For me, the most ominous day of the year is August 1st. In July, all is calm, but as soon as the calendar says August, I can no longer deny it. The High Holy Days are coming.
For rabbis, the High Holidays present a great challenge. They are like the World Series for Rabbis. The people gather, their hearts opened, as they reflect on the year that has passed, hoping for insight to take into the coming year. Those assembled have had all different kinds of experiences in the past year. Some have encountered great blessings, while many have faced heartbreak — the loss of loved ones or of dreams that didn’t come to fruition. How does a rabbi say something that speaks to a group of people with such a vast array of experiences and offer inspiration, hope and consolation?
This year, this challenge is heightened. We’ve faced a time of great divisiveness, where it seems like the fabric of our country is being torn apart. What does one say after seeing flags with Swastikas marched through Charlottesville and a car used to murder and injure peaceful counter-protesters. How do we preach a message of love in the face of so much hate?
The good news for the rabbis in this community is that we don’t have to face these challenges alone.
On August 15th, rabbis and rabbinical students of all the denominations gathered at Stephen Wise Temple for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California’s High Holy Days conference. The teachings at the sessions were incredibly pertinent to the moment.
The keynotes of the conference were two brothers, each of whom made an enormous impact on the Jewish world. In the morning, Rabbi David Saperstein, the Former Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, offered “Insights from Jewish Tradition in Addressing Social Justice, Political, and other Controversial Topics on the High Holidays.” Rabbi David gave concrete advice on how to discuss difficult topics in ways that bring communities together rather than tear them apart. He modeled how to describe alternate positions — even ones with which one disagrees — in a respectful manner so that congregants with varying viewpoints feel represented and heard. He discussed how to ground one’s remarks in personal examples as well as pertinent facts and statistics. He presented strategies to steer clear of common mistakes that clergy may make when discussing potentially volatile topics from the pulpit.
In the afternoon, Rabbi Marc Saperstein, Professor of Jewish History and Homiletics at Leo Baeck college, shared his expertise on “High Holy Day preaching in times of Catastrophe.” He shared quotes and reflections on sermons that were given during the Holocaust as well as in the aftermath of Sept 11th, Hurricane Katrina, and other horrific times. He described how a rabbi responded when as he walked up to give his sermon, he was told that Lincoln had been shot. — discarding his previously written sermon and offering a spontaneous new sermon which spoke to the tragedy of that moment. Rabbi Marc shared how these rabbis interpreted a central prayer of the high holiday liturgy, the Unetanah Tokeph, to speak to the enormous challenges of each of these moments. These reflections from the past offered much insight on how rabbis can speak to the catastrophe of our time.
In between these two sessions, the rabbis chose between breakout sessions from local rabbis and community leaders. The topics of the sessions varied yet each presentation included lively dialogue and great wisdom. In the first set of breakout sessions, Abby Fifer Mandell, the Executive Director of the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at the University of Southern California shared how the techniques of Human-Centered Design can be applied to the process of preparing one’s sermons or teachings for the high holidays. Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn of B’nai David Judea reflected on how facing death through the high holiday prayers can impact our living in the new year. Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuvah offered both sermon ideas and a powerful meditation which spoke to the souls of the rabbis — so that we could speak to the souls of others. Rabbi Sarah Bassin of Temple Emanuel modeled how to facilitate difficult discussions within one’s synagogue and community. She even offered this session twice so that the conversations would take place in small groups.
In the second set of breakout sessions, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel, accompanied by Naomi Ackerman of the Advot Project and Kitty Glass of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, addressed how to prevent and respond to domestic violence in our communities and how to teach teens and young adults to create healthy relationships. Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Cohen of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies offered a radical approach to T’shuvah (Repentance) based on a sermon by Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tameres in 1910 while Rabbi Marc Borovitz, of Beit Tshuvah (which is both a rehabilitation center for addiction and a synagogue), discussed T’shuvah as “God’s Most Unnoticed Miracle.” Rabbi Borovitz showed how to do a full Cheshbon Hanefesh (accounting of the soul) for the new year.
As I listened to these sessions, I felt a mix of emotions. On the one hand, I felt glued to my seat, mesmerized, not wanting to get up for a moment lest I miss the next gem of wisdom. On the other hand, I longed to be in all four sessions for the full hour at once. (Thankfully, the sessions will be posted on YouTube so that I can listen to what I missed!)
Each year, as I prepare for the high holidays, one of the first questions I ask myself is who inspired me the most this past year? This year, the presenters at the high holiday conference are at the top of my list.
In her session, Rabbi Naomi Levy led a meditation where she encouraged people to imagine their hearts as an ark containing Torah scrolls. She asked us to approach the ark, open it and listen. This powerful meditation contained the essence of the conference. All the presenters shared the Torah from the ark of their hearts to prompt us to discover the Torah in our own hearts.
As August turned to September, the insights shared at the High Holy Days conference will resonate in the hearts of those who attended and shared with congregations and communities this high holiday season and beyond. How fortunate we are in this community that when we encounter great challenges, we can find strength by facing them together.
The Board of Rabbis promotes and enriches Jewish knowledge and living, for rabbis and the community, through innovative programming and active leadership in the areas of 1) Talmud Torah for Colleagues, 2) Interfaith Engagement, 3) Social Justice, 4) Healing and Spirituality, 5) Professional Growth and Development, and 6) Israel. These areas are in line with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ strategic initiatives of Ensuring the Jewish Future, Caring for Jews in Need and Engaging in Our Community.
For more information on the Board of Rabbis, please contact Rabbi Ilana Grinblat at IGrinblat@JewishLA.org.