacred relationship with the Divine.

Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue 
Rabbi Judith HaLevy
We are here, during these Days of Awe, to FaceTime with God. We can only be connected if we can bring our full selves, flaws, doubts and all, to the conversation. Only then can we truly say, “Hineni” (Here I am).

Pico Shul
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein
God wants us looking out for everybody, for those who are in distress, those who are hurting, in need. It’s easy to see when there is a flood how people are in need. So people, their natural instinct, their divine spark inside them, pushes them to help because it is obvious. When we don’t have it so blatantly in front of us, we don’t necessarily realize all the needs.

Temple Beth Hillel
Rabbi Sarah Hronsky
In our Torah portion this morning, Abraham — in the horrendous moment, poised with knife in hand, the most dramatic moment — wakes up when he hears his name called. He lifts his head, opens his eyes and sees in front of him something so important, the ram caught in the thicket. The answer to this dramatic moment was found literally in the resources in front of him, once he opened his eyes. I am hopeful that we, too, in this year will open our eyes each time a dramatic difficult moment happens for us in our country and around the world. Open our eyes to the possibilities of how to offer repair, how to fix, see the resources we have right in front of us, and put it all together to do the hard work.

Kol Nidre: When the melody meets the moment

People play instruments during a ceremony on Venice Beach. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS.

Kol Nidre ve’esarei

Every year, during the month of Elul, if not before, cantors return to these ancient Aramaic words in reverential search of meaning and inspiration, for they possess a power beyond any others in our long liturgical tradition.

What is it about these seemingly simple, legalistic terms that hold such mystery and transformative power? To me, the compelling power of the Kol Nidre prayer is founded on two truths: 1) the meaning is the moment, and 2) the power of melody.

First, a brief history of this storied text. The first appearance of the opening words of Kol Nidre (literally, “all vows”) has been found on bowls used for magical incantations, curses and spells, which were discovered in ancient Persia (now Iran), dating as far back as the seventh century C.E. Consider this for a moment: The origin of Kol Nidre is a magical spell to deflect harmful curses.

We next encounter an expanded version in the ninth century siddur edited by Rav Amram Gaon. When it appears again a couple of centuries later in the Machzor Vitry, the custom of chanting Kol Nidre three times has taken hold and its meaning has been transformed from magical incantation to legal document, granting the annulment of vows.

This practice eventually led to a controversy that reached its apex in the 19th century, when German Reform rabbis were forced, in response to virulent anti-Semitic charges of dishonesty, to delete Kol Nidre from the machzor. The anti-Semitic claims used Kol Nidre as a proof text for Jewish distrust. Anti-Semites would say, “Look at the Jews! On their holiest day of the year they state openly that their vows are not valid.”

Until its reinstatement in the Reform machzor in 1961, the Jewish community took solace in its melody. The Kol Nidre melody that Ashkenazi Jews recognize as traditional originated in the 16th century and became embellished over the next several centuries. Its collection of simple, short melodic fragments are woven together to form an unforgettable musical moment in sacred time.

Consider the power of just two simple notes, those first two notes of Kol Nidre. In those two notes, an entire community is bound together. Beethoven also needed only two notes to compose what is arguably the most memorable symphony ever composed, his Fifth Symphony.

So potent were those first two notes of Kol Nidre that there was an outcry among the German Reform Jews when the text was deleted from their machzor. However, it wasn’t the text they desired, but the melody. In response, they chose a psalm sung in German to the Kol Nidre melody as a temporary replacement.

The other part of Kol Nidre’s power is the moment. The beginning of the evening of Yom Kippur is arguably the most palpable moment in the entire Jewish communal year. According to our tradition, our very lives hang in the balance. We dress in white and refrain from eating and drinking, as if preparing for our own funeral. We are facing death. Kol Nidre, with its strange and controversial history, its simple but unforgettable melody and the very sounds of its ancient Aramaic words all converge in what is a holy moment in time.

Chanting Kol Nidre for the first time remains a powerful and intimate memory. I was a high school senior in my hometown of Cleveland when our 2,000-member Conservative synagogue experienced a breakup. For reasons unimportant now, nearly 500 members decided to form their own congregation, and I was asked to serve as cantorial soloist.

I was honored to accept but also concerned at my lack of experience and the enormity of the responsibility. I spent the summer preparing with relentless diligence, rehearsing with my accompanist and eight-voice choir. In the end, I felt ready and worthy. Rosh Hashanah went well and I was emboldened with confidence in anticipation of what we then commonly referred to as “Kol Nidre Night.” 

When that moment came, I found myself trembling with fear. I remember being grateful for the loose-fitting white robe that hid my shaking legs. I began the first of the traditional three offerings with timidity, which was all I had at that moment. Then the second with growing confidence, and by the third I was fully present.

I honestly don’t remember much of what followed, other than complete relief and exhaustion. Still, years later, the fear and trembling are present — not from inexperience, but rather from a deeper and more mature understanding of the moment and it’s meaning.

So what does a 21st century cantor do to prepare for such a monumental moment in the Jewish communal drama? We do what we’ve always done. We delve yet again into its history, text and melody, the countless commentaries and personal stories. Deeper and deeper we search so that in that Kol Nidre moment we can let go and become fully present, one with the entire community of Jews as time stands still.

Cantor Don Gurney is a cantor at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Calendar: March 3-9, 2017

Maya Avraham. Photo courtesy of YouTube.



Join Reboot and Open Temple for an “Unplugged Party” in celebration of Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging. Your phone will be checked at the door. Step off the grid to listen to live music, play board games, visit the analog photo booth, and more. Event dedicated to the late Levi Felix, founder of Digital Detox and Camp Grounded; $3 of each ticket will be donated to Camp Grounded in his memory. 21 and older. 7 p.m. $18; tickets available at eventbrite.com. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. nationaldayofunplugging.com.


Honor a group of 10 young Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers visiting Los Angeles who have been wounded in combat. Food, drinks and an open-bar after-party with a DJ spinning until midnight. All proceeds go to Lev Chayal’s program for wounded IDF soldiers. Black-tie attire. 8 p.m. VIP reception; 9 p.m. cocktails and buffet. $180 for individual reservations; $100 for young professionals ages 21 to 35. Tickets available at eventbrite.com. Venue TBA. levchayal.com.



A chartered bus will take riders alongside the Metro Gold Line into the San Gabriel Valley on a tour that will focus on the area’s unique Jewish heritage and its contemporary community life. Wear comfortable walking shoes — the tour includes two miles on foot. Instructors include Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California since 1989, and Jeremy Sunderland, who is on the board of directors for the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Space is limited. Lunch on your own. 9 a.m. $58. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-9777. wcce.aju.edu.


The ninth annual Nefesh B’Nefesh Israel Aliyah Fair offers the opportunity to gather aliyah information under one roof. Professionals will discuss financial planning and budgeting, choosing a community, building a strategic job search plan, navigating the health care system, buying or renting a home in Israel, and more. 10 a.m. for retirees and empty nesters; noon for students and young professionals. Free. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. nbn.org.


cal-hign-noon“High Noon” is more than a Western; it is also a story about the Hollywood blacklist. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel will discuss his book about  screenwriter Carl Foreman, producer Stanley Kramer, director Fred Zinnemann and actor Gary Cooper, and how their creative partnership was influenced — and crushed — by political repression and agendas. Book signing to follow presentation. 2 p.m. $14; $10 for students and seniors; $6 for children; free for members. Autry Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles.


The Los Angeles Balalaika Orchestra presents its 22nd annual concert, featuring the voice of Mark Goldenberg, cantor at Young Israel of Century City. 3 p.m. $35-$45. Herbert Zipper Hall, 200 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (626) 483-2731. balalaikala.com.


Elana Stein Hain, director of leadership education at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, will discuss the core values of some of the “tribes” that compose Israel today, and how a divided people build a shared society. Part of the Synagogue Collaborative Lecture Series. 4 p.m. $20. (Post-lecture dinner and discussion extra; RSVP only.) Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. shalomhartman.org/LAcollaborative.


“Labscapes” presents vivid images from the mysterious and usually unseen wonders that exist under the powerful lenses of the microscopes of some of the world’s most renowned researchers at Technion — Israel Institute of Technology. A special presentation by students will be followed by the grand opening. RSVP requested: jose@ats.org or (310) 254-9899. 5 p.m. presentation; 6 p.m. reception and exhibit. Through March 27. Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. ats.org/labscapes.


Before joining The Idan Raichel Project, Maya Avraham was a widely sought-after backup singer for Israeli superstars such as Eyal Golan, Sarit Hadad and Shlomi Shabat. She will sing some of The Idan Raichel Project’s greatest hits as well as her own songs. 7 p.m. Tickets start at $35. Gindi Auditorium at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-9777. wcce.aju.edu.


This panel discussion features Vince Brook of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television; David Isaacs, TV scriptwriter, producer and Emmy winner; Shaina Hammerman, Jewish film, literature, religion and cultural historian; Josh Moss, visiting assistant professor of film and media studies at UC Santa Barbara; and Ross Melnick, associate professor of film and media studies at UCSB. 6:15 p.m. dessert reception; 7 p.m. panel. Free. RSVP by March 3 at wbtla.org/shtetl or (424) 208-8932. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Irmas Campus, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 388-2401.



Learn how to use Google Earth and Google Maps to gather information about where your ancestors lived, and how to educate yourself and meet other like-minded individuals (and perhaps relatives) using Google’s social media. Mary Kathryn Kozy, who has been researching her family history for more than 35 years, will speak at this meeting of the Jewish Genealogy Society of the Conejo Valley and Ventura County. 7 p.m. Free. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest, Thousand Oaks. (818) 889-6616. jgscv.org.



cal-elon-goldComedian, writer and actor Elon Gold kicks off the Purim weekend with a night of comedy, drinks and a DJ. Also featuring Alex Edelman. 8 p.m. $40. Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (888) 645-5006. sabanconcerts.com.


Explore the ethical and religious implications of the Holocaust at this event. Wine and cheese reception will be followed by a multimedia program and discussion about the Polish underground’s mission that sent officer Witold Polecki into Auschwitz to gain intelligence and build resistance among the prisoners. 7:30 p.m. $8. Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-1572. wcce.aju.edu.

Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, 78, longtime leader of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, has died

Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, who served as senior rabbi of the historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple for 23 years and played a central role in Los Angeles intergroup relations, died Thursday (Jan. 23) at his home after a long illness. He was 78.

Funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 26, in the temple’s sanctuary on the Glazer campus, 3663 Wilshire Blvd. The service will be open to the public.

Community leaders, colleagues and family members remembered Fields on Friday for his talent in transforming broad plans and ideas into reality, for blending tradition with innovation, for his personal ethics and for his commitment to creating bonds among the city’s diverse religious and ethnic communities.

Field’s composure and political skills were tested during the 1992 Rodney King riots, when the temple found itself at the center of looting and rioting swirling throughout Koreatown.

Reaching out to his longtime friends in the African-American religious community, Fields helped organize the “Hands Across Los Angeles” demonstration, which saw thousands of Angelenos join hands across a 10-mile swath of the central city.

When Fields arrived in Los Angeles in 1985, after serving congregations in Boston, New Jersey and Canada, he had to step into the shoes of the synagogue’s legendary leader, Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin, who had led the congregation for an incredible 69 years.

During the Magnin epoch, some innovations were left behind, and it was Fields’ job to guide the transition of religious practice and worship out of the classic Reform Judaism and into a more traditional form of worship, including through music and dress, observed Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who succeeded Fields as senior rabbi at the temple in 2003.

Fields also foresaw the changing demographics of the Los Angeles Jewish community as it moved from east to west, He provided the impetus and fundraising skill to establish the new, second campus for the congregation, the Audrey and Sidney Irmas Campus on the Westside, in the process reversing the hemorrhaging of membership in he congregation, which had declined from 2,600 families to 1,900.

Fields was an ardent supporter of Israel and served on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel; Fields gave his wife and three children an unforgettable experience when, in mid-career, he took off for one year to live in Israel, where they could frolic on the beaches of Netanya.

“My dad saw the positive in every person and situation,” remembered daughter Debra Fields, with her brother, Joel Fields, adding, “he always took the high road.”

During Fields’ last seven years, following a severe stroke, he had great difficulty in retrieving and articulating words and turned enthusiastically to painting, his daughter noted.

He also continued, but was unable to complete, his work on a new commentary on the Prophets to supplement his popular three-volume commentary on the Torah, as well as a historical novel on his great-grandfather’s settlement in farming community in Dakota in the 1880s.

Fields’ love of Israel did not stop him from criticizing the policies of the Jewish State at times. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Los Angeles in 1997, Fields warned him that ties between American Jewry and Israel were being “torched” by the prime minister’s support for the Orthodox rabbinate’s domination of religious affairs, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.

Among Fields’ friends and colleagues who responded to The Journal’s request for recollections, were:

Pastor William F. Epps of the Second Baptist Church of Los Angeles: “Rabbi Fields and I often exchanged pulpits and addressed our respective congregations. He was a remarkable man who, as founding chair of the Interfaith Coalition to Heal Los Angeles played a key role in Black-Jewish relations.”

Howard Bernstein, president of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 1994-96: “Rabbi Fields was one of the most significant influences of my life. He was both a level-headed man and a man of vision.”

David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates: “In the 1990s, when Harvey chaired the Jewish Federations Community Relations Committee and I was executive director of the regional Anti-Defamation League, we worked closely together on intergroup relations. To describe Harvey, I think of such words as decent, straight-forward, with a lack of pretensions.”

Lionel Bell, president of both the Jewish Federation and Wilshire Boulevard Temple in the 1990s: “Harvey was a wonderful rabbi, a humanist of the first class, and one of the finest men I have ever known.”

Stanley Gold: “Harvey was a great and wise man, who worked passionately for religious pluralism in Israel.”

Fields was a native of Portland, Ore. and a graduate of UCLA, Hebrew Union College and Rutgers University.

He is survived by Sybil, his wife of 55 years, children Debra (Jonathan Silberman), Joel (Jessica) and Rachel (Hanan Prishkolnik) and seven grandchildren.

Contributions in Rabbi Fields’ memory may be sent to Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Sunday’s services will be transmitted at http://wbtla.org/live.