5779 Rosh HaShanah Sermon Roundup

Inside Leadership

5779 Rosh HaShanah Sermon Roundup

Neon colorblocked background with honey dippers and apples and a shofar

In the sermons excerpted below, you will find many examples of uplifting and inspiring teaching. You will find profound explications of our sacred texts and searching examinations of pop culture phenomena from Mr. Rogers to Fortnight (it’s a video game, who knew?) to Siri.

A Few Highlights

Lovely as they are, though, those examples do not really represent the overall impression of this year’s batch of sermons. The overall impact is most like a bucket of cold water to the face. The most memorable, most powerful, most urgent of the sermons this Rosh Hashanah eloquently examine the challenging, even frightening, political moment in which we are enmeshed:

  • “It feels like hatred is literally everywhere, doesn’t it? It feels like the world is just teeming with it, bursting at the seams with hate. Spewing from our televisions, the news broadcasts, the halls of Congress; consuming our workplaces, our places of leisure, even our homes. Hatred so palpable, so venomous and deeply felt, that it threatens to poison us, and sometimes it does.” – Rabbi Joshua Strom
  • “I am scared by the tendencies I see toward fascism.” – Rabbi Lisa Grushcow
  • “We are more divided than ever, scared of those who speak different languages, who look different, worship different, act different, or even who came here from distant shores. This fear has manifested itself in so many ways, most significantly in a hatred of each other.” – Rabbi Andy Gordon
  • “Ours is a vulgar age, with a public square lacking in moral leadership. On our watch there has been a degradation of discourse, in the value of truth, and in the belief in the infinite worth of every human being. We suffer from a paucity of decency, of acts of kindness, and most of all, of holding fast to the fundamental importance of being a mensch.” – Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove

But even – perhaps especially – the starkest sermons make the case for greater civic engagement. Many include a call to action like Rabbi Rachel Timoner:

“Even if you can’t believe that right now, even if you’re too crushed and alienated to believe in anything, pretend you do. Fake it until you make it. Because you are needed. And all you’ve got, all we’ve got, are our actions.”

Yes, a bucket of cold water to the face – but, like that cold water, they leave me wide awake, focused, and ready for what comes next. That is especially true of some of the most hard-hitting sermons (such as, in addition to those quoted above, from Rabbi Sharon Brous, Cantor David Frommer, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, and Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel). Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s call to arms, in particular, will stay with me.

Another important set of sermons focused sexual abuse/harassment and the #MeToo movement. The sermons from Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor, Rabbi Jonathan Jaffee, Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, and Rabbi Andrea Steinberger all shined valuable light on a critical subject. Rabbi Paul Jacobson’s unusual joint sermon with Morah Barbara Haber was an especially interesting approach, and the excerpt below really does not do justice to Rabbi Molly G. Kane’s powerful and essential sermon. Please go watch or read it!

I was also struck by a genre of sermon I had never picked up on before, in which a newly selected rabbi introduces him or herself to their new congregation. Rabbi Marc Katz’s talk managed to both capture some of the congregation’s perhaps unknown history as well as to provide some insight into his hopes for the congregations and himself. Rabbi Charles K. Briskin’s wonderful talk focuses on what he has learned about life from Lego.

As always, I greatly appreciated the more idiosyncratic sermons such as Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik’s poetic call to get “unstuck,” Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin’s argument in favor of joy, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher’s paean to failure, and Rabbi Joshua Stanton’s lovely reminder that creation can and should take many forms.

In the year ahead, I know that I will return to these sermons for insight. I hope you will, too.

A Word about Process (Revised from Last Year, and Worth Reading)

Collecting sermons is more difficult than it looks. Congregations hide sermons in different places on their websites; they post them in different media (text, audio, video). Even those who post texts do so in an impressive variety of formats. Other congregations do not post sermons immediately. I know that by picking any deadline, I will miss some great sermons. (I “closed” this compilation late in the day on September 17th, aiming to have it available for those who might have time to read them during Yom Kippur.)                     

This is, to be clear, an idiosyncratic and personal collection of sermons. Any views expressed are my own. It is by no means representative or comprehensive – but neither is it selective. I have included every sermon I received. 

My discovery methods (if they can be called that) were simply to post a request on the Reform rabbis email list and to look at those sermons I found in my regular online travels. That means that a rabbi is far more likely to be included in this roundup if, for example, she is a Facebook friend of mine or once worked with me, and that the overwhelming majority of the sermons collected here are from Reform rabbis (although rabbis of other denominations are represented as well). A final consequence of this approach is that this round-up has grown tremendously; this year, it includes more sermons than ever.

I have only included sermons for which I was able to obtain a written text. Many rabbis have made available audio and video of their sermons, and while I’m sure that is a far better way to experience them than reading them, it’s difficult to edit video – especially to do so (as I have done most of this project) while sitting in an Amtrak café car or on an airplane. More and more rabbis are posting video links, and I think a great YouTube playlist could be made of their sermons. I invite someone else to take up that assignment!

Where rabbis have shared or posted more than one sermon, I have selected which one to excerpt here. Typically, I have chosen the one on a less common theme.

To give readers a feel for each sermon, I have selected a paragraph (sometimes more) to include here. In response to feedback on previous editions of this round-up, I have included more extensive excerpts in places. The length of the excerpt is, of course, not a reflection of anything other than how many words I felt I needed to get the rabbi’s point across. For example, one of my favorite sermons ("Why We Must Fail" by Rabbi Joel Mosbacher) is represented by three short sentences that capture the message.

I want to be clear that the selections here are mine alone. I am sure that in some cases, the rabbi might take issue with the paragraph(s) I have chosen to represent their sermon. That points to another challenge with this project: Many of the best sermons do not lend themselves well to this format. In some cases, a sermon is so tightly constructed that excerpting one paragraph makes no sense. Rabbi Jason Fenster’s sermon about his family history is a great example of that challenge, as is Rabbi Marc Katz’s talk focusing on the history of the congregation’s ner tamid. That also means that sometimes I have had to choose between selections that really captured the essence of the sermon and those that make sense standing on their own.

Finally, please note that I have not edited the text of the excerpts, although I have removed the footnotes/references (they are there in the original, linked, sermon). That means that some Hebrew words or biblical references that might normally be clarified (and might have been clarified at another point in the sermon) are left to stand on their own. Again, you can – and should – get the full context by reading the linked sermon.

Sermons labeled with a † after the title indicate that sermon was originally unnamed and that the title listed here was chosen by me. 

Without further ado…

5779 Sermon Round-Up

“What Is In the Box?”
Rabbi Joel N. Abraham, Temple Sholom (Scotch Plains, NJ)

Instead, these yamim nora’im, challenge us to take hold of that change process ourselves, to change our paths. Through t’shuvah; we examine who we are and what we have done up until this moment, acknowledge what we would rather be, and commit to doing what is necessary to become that person. Through t’shuvah; we examine who we are and what we have done up until this moment, acknowledge what we would rather be, and commit to doing what is necessary to become that person.

“Land of the Covenant”
Rabbi Charles Arian, Kehilat Shalom (Gaithersburg, MD)

France, the United Kingdom, and many other European countries are having difficulties figuring out their identities because their societies are changing. Whereas not so long ago the UK was almost entirely white and ethnically English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish, today those four ethnicities make up only about 80 percent of the population.

I am not making a value judgment by saying that changes in population makeup are difficult to adjust to in societies like France or the UK which have been fairly homogeneous. By contrast the United States has historically, despite the very serious blind spots we have had around issues of race, been a nation defined not by identity but by ideals.

“Beauty in the Brokenness”
Rabbi Erica Asch, Temple Beth El (Augusta, ME)

We are many generations removed from the first imperfect creation of adam harishon, the first being. We ourselves are imperfect, and the lives we lead are imperfect. We have endured real trauma in the past year--the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, struggles with mental health challenges or addictions, being unmoored from things we knew to be true. And, even if we have not experienced big or public difficulties, we have our inner brokenness--the voice saying we are not enough— Not a loving enough friend or parent or spouse. Not a good enough co-worker. Not doing enough to make the world better. Not eating enough healthy foods. Not exercising enough. Not spending enough time on what is important. Not enough. Never enough. We all feel broken. And yet...there is a beauty in our brokenness.

“A Vision of Better”
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Congregation Beth Israel (North Adams, MA)

We must imagine that world — and then we must build it. I know that may feel implausible. I know that so many hopes feel precarious right now. I want to honor that, even as I challenge us to draw strength from how far our nation has come. Once upon a time chattel slavery was the law of the land. It was legal to own another human being. That changed because of hard work, and activism, and legislation, and struggle.

And that’s what these times demand of us, too. So that our transgender loved ones can be safe and protected. So that women continue to have ownership of our own bodies. So that the rights of marriage and adoption granted to people of all sexual orientations are not taken away. So that the laws that protect our nation’s fragile environment are not gutted. So that white supremacists will understand that (in George Washington’s words) to bigotry we will give no sanction — that hatred of any person is tantamount to hatred of all people, because we are all created in the image and the likeness of the Divine.

“What’s So Funny about Jews and Comedy?”
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows, Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek (Chester, CT)

Look, at this time of year, we are at our most self-critical. And, it’s by design – it’s the point of these 10 Days of Awe. We turn these inherited observational skills inward, and we don’t always like what we see. Our crystal clear recollections of mistakes and wounds churn within us. I hope that, in the spirit of our people’s clever comedians, we all take things with a grain of salt – but not too much salt, remember your blood pressure. Maybe we’ll even allow ourselves to laugh when remembering something challenging, awkward, or embarrassing. Humor, laughter, and irreverence are as much a long-standing part of our tradition as study or prayer. Like Mel Brooks, or Sarah Silverman, use humor to be brave, to make a statement, to challenge the status quo, and to stare down tyranny. And when we inevitably face life’s hardships and trials, we can tap into generations of strength, creativity, and resilience, as our people have done for centuries.

“Our T’shuvah”
Dr./Rabbanit Adena Berkowitz, Kol HaNeshamah (New York, NY)

On that beautiful morning in Jerusalem, amidst the varying sounds of those praying around me I came to realize something so obvious, but so necessary to point out. And here it is: In that cross section-- filled with fervent and true supporters of Israel, who have made the commitment to live in Israel- I don’t think one of them would ever say they live in a Jewish Disneyland. They all realize the county is not perfect, the same way as we know that the US is not perfect, England is not perfect. France is not perfect. But even with any imperfections – they who live there do not say what we have heard this year from those who don’t live in Israel – I am abandoning Israel because I feel embarrassed or I feel let down or I hate the government. Our response to them, our t’shuvah – an answer for them is – countries, like people, make mistakes. The reason we have gathered here together is to begin the process of offering both a collective and individual teshuva- a response, a healing, a turning where we say we have tried our best but we admit that we have shortcomings and areas that we have to work on. If we didn’t, there would be no need for a penitential system. Hashem, we pray, we will work harder on ourselves spiritually, interpersonally and communally in the coming year. But most of all-Hashem, don’t abandon us. Don’t say, I have had it with the Jewish people. Our prayers today are a reminder that the same way we ask Hashem not to give up on us no matter how far we have strayed--that is the least we can do when it comes to our blessed State of Israel- we can’t give up on Israel.

“To Feel the Questions That Have No Answers”
Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple, (Scarsdale, NY)

Because in the end, there really is no good answer to the great and terrible why of human suffering, no adequate response to why bad things happen to good people—except to go on living as vigorously and beautifully as we can.

We ask the wrong question. We ask why the world is the way it is when we should ask why we are the way we are, and how we can be the most fully realized versions of ourselves that we can be. Rather than ask “Why?” of life, we might ask “Now what must I do? Who must I become?”

“King David: The Cost of the King’s Private Sins” (link to be added soon)
Rabbi Barry H. Block, Congregation B’nai Israel (Little Rock, AR)

We were wrong when we determined that Clinton’s presidential leadership on women’s issues was more important and impactful than his personal conduct toward women. Sexual relations between a 45-year-old President and a 22-year-old intern constitute sexual misconduct resulting from an extreme power disequilibrium. Like David with Bathsheba, the power disequilibrium raises a question of whether Clinton’s relations with Lewinsky could truly be consensual. Failing to call out the President’s wrongdoing, we not only facilitated the vilification of a young woman, and worse for Clinton’s other victims, we conspired with President Clinton to drive the issue of powerful men’s sexual misbehavior underground for nearly two decades. Only after Hillary Clinton was defeated in her own presidential election by a man who shamelessly bragged about sexual misconduct, American progressives finally opened our eyes to the widespread degradation of women and girls – and sometimes, boys and men – by powerful men who victimize those under their control. President Clinton’s sexual misconduct and our averted attention enabled two decades of widespread sexual abuse. The perpetrators, we now know, are just as likely to support progressive priorities for women’s rights in the public sphere as to oppose them. Had we insisted that President Clinton face the consequences of his actions, America might have held Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Mario Batali, Louis C.K., and their likes accountable far earlier, sparing untold numbers of victims. And we might never have allowed for an atmosphere in which a man who bragged of grotesque sexual conquests could nevertheless be elected President of the United States.

“The Three Weeks I Never Saw Coming: When Time Stood Still”
Rabbi Debbie Kaiz Bravo, Makom, NY (Bethpage, NY)

As I look out in our community today, I know that many of us have had difficult, challenging times in this past year. I have stood with you at the grave of a loved one, at the bedside in the hospital, agonizing over difficult circumstances with children, siblings and parents. Many of you feel tested by your financial circumstances, familial circumstances, medical circumstances. And there is no question that, in looking back, we did not NEED that particular event to make us stronger; but, in reflection, there is no doubt that we are stronger, perhaps more reflective, more loving, and more resilient because our strength, our community, our faith, our love was put to the test

“Women’s Voices”
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor, Congregation Shirat HaYam (Nantucket, MA)

And yet, with the growing number of women who have, thankfully, entered into the political fray, there are still those who think of their voices as too loud or too shrill. It is up to us to counter these attempts at dismissing the content of the message because of the pitch of the delivery. We must learn to listen, to hear, the voices who speak with authority, with vision, with clarity an octave or two above what we once considered auditory gravitas. Even the word “gravitas” connotates deep, resonant, weighty, serious. Women can and do speak with wisdom and with vision, and it is up to us to listen, to hear.

“Building a New America”
Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR (Los Angeles, CA)

Our children are in the streets shouting pasul! Pasul! It’s not kosher! This old America, the America of greed, corruption and hatred, of systems built to protect and sustain white supremacy, to entrench power in the hands of the few and keep guns in the hands of the many, this system that requires for its sustenance the suppression of the votes of millions of black people and poor people… this system is pasul. It is foul and corrupted. And unlike us, the grownups, these kids won’t even consider that change is impossible.

It is their passion that will lead the way to a new America. It’s their moral clarity. Their fidelity to the truth. Their chemical allergy to hypocrisy. They are leading, and we need to stand behind them now, with the full force of our political, spiritual, intellectual and material resources. To do anything less would be a gross abdication of moral responsibility.

“The Other Side of the Door”
Rabbi Aaron Brusso, Bet Torah (Mt. Kisco, NY)

On the day we mark the creation of the world we don’t step back and admire the brilliance of its design, instead in the Torah reading we are given a backroom tour of its unfinished parts. Its flaws. As if to say- I called you from the beyond to lend your body as bridge for this particular gaping hole in the structure of the world. In the places that don’t care, I need you to.

“Yom Teruah: Sounding The Alarm For Antisemitism”
Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, Central Synagogue (New York, NY)

In order to be principled in this fight,
we must be willing to call out the antisemitism
on our own side of the aisle. 
It’s easy to convince ourselves that the one on “our side” 
exists only at the powerless fringe,
or that it’s outweighed by more important ideological alliances.
But we have to be as intolerant of antisemitism from our political allies
as from our foes. 

….

To fight antisemitism, we must also resist
our understandable desire to leave when we feel we are not wanted.
It is not easy to sit at the table or engage when we feel under attack--
but we must stay in it--
stay in the conversation about Israel--
stay in the fight for pluralistic causes--
because Jews have always been at the forefront
against oppression of all kinds.

“The Building Blocks of Our Lives”
Rabbi Charles K. Briskin, Shir Ami Congregation (Newtown PA)

A.G. Sulzberger, the New York Times’ biggest cheerleader for digital media suggested four years ago that the newsroom of the future should be made of Legos, not bricks. The same idea applies to our synagogues and our lives. Legos are easy to dismantle and reassemble in a different form. They use the same bricks; they’re just arranged differently.

Legos remind us that the right structure for today won’t be the right structure for tomorrow, however, the building blocks for that structure are squarely in our hands; we just need to use them well.

“Sharing Our Stories”
Rabbi Megan Brudney, Temple Beth El (Bloomfield Hills, MI)

So given that that’s the meaning that certain groups are able to attach to the Israelites’ narrative...imagine, now, what telling your own, personal, original story might do. Not the words in a book, however good that book might be, but the words that only you know. The release of coming together not to read a text, but to create an entirely new text in conversation with others who are also looking to add a next chapter by sharing their own stories. The chance to re-mine your story for meaning, both from looking back on it from who you are today and the chance for your story to have an impact on others who need your insight from the lessons you’ve already learned. Just like Jaclyn, you can admit and then illustrate the human condition in vivid color, allowing others to see themselves in you, whether or not you’ve had the same exact experience. You can be that first story, that spark that lights the flame in others who will answer your story with one of their own.

“Unstuck”
Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik, Temple Judea (Tarzana, CA)

The shofar is curvy, not straight – and from that we learn that we, too, need to bend in the New Year. We cannot hold ourselves stiff and unchanging; we need to be flexible if we are going to grow and wiggle out of that narrow space.

The shape of the shofar goes from narrow to wide – the same direction that it grows from the ram’s head. The shape teaches us that we need to widen our view, that growth should make us more open-hearted to the people we love, more open-minded in the world and more open to change.

This is the wake-up call that it is time to get unstuck, to get out of that narrow space and move towards something better.

“Rescuing Truth”
Rabbi Ken Chasen, Leo Baeck Temple (Los Angeles, CA)

So tonight, we will not be silent. We will not allow truth to be sequestered from us as “politics,” and therefore somehow off limits, somehow unworthy of fighting for in this holy space on this holy night. 5779 is here, and truth itself is under an all-out assault in the country we love and which has loved us. And let me be clear… this is not just the work of President Trump or Rudy Giuliani. We are not just victims in the demise of truth. We are a part of its demise – sometimes unwittingly, sometimes not. Left, center or right... old or young… we have been coopted into the destruction of truth. We are accomplices. This season of the Jewish year is for t’shuvah, for turning back.

“To: Stephen Miller, Senior to the President”
Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, Beth Shir Shalom (Santa Monica, CA)

Mr. Miller, Judaism is a way of responding to the mundane and the unexpected, always seeking the response that is at once the most just and the most merciful. We Jews have chosen our history to be our mandate. We choose to recall and emphasize our most ancient ancestor, Abraham, as a “wondering Aramean”, i.e., a refugee, an immigrant. We choose to remember and underscore that the quintessential experience of the Jewish people is both the slavery in and the exodus from ancient Egypt. We are all refugees, Mr. Miller

"A Sense of Decency"
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove, Park Avenue Synagogue (New York, NY)

Today my concerns are not directed at any one person, nor for that matter at any one policy. My concern is more fundamental, as an American, as a Jew, as a human being, and most of all, as a father of four, saddened and distraught at raising children in an age of which it can be asked “Have you no sense of decency?” Ours is a vulgar age, with a public square lacking in moral leadership. On our watch there has been a degradation of discourse, in the value of truth, and in the belief in the infinite worth of every human being. We suffer from a paucity of decency, of acts of kindness, and most of all, of holding fast to the fundamental importance of being a mensch.

“A World of Imagination”
Rabbi Denise L. Eger, Congregation Kol Ami (West Hollywood, CA)

Why am I talking to you about imagination this year? It is because I want you to imagine a new way of being. I want you today to visualize a new world. A new way for our world. Part of resisting the Violence, racism, misogyny hatred and bigotry of our day is to imagine a different reality. Oh make no mistake, we have to work for it. It isn’t just going to be handed to us on a silver platter. But the world we want to see with the values we articulate is possible. A world of equality; a world of liberty and freedom and justice. Whether in Israel or here at home – we have to imagine it first. Visualize it. See it in your mind’s eye. People living in peace. Loving their neighbor. Even if that is not the reality around us. YET!

"An America of Hope and Fear"
Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom (Encino, CA)

Bob Woodward’s new book is titled Fear because in an interview early in the Presidency, the President told Woodward, “real power is fear.” Donald Trump is a creature of fear. He lives in constant state of fear. And he is an artist at the politics of fear. It’s always – Us against Them. At his rallies, he explodes into a frenzy at all those who are coming to take away our prosperity, our safety, our guns, our homes, our faith, our future. The catalog of demons grows with each iteration – Mexican immigrants, Central American gang members, Muslims, the Chinese, the Democrats in Congress, the FBI, the NFL, the New York Times, CNN, Canada, Jeff Sessions, NATO, …the crowd screams and cheers and the adrenaline rises as the rage burns and fears are brought to a boil.

And we wonder, what’s happening to us? Who are we? Where will this lead to? Unfortunately, we know. We Jews, we know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two. We know what happens when fear comes to dominate a political culture. We know what happens when it is no longer aberrant and bizarre and unprecedented, but becomes the new normal. We know what happens when a narrative of fear finally and completely overcomes the narrative of hope.

“A Story Demands”
Rabbi Jason Fenster, B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (Deerfield, IL)

I cannot help but heed my grandfather’s words. I cannot help but hear my grandfather’s story and see his experiences playing out in the world around us. I cannot help but hear my grandfather’s cries of Shema Yisrael, I won’t see my father again, in the cries of immigrant children torn from their parents’ arms. I cannot help but compare the impossible choices his parents made to keep their family safe to families in Central America and Syria and Yemen and Myanmar... struggling with the same questions. I cannot help but empathize with the fear of people knocking on your door, looking to take you and your family away because your status as a human being is deemed illegitimate.

"Are We There Yet?"
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich, Temple Beth Zion (Buffalo, NY)

Judaism demands that we learn and teach. The verses that follow Sh’ma Yisrael, “Listen Israel”, command us to “place the words on our hearts, teach them to our children, speak them in all places and at all times, bind them and write them.” We understand this as a commandment, an imperative, to internalize meanings so as to better understand and develop and clarify words and transform them into meaningful actions.

The claim that I can say something and then, tomorrow, with all of you as witnesses, claim that I said something that meant the opposite of those plain words - this claim destroys the very foundation of the language and speech upon which civilization is based.

….

We stand today as Jewish sentinels on the threshold of a New Year looking out and seeing and remembering and knowing that violence lays just beneath the surface of human society - held at bay by the thinnest of community agreements on civility and law.

"Truth or Peace"
Cantor David Frommer, Congregation Sherith Israel (San Francisco, CA)

This balance, between fighting for our truths, and compromising with our realities, has been the secret to Jewish survival and through our example, will help preserve American democracy. The reality of our times is that President Trump was not elected by a fringe minority. He was elected by sixty million voters. Our country has elected a Republican president in six out of the last ten elections. Both sides must learn to work with each other because neither side is going away. It may be hard, but it’s not impossible. It’s happened before.

"What If I Don’t Believe in God?"
Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, Bat Yam Temple of the Islands (Sanibel, FL)

We can unlock the door of unbelief that stands between many of us and the prayers of this day with a single Hebrew word: כאלו K’eeloo, and it means, “as if.”

It is a simple concept. Whatever our beliefs, if we can act – K’eeloo – “as if” we stand this day under God’s scrutiny, we shall make a giant leap forward.

The word Israel – in Hebrew, Yisrael – means, “One who struggles with God.” It does not mean, “One who believes in God”, and it does not mean “One who is always comfortable with God.” The High Holy Days invite us to serious struggle and effort.

"We Need To Talk"
Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel, Congregation Beth Israel (San Diego, CA)

When we live by these first four values – Sh’ma, listen; derech eretz, common decency; v’ahavta lareacha kamocha, loving our neighbor as ourselves; and kol yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh, our shared communal responsibility to each other – we will create our fifth value: a kehilah kedoshah – a holy community.

Both of the words “community” and “communication” come from the same Latin word: communis, meaning “shared by all or many.” And in Pirkei Avot, the ethics of our ancestors, we see the spiritual value of communication as being central to community: “When two sit and share words of Torah between them, the Divine Presence is between them.” (Avot 3:2, adapted) Beth Israel is surely a place where we share words of Torah within our community of communities.

“The Dynamics of Dispute”
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, Temple Sholom (Chicago, IL)

Even when we are speaking of a subject that is raw and painful for many, i.e., Israel, we need to keep talking. Our tradition tells us that the Second Jewish sovereign state was destroyed two thousand years ago because Jews would not speak to other Jews. And I have to wonder: What might bring down the third Jewish commonwealth? We spend so much effort worrying about outside enemies that we forget how much inner resentment can destroy us from the inside.

It’s so easy to stigmatize the other side for their attitudes, their positions but how often do we take a hard look at our own contribution to breakdown in dialogue?

"The Courage to Believe"
Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser, Temple Sinai (Cranston, RI)

How do we turn our ideals into an action plan? Step number one, always, is to live our values in our personal lives. Be the person who embodies the world as it should be. Think of every person – those you interact with in your daily life, and those you hear about in the news – as another human being, like you, created in the image of God. Command yourself to treat the suffering of others as if it were your own suffering. Bring compassion and caring to people in need. Make your life an example of forgiveness, acceptance, generosity, respect, and awareness of your limitations and limited experience. Rejoice in the variety of humanity and in the lives of people whose circumstances are wholly different from your own.

But the action plan for living Judaism requires more than just a personal attitude adjustment. Judaism teaches that each of us is more than an isolated individual. We belong to each other and we are at our best when we act together as a community to make our world a better place. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “All Jews are responsible for one another” (B. Shevot 39a). Judaism stands for something, and we make it real when we do it together.

"Won’t You Be My Neighbor?"
Rabbi Andy Gordon, Bolton Street Synagogue (Baltimore, MD)

In the words of Fred Rodgers, “Love is at the root of everything. Love is what keeps us together and afloat.” …. Now I don’t know about you, but it sure doesn’t feel that way to me, today. There is so much fear of those who are different from us. We are more divided than ever, scared of those who speak different languages, who look different, worship different, act different, or even who came here from distant shores. This fear has manifested itself in so many ways, most significantly in a hatred of each other.

“Encountering the Many ‘Others’”
Rabbi Matt Green, Brooklyn Jews (City Point, Brooklyn, NY)

It’s natural for us to understand ourselves as somehow distinct units from everyone else. Our cultural context allows us to be fixated primarily on ourselves, and as I noted before, so much of what we are asked to do during these holidays requires us to take a good hard look at our selfhood. We might be inclined to think that because our individual experiences are inherently unique from the experiences of everyone else, that the process of self-reflection requires only that we look inward. But as Genesis 21 teaches us: if we are really to do a cheshbon nefesh during this season, an accounting of our deepest selves, then we also need to look at our encounter with all the many Others in our lives.

"Stop Worrying, Details to Follow"
Rabbi Daniel Gropper, Community Synagogue of Rye (Rye, NY)

These are Yamim Nora’im, Days of Awe because they ask us to hear the call of the shofar, to collect ourselves, to see, to be still, and only then to move, asking ourselves from that place of clarity, “who am I? Who do I want to be? How might I get there?” Page 11 of 11 These days ask us to step back from our over-programmed lives to notice the beauty of the world around us and the beauty of the person next to us. These days tell us to be still and then to get going, to make our lives a work of art. A person who lives in fear is paralyzed. A person who lives with yirah, with Awe, settles oneself, sees the experience for what it really is, listens to what bubbles up from within and, finds a way to move forward.

"Who is Strong?"
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom (Westmount, QC)

… [P]erhaps like you, I am scared. I am scared by the tendencies I see towards fascism. I am scared by what Yehuda Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute describes as “a global turn in which majorities and ruling parties around the world cynically forget that how you govern minorities is the single biggest determinant as to whether you are actually a democracy or merely a tyranny.” I am scared by the human instinct to see force as the solution, and the propensity of those in power to abuse that power, whether they are priests or rabbis, professors or politicians.

“The Still Small Voice”
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (New York, NY)

But the risk of crossing the partisan line, cannot be an excuse for inaction. If what some people mean by “religion should stay out of politics” is that we should never engage in the social 4 challenges of our times – never speak about the here and now, only about the hereafter – it is something Judaism cannot accept. What are they arguing: that we should lament the sufferings of the persecuted but not be involved in how our country can alleviate their sufferings? That we should establish a shelter, offering beds to ten dispossessed men – but ignore the policies that caused their homelessness in the first place? That one poor person is the business of religion, but tens of thousands of poor people are not? That collective actions that might actually solve the moral indignity of poverty are outside our domain? Really?

The assertion that religious institutions should stay out of politics is, itself, a political stance. It takes you off the field – the public arena – where the contest of values will be determined – and leaves the field open to others, who have different values than we do.

“Who is Strong?”
Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch, Temple Anshe Amunim (Pittsfield, MA)

We seek, like God, to be slow to anger, erech apayim, and to show love and mercy, chesed, rather than acting only out of strict justice, din. Our entire High Holy Day experience parallels a court room scene, in which we hope that God’s verdict this year shows favor and mercy upon us, rather than judging us strictly and harshly. Even if this imagery does not resonate with our understanding of God’s role in our lives, we can use this sentiment to hold up a mirror to ourselves. Are there times when we could have acted more compassionately this year? Times when we hid behind the label of strong, and in fact, acted with dispassion or even cruelty? 

"What is Your Klal Gadol?"
Rabbi Neil Hirsch, Hevreh (Great Barrington, MA)

Consider what would be at stake if we were to commit to make decisions to do the right thing, to give more of ourselves, to approach others with kindness, first and foremost. Imagine the alterations you would witness in your relationships if we filter our interactions and decisions based on a simple, guiding rule. Imagine what a difference you can make if you first and foremost commit to your klal gadol.

To be kind. To do the right thing. To love the stranger as we love ourselves. To give gratitude for the labor of our fellow human beings, because we have received greatly. These sorts of realizations are clear guiding principles that give light when confronted with an uncertain darkness.

"Choose Life"
Rabbi Marc Israel, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El (Wynnewood, PA)

Because in the end, no one can choose life for us. Perhaps this is the reason that the command u’vacharta bachayim is given in the singular. It is something that each of us must do, a path that each of us must find in our own way. Our Torah, our Jewish tradition give us markers to guides us along the path, but ultimately it is each one of us – not a machine, not any other outside forces – that must decide how we choose life.

“Facts and Faith Collide”
Rabbi Rachael Jackson, Agudas Israel Congregation (Hendersonville, NC)

In my current role as clergy, there are limits to my authority in our community – and rightly so. People might come to me to learn about Judaism, or religion, or values. But no one is coming to me to help them choose furniture or to do taxes. I can do those things, but that’s not my role. And then if someone asks me to re-wire their home, not only is that not my role, I simply cannot do it well, and risk burning down the house. Similarly, faith can attempt to answer great big questions and individual ones – like where did I come from, what happens when I die, how do I form a loving and compassionate society, where is God in all of this? But scripture is really bad about telling us how to treat diseases, or the way the solar system is arranged, or the details of evolution. Both are tools, and like any tool, they are amazing at what they do, and they are amazingly bad at what they don’t do.

“A Woman’s Reality and a Man’s Responsibility in the Era of #MeToo”
Rabbi Paul Jacobson and Morah Barbara Haber, Temple Avodat Shalom (River Edge, NJ)

[Morah Haber] What can we, as individuals, do to expedite the change? Look at the world around you through the eyes of children. The next time you’re watching television with your children or grandchildren, talk about what you see and hear. What is going on in the show or the movie or the commercial? How are the characters treating one another? Are characters showing equal respect for one another? Who are the dominant personalities and is their behavior predictable? Why or why not? What if you witness a blatant example of misogyny taking place? You can use this as a “teachable” moment by asking children if they notice anything wrong happening, or perhaps something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Take this opportunity to talk it out, explore the meaning and intent, and express your viewpoint as to why these behaviors are being portrayed despite their inappropriateness. Allow children a safe place to shape and voice their own opinions. These conversations can pertain to books your children are reading, music they may be listening to, and all different forms of advertising.

[Rabbi Jacobson] We need to allow ourselves to be accountable to one another. Men need to hold each other accountable for what we say about women, for the way in which we might use controlling behaviors in relationships - either personal or in the workplace. We need to hold each other accountable when we witness behavior that is degrading and demeaning to women and girls. And more than anything, sometimes we men need to “...just shut up and listen.” We need to step out of the “Man Box,” embrace and express a full range of emotion, allow men and boys to cry and validate their feelings, insist that men never denigrate women or girls, never make sexist jokes, and most especially, listen to women and validate their experiences, modeling these behaviors for other men and boys.

“#GamAni”
Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe, Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester (Chappaqua, NY)

Recently published research by Benjamin Knoll of Center College and Cammie Jo Boilen of Georgetown University reveals the impact of the presence of female clergy members to the self-esteem and empowerment of young women. They argue that as children, we imagine ourselves occupying the roles which society models for us. The primary opportunities for young women to witness firsthand females in roles of executive power come from perhaps the female school principal and most often the female clergyperson. There are many women among us today who inhabit lofty professional positions. But our children are seldom present to experience their work. Offering a female rabbi or cantor not only communicates to our children that they can achieve positions of executive leadership but also allows them to witness its execution up close. An all-male clergy team communicates the opposite: that it is the man’s position to speak and the woman’s to listen. And so Knoll and Boilen reveal that a gender gap in psychological and economic empowerment remains a constant among those whose religious congregational leaders growing up were exclusively men. In other words, it’s not just politically correct to feature women on the pulpit. Failing to do so actually impairs our daughters from developing into the women they can one day become.

“The Shofar Top Ten from the Tenth Century” (link to be added soon)
Rabbi Yoel H. Kahn, Congregation Beth El (Berkeley, CA)

The shofar thus is a two-fold reminder: on the one hand, the shofar calls to us—speaking of the demand sometimes to risk everything we have for the sake of the highest goals; and, yet, the shofar is the horn of the ram which replaced Isaac – it is an urgent reminder that while we can make our own sacrifices, Judaism never asks – and, in fact, forbids – the realization of our own highest aspirations at the cost of the other. As the Talmud asks: “Who is to say that your blood is redder than theirs?”

“From Fear to Hope”
Rabbi Beth Kalisch, Beth David Reform Congregation (Gladwyne, PA)

I wish rabbis had crystal balls – wouldn’t that make a better sermon? But I have no crystal ball. We can’t know for sure which fears will turn out to be well founded, and which will fade away in better times. Some of our past choices will have consequences that we can no longer prevent. Some patterns are difficult to change. But nonetheless, here is the essential truth we must struggle to understand: the reason we cannot know for sure how real our fears are is because so much of the future is yet unwritten.

“The ‘Genesis’ of Patriarchy"
Rabbi Molly G. Kane, Brooklyn Heights Synagogue (New York, NY)

In addition to t’shuvah and education, we all need to step in here both men and women and make change. For all the power of hashtags and marches, only a small amount of perpetrators have been called to task, and of those, we have yet to see a serious recognition of wrongdoing. We need to step in and say that’s not ok.

Stepping in means we can all try and radically shift the power dynamics that have been a chronic symptom of patriarchy. Women keep talking, we can’t grow fatigued here and lose our voice. We need to keep stepping in AND leaning in. And perhaps some men need to literally, “lean out” so that women can “lean in.” While I like to believe there is space for everyone at the board table sometimes you can’t squeeze in another chair, so be bold, give up your seat.

“A New and Holy Light”
Rabbi Marc Katz, Temple Ner Tamid (Bloomfield, NJ)

None of us knows what the future will hold for our people, our community, or our family. But what I do know is that when we build our future atop our past, our future shines much brighter. Open your hearts and let change in. Add your own adornments, your own trimmings to the holy legacy that your ancestors have given you. There is little that cannot work in our world, if we only allow ourselves to wonder “What old can be made new? And how can I make what is new, holy?”

“Patterns in Flux"
Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles, Temple Isaiah (Los Angeles, CA)

The body has its own language that is different than the language of the mind. And the soul also has its own language. And its own dance. Its own music. And what we’re doing here, all of us today, is learning to listen to the rhythm of the soul and comprehend how it is in concert with the rhythm of time and space. We are here to move, and to be moved to think, to grow and to change, to shed old habits and re-spark our wonder and curiosity.

"Emunah: Rebuilding Faith in an Era of 'In Nothing We Trust'"
Rabbi Asher Knight, Temple Beth El (Charlotte, NC)

Living with emunah requires real chutzpah. It requires us to take a purposeful and hopeful step, a suspension of cynicism, with an eye towards a future that may never come on a grand world-wide scale. I cannot guarantee you that living with emunah will fix the ills of the world. There will be bleak moments in 5779. There will be pain and despair, frustration and discouragement. Fake news and antisemitism aren’t going away. None of us can predict what life may throw at us or those we love.

But even with these inevitable challenges, striving to live with emunah will draw us towards the sustaining relationships and the enduring goodness that we can create, each and every day. We can make an impact right here – in our lives, in our homes, and in our community.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Rabbi Audrey Korotkin, Temple Beth Israel (Altoona, PA)

Adults teach children to hate dead air. Mr. Rogers became an anomaly, even in children’s programming. Watch any children’s television show or any film that’s geared to kids. They are loud and fast. That’s the way children consume everything now, and the way they learn to repeat it. They grow into adults who consume movie sequels where the second film, and the third, has to be bigger, and louder, and faster than the original.

Why can’t we simply take the time to learn something fully, and to grow from that knowledge? Why can’t we learn to stop acting for the sake of being busy?

That’s a skill that would help us in this world of non-stop sensory stimuli.

“Our Agenda: Compassion, Tenderness, Dignity”
Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, Shir Tikvah Congregation (Minneapolis, MN)

For these days together, in the cry of the shofar and the work of t’shuvah; in the meditation of prayer and the conversations between us, we make a decision—we must choose not to be like our ancestors at the table at Isaac’s weaning feast precisely because we face one another, because we know each of us moves through the sanctuary in our own way, that all of us are called to treat one another with compassion, tenderness, and dignity.

Together, we create this sanctuary facing one another as our “Even Ha’Toen”—our place to claim our story and to share it: the shards that are sharp and broken; the memories that are brilliant and beautiful; the pulse of our hopeful hearts that beat with promise and possibility; the tears of sobbing that fall from the brokenhearted.

"Ayekah"
Rabbi Leah Lewis, Temple Menorah (Redondo Beach, CA)

The statistics are clear: to be an American Jew today is to ask logical questions about how Jewish life does or does not fit into the balancing act of life. Chances are pretty good that I am going to question whether the synagogue serves my needs and the needs of my family and whether I can afford the time and the dollars to engage. If I am like the lions’ share of my peers, I will make my choices about how and when to join, based on the answers. This is the new normal.

….

We stand at a crossroads in Jewish life and the potential to shape it for the next generation is enormous. While affiliation may be down and people may indeed be finding ‘other ways to practice their faith’, the research is unwavering – more people than ever acknowledge a deep desire to find meaning in their lives – to flourish.

"Enough, Already! (Or, For My Sake The World Was Created)"
Rabbi Seth M. Limmer, Chicago Sinai Congregation (Chicago, IL)

We cannot keep our expectations low, as an excuse for when we disappoint. For our sake the world was created. Little separates us from the divine. These Jewish beliefs remind us of how good each of us is, how good we can continue to be. If we are little less than divine, it is because we have the divine capacity to create, to form and to shape, our world. And because we have such remarkable capacity, we are charged – let’s face it, we’re warned – to use our powers wisely. Yes, each and every one of us has incredible capacity for good; we all earn the right to pull a piece of paper out of our pocket that reminds us, “For my sake the world was created.” And the fullness of that teaching extends past our own personal boundaries and crosses into the difficult world where we interact with others, including those others who behave in such a fashion that seems to betray their divine birthright. When we are feeling a little high and mighty, we should be reminded, “I am but dust and ashes.” And when we need an emotional lift, we should remember that the world was created for our sake. But on most days – those days that seems to count as normal in a world that feels anything but – we should probably be think of the full teaching of our tradition: For my sake, the world was created; that means I am responsible for what happens in the world.

"Morality and Integrity"
Rabbi Rachel Kaplan Marks, Congregation Shalom (Milwaukee, WI)

So, how then, do we know right from wrong? I’d like to offer that the best way that we can check our personal values and principles is to see if they are ours alone, or if they are reflected in Something Greater than ourselves in something that has stood the test of time, that has been passed down from one generation to the next.

"The Best of What You Hope to Be"
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, Temple Sinai (Oakland, CA)

From Ecclesiastes perspective, what is the purpose in life? It’s Joy. We are to find joy, to live in the moment, to see and experience the beauty, and enjoy it. Maybe there isn’t a grand plan. Maybe every motion we make forward will only lead to regression backward again. Maybe the universe is completely indifferent to our actions, to our contributions, to our gifts. Maybe, Ecclesiastes concludes, our lives don’t matter, except to us. Our lives matter to us. So, he urges us, live a life where we experience the beauty, where we recognize the magnificence of the sun, and the moon, and the company of others. If it doesn’t matter to the universe, make sure that it matters to us. Our purpose, the “why,” is to seek enjoyment and fulfillment in the time we have. To live a life that matters, not according to some grand scheme, but a life that matters and is meaningful to each one of us.

To pursue justice, to seek love, to find joy. These represent the purposes for which our forebears lived, and the wisdom they chose to share. What does that look like for us? Are we serving others and fighting for justice? Do we approach the world looking for love and offering compassion? Do we live lives that matter? Would acting according to the path of justice, love and joy, have made Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol feel that he was more of himself? That his actions fulfilled his purpose? Would it make us more of who are and who we want to be?

"Israel as a Mirror to Ourselves"
Rabbi Mark Miller, Temple Beth El (Bloomfield Hill, MI)

The disheartening truth is that the defining feature of our community’s reaction to Israel in 2018 is a deep distrust and open antagonism toward the “other” position. So yes, we are divided on Israel. But the truth is, we are just divided.

When we hold up that proverbial mirror to ourselves, we see a Jewish community that is terribly fractured on many levels. We can all see the lack of respect, read about the different factions, feel the tension when Israel comes up in polite company. Not good.

"Why We Must Fail"
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, Temple Shaaray Tefila (New York, NY)

But we need to embrace failure as evidence of effort, not condemn it as sloppy, or worse, an indictment of us personally. The cultural stigma that surrounds failure is counterproductive. The big and the bold and the new are often built on a foundation of failure.

"Disagreements and Country"
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz, Congregation L’Dor V’Dor (Oyster Bay, NY)

We have surrounded ourselves with amen choruses of likeminded friends. That does not sharpen arguments. All it does is further entrench us and concretize our own prior held convictions. Instead, make your case. Use your reason. Lay out your logic. Open your ears to other voices – and most important, opposing opinions. It is not an argument to say how stupid or misguided others are. Stop with the invective. Stop with all of the Facebook posts that point out the opposition’s hypocrisy. It is not an argument when we denigrate others. It is not an argument when we malign people who hold opposing views.

For Judaism everyone sits at the same table, Democrat and Republican and Independent. We are one country. We have to fight the tendency to throw people out of the party. We have to battle the tendency to size up new acquaintances to discern whether or not they agree with our political sensibilities. I recognize that it can be emotionally satisfying to point out the other side’s wrongs and to commiserate with people who agree with us, but this is not what helps us to decipher the truth and most certainly not what leads to unity. The central question for the rabbis of the Talmud was how we can remain one people while affirming many, different, and even antagonistic, opinions. For Judaism there are no winners and losers in an argument. There are only two sides of the same community trying their best to discern what God wants us to do in this moment. We are losing that sensibility here in America. We are losing that in Israel. We are losing that among our Jewish people.

"Doing What We Must Do About #MeToo"
Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple (Cleveland, OH)

A lot of leaders heard about the #metoo movement, but never allied themselves to the cause. On Rosh HaShanah this year, even if you’re sure you never harmed another human being, it is fair to ask that we scrutinize our conduct to ask: “What did I do when a woman I know was described as an object for titillation, a thing and not a person with feelings or emotions? When a woman told me about being catcalled or the subject of bias, what did I say? What do I wish I said?”

I know there are times I’ve been in a position to shut down sexist behavior when I have failed. I imagine many men here today look back with regret for things we have said or left unsaid, things we expected of others but not ourselves. On Rosh HaShanah, I realize how any of us could mistake the utter humility we express before God, articulated in our high holy day prayers, as an excuse for failure to act swiftly and with determination. “Our origin is dust,” we say, “Each of us is a shattered urn...a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by...a dream soon forgotten.”

"For Our New Year: Try Shabbat"
Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit, Congregation Beth Am (Los Altos Hills, CA)

But more than anything Shabbat exists because we need Shabbat. When we observe and honor Shabbat we are better friends, better spouses, better children and better parents. We eat better, we study more, we are more apt to give back to our community. These things are true not just for that day but for the entire week. As Rabbi Heschel says: “What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us.”

"Truth and Truthiness"
Rabbi Yoni Regev, Temple Sinai (Oakland, CA)

Considering how our tradition points to such a nuanced conception of truth, I wondered if my indignation at the apparent degradation of Truth in our public square was perhaps misplaced or overblown. Yet, I realized that my concern was not the logical or philosophical, but rather, moral and ideological; and it has to do with the fundamental truths we hold to be self-evident – the core truths about who we are as a nation and what we believe as individuals.

Kavanah in the Era of Kavanaugh”
Rabbi David Levy Reiner, Congregation Shir Shalom (Ridgefield, CT)

In the midst of division and darkness, our sacred relationships, our sacred time

together, lifts us up and adds meaning to our lives. Today the voice of the shofar awakens us, reminds us of kavanah—mindfulness and intentionality—in our lives and our prayers. Today and in the days ahead, may we use our hearts and reflect, our memories to recall the values of our loved ones, our feet to walk and appreciate our world, and our minds

"Gratitude in My DNA"
Rabbi Debra J. Robbins, Temple Emanu-El (Dallas, TX)

On Rosh HaShanah we pay attention to what is in our hearts. We notice what we lack and commit to restoring the vowels to their places, to giving full voice to gratitude. There is great personal incentive – longer life – and communal reward as well. Studies show, “gratitude... produces a cascade of beneficial social outcomes because it reflects, motivates, and reinforces moral social actions in both the giver and the recipient.”4 In other words, gratitude helps to repair the world.

"Siri Doesn’t Know Squat"
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, Temple Solel (Hollywood, FL)

Judaism has something important to say to the world: knowledge is more important than information, and wisdom is more important than knowledge.

I tell parents: There are many places in this world where your child can get knowledge. There are many places in this world where your child can get skills. There are many places in this world where your child can have fun.

But, there is only one place in your child’s life where he or she can get the necessary wisdom for having a deep, powerful, significant life. That is here. That is what I teach our kids – how to be real; how to be significant; how to be a mensch.

“Have Hope”
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider, Temple Kol Ami (Scottsdale, AZ)

First of all, the word “hope” does not occur with great frequency in traditional Jewish texts, yet everyone with whom I brainstormed about this topic agreed that Judaism can easily be seen as a religion of hope. Why is that?

Hope is the key to our narrative, our story, our history as a people. Time and again the Jewish people have had its existence threatened, and it has faced its successive tragedies without losing confidence in itself or its destiny. The enslavement in Egypt, so central to the Torah and its traditions, became a model for later Jewish experience. In addition, the wandering in the desert for 40 years, the suffering, the uncertainty of the source of their daily food, all contributed to the hardship that the Israelites were facing. Yet they persevered, because they had hope.

“Climate for Change”
Rabbi Avi Schulman, Temple Beth Torah (Fremont, CA)

Action is the moral imperative of being a Jew. It means being God’s partner in Creation and taking responsibility for our stewardship of the earth; of being upstanders for children around the globe and the hundreds of millions who live in impoverished nations who are most impacted by climate change. We fulfill our destiny as a light unto the nations when we partner with people of all faiths – Christian, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs – who share our love for Mother Earth and seek to protect her.

"Life on One Foot: Living Though Brokenness"
Rabbi Zachary R. Shapiro, Temple Akiba (Culver City, CA)

Friends, as we enter these Holy Days, we consider the time we have been broken - facing life when things just aren’t intact. For some it may be temporary. For others it may be permanent. Some face terminal illness. Others suffer chronic conditions. There are those with silent, mental disabilities. Some here have become guinea pigs to medications. Some suffer addictions. And there are those with broken hearts. There are some who will be healed. There are some that won’t. And if there are some who don’t personally face any of these, there is someone in your life who does.

You see, even the most broken, the most shattered, the most torn are holy. God embraces the broken right along with the whole, not distinguishing one from the other. So too, if you are broken, inside or out. If you have a blemish, an illness, a disease. If you feel abandoned. If you wonder, “why me?” You are holy. You belong. 

"Not Just Babies: Many Forms of Creation"
Rabbi Joshua Stanton, East End Temple (New York, NY)

Rosh HaShanah is the day that commemorates not merely God’s ability to create, but also our own. Today is the day when we ask: What will I create this year? What will I build, what will I support, what will I establish that will endure and have meaning? What are the ways I can achieve this act of creation, and how can I help others achieve their respective acts of creation? What can we create together? Will my creation itself grow and multiply? Will it live on after I die?

"We are a Generation of Builders: Creating Hope and Opportunity for Migrants, Refugees, and Immigrants"
Rabbi Peter W. Stein, Temple B’rith Kodesh (Rochester, NY)

There is an urgency in this moment. And there is power and possibility. Rather than lament that we are a generation living in difficult times, let us proclaim that we are the generation that will secure the future. We have, in this room today and across our country, implanted within each one of us, everything we need to change the world.

My hope is that this will be a year when our eyes and our arms and our hearts are open to those who flee from poverty, violence, and discrimination. And to ensure that those who arrive in my state never find a new layer of hatred when they arrive. 

"Abraham and #MeToo"
Rabbi Andrea Steinberger, Hillel at the University of Wisconsin (Madison, WI)

I feel a sense of sadness today reading about Abraham and then about Hannah, stories of neglect, abuse, and lack of communication. I believe in re-reading the stories this year, in vowing not to let abuse go unnoticed. I vow to not let powerful people get a pass on a sense of morality. I vow that the Jewish community will not look away when a person voices that they have been sexually harassed by a prominent member of the Jewish community.

This year I believe that our readings are calling out to us. They are saying: Listen to our voices. Don’t overlook brutality, abuse, harassment in the Jewish community. Learn from our mistakes, about the trouble and pain we have caused. And may healing and wholeness come soon.

"We’ve All Gone to Look for America"
Rabbi Eleanor Steinman, Temple Beth Hillel (Valley Village, CA)

I think the nation that we want to live in, the America we want to know is not monolithic. It is multi-faceted, filled with differences that are respected, and replete with a shared patriotism that is enriched by diversity.

...

We are living in uncertain times. If we want our country back we need to realize that the people with whom we disagree are adversaries not enemies. When we make them enemies we dehumanize them and create unending cycles of hate.

"Talking about Israel: Justice. Self-Preservation. Compromise."
Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker, Mount Zion Temple (Saint Paul, MN)

I love Israel, but I hate what is happening in Israel today. The government has made decisions that violate my values and make my blood boil and I have no qualms about criticizing them. At the same time, I hate what it happening to Israel. I will defend Israel as people unfairly demonize, delegitimize and hold Israel to a different standard.

I worry that too many American Jews feel alienated from Israel. It might be because of injustices Palestinians endure every day and that focus is all that they see, because of the way liberal Judaism is not given equal status in funding or legitimacy in the government, or because Israel simply doesn’t play a role in their Jewish identity.

Being Jewish means having some relationship with Israel. It might be an estranged relationship. It might be currently unknown, like discovering a relative later in life. It may be a robust connection, a tenuous one, or it might be confusing. Whether we choose it or not, Israel is a part of us. Our namesake, Jacob, becomes Yisrael, after some wrestling. We too have the same fortune or misfortune.

"The Revolution Begins Tonight"
Rabbi Joshua Strom, Congregation B’nai Yisrael (Armonk, NY)

It feels like hatred is literally everywhere, doesn’t it. It feels like the world is just teeming with it, bursting at the seams with hate. Spewing from our televisions, the news broadcasts, the halls of Congress; consuming our workplaces, our places of leisure, even our homes. Hatred so palpable, so venomous and deeply felt, that it threatens to poison us, and sometimes it does.

We can try to point the finger, if we wish, attempt to assign blame for the nastiness we all feel so tangibly in the world around us. We could lament the current political climate or scapegoat certain figures or celebrities, believing that this escalation can be simplistically reduced to a few philosophies or behaviors we could then just address in order to eradicate the hate. But while it is indisputable that crimes of hate, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny have spiked tremendously, it is clear as day that the hatred has been there all along – simmering, festering just beneath the surface, just underneath the skin; the only difference now is we see the manifestations of that hate everywhere we look. And that is perhaps the scariest truth in all of this. This isn’t new. It was always there. The only difference is now it’s all out there. Now, we all know it’s there.

“The Power of Moments” (link to be added soon)
Rabbi Taron Tachman, Beth Tikvah Congregation (Hoffman Estates, IL)

We all recognize how someone we know, or sometimes even a stranger, can in an instant help us become the people we are: that coach or teacher or boss who pulled you aside and encouraged you, a family member or friend who made time for you when you had a problem, or a congregant you barely knew that made an effort to welcome and include you, that friend that attended the shiva at your house to comfort you – or that Beth Tikvahite who brought you food when you suffered a health set back. We all know what it feels like to be cared for and we also know how good it feels to help others.

Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of human potential. We have the power to create extraordinary moments for ourselves and others this year. We can create such moments deliberately with thoughtfulness, creativity and planning and we can create them by striving in each and every moment to be the kind, caring and loving people we are at our best.

"It’s Time to Believe"
Rabbi Rachel Timoner, Congregation Beth Elohim (New York, NY)

We look out at the size of the mess and think “I am so small. It’s not possible that what I do matters.” Yet all of Judaism hinges on the idea that what you do matters. The entire mitzvah system is the idea that your actions make all the difference in the world. That the whole world depends on your actions. Even if you can’t believe that right now, even if you’re too crushed and alienated to believe in anything, pretend you do. Fake it until you make it. Because you are needed. And all you’ve got, all we’ve got, are our actions.

"Captive on the Carousel of Time"
Rabbi Rochelle Tulik, Temple B’rith Kodesh (Rochester, NY)

Imagine thinking about our lives this way. Each moment then has infinite potential. When we wake each day, the entire world lies before us. Each day is an opportunity to create a new universe for ourselves and for others. It is not merely time slipping through our fingers. Time is not the enemy then. Our inability to appreciate time, to honor time, to acknowledge the everyday blessings we live through even as we wish they’d last longer, is the challenge. But time can heal. Time renews. Time is an opportunity. If only we can reframe how we look at each day - not as a series of seconds ticking by, but as the chance to create a world for ourselves and for others. Heal a broken soul, comfort the bereaved, bring people closer together, say thank you, say I love you, say I’m sorry. If we can remember to see time as a gift, each moment an opportunity, then we truly can make the most of each second, minute, hour, and day.

"Charting a Course Toward a Life Well-Lived"
Rabbi Heath Watenmaker, Congregation Beth Am (Los Altos Hills, CA)

… [H]ealthy self-reflection also helps us to develop a sense of resilience: our tradition recognizes that as humans, we inevitably make mistakes. It’s part of our DNA. But what really matters is this: How do we respond when we have missed the mark? How do we take responsibility for our missteps and misdeeds? And, most important, once we have acknowledged what we have done, how do we return to the right path? How do we learn from the experience to ensure that we do not engage in that behavior again? How do we foster within ourselves a sense that we are living a good life, a successful life, a life well-lived?

"Second Chances"
Rabbi Greg Weisman, Temple Beth El of Boca Raton (Boca Raton, FL)

On the ballot this November is Amendment 4, a change to the Florida Constitution which would automatically restore voting rights for felons in this state once they have completed the entirety of their sentence: incarceration, restitution, parole, probation- whatever the court system judges is the appropriate punishment for their crimes. It would address the needs of those 1.4 million Floridians, and include them in the voting public once again.

This issue of public concern rests at the heart of what Rosh HaShanah and our High Holy Day period represents, transgression and repentance. On this day, we are told, our past deeds are recalled by the Holy One, and our fate is decided. During this season, we are asked to do teshuva, that serious introspection where we evaluate ourselves and resolve for self-improvement in the year to come. We also challenge ourselves to accept the apology, regret, and the repentance of those around us. From the Talmud and later writings, we learn to ask forgiveness of the people we have wronged, and to do so repeatedly until it is given. If, after three requests, forgiveness is not granted, then the responsibility for that sin transfers to he or she who would not grant forgiveness. If we wish to have our pleas accepted, if we wish for the opportunity to right the wrongs we have done and make amends with those around us, we must make room for others to do the same. If we ask the Holy One for a second chance, to be renewed for life in the year to come, we owe it to our fellow citizens to be willing to offer the same.

"Truth and Our Truest Selves"
Rabbi David S. Widzer, Temple Beth El of Northern Valley (Closter, NJ)

Being our truest self means discovering what is important to us. It means staying true to our ideals. Torah and Jewish tradition are our guides for knowing this. From Abraham, we learn how to treat the stranger and how to stand up for the righteous. From Rebecca, we learn compassion and determination in making our own fate. From Joseph, we learn forgiveness and faith in God. From Ruth, we learn devotion and family loyalty. From Solomon, we learn the importance of wisdom in concert with kindness. From Esther, the bravery of accepting your identity. From the Psalmist, the comfort and solace we can bring to others. From our sages and rabbis, we learn how to make God’s will work in this world.

"Secrets to a Long Life Lived Well"
Rabbi Elaine Zecher, Temple Israel (Boston, MA)

The second highest predictor for longevity is close relationships. That makes sense to us. We must have a close circle of friends and family on which to rely, intimate connections on whom we rely for help when it’s needed. But the number one indicator for a long life rests on the kind of social interactions we have throughout our day. Those conversations we might dismiss as unremarkable as a brief interaction with the security guard, the person in front of us in line, the cashier at the check out, the fellow congregant sitting next to us we have never met before have a measurable impact. Our ability to make human and humane connection matters more than just good manners of conveying a pleasant countenance and engaging in conversations. They actually provide a fountain of vitality toward our life expectancy.

"Nothing New Under the Sun"
Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel, Temple Micah (Washington, DC)

There is so much that I have taken for granted – so when I say that my love for this country has never been so great, it is a way of recognizing the vast array of those amazing institutions that feel so threatened and so vulnerable – our schools, universities, justice system, journalists, government workers all suffer almost daily attacks emanating from the most powerful source. I have come to learn anew that we never really know our values until they are tested.

Perhaps the Jewish religious role in our time is to passionately model a decent society within our own communities, even as decency, tolerance and the pillars of the Enlightenment seem to disappear around us.

"Embracing Awe"
Rabbi Todd Zinn, Chicago Sinai Congregation (Chicago, IL)

Awe is not about the knowledge and understanding of the world we live in. Awe is about an appreciation our connection to that world. Understanding is an important part of our world: We should think deeply, logically and scientifically about the world we live in. Yet, we spend so much of our time analyzing the world. We can lose touch with its beauty, with its awe, Awe is a necessary counterpart to understanding.

If science is prose, awe is the poetry of the world we live in. Awe asks us to appreciate our place in the world.

“Of Chaos & Creation”
Rabbi Ruth A. Zlotnick, Temple Beth Am (Seattle WA)

These first verses of Torah which describe the creation of the world out of tohu va-vohu, chaos and darkness, contain a deep insight into the human potential to be creative. Our capacity to bring something into existence – to dream and to form – perhaps more than anything else, reveals that we are truly b’tzelem Elohim, made in the divine image. Our Creation story is true, even if it never happened, because it teaches us that chaos and destruction can become the material to create something original, something beautiful.

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Mark Pelavin is the chief program officer and director of the Biennial at the Union for Reform Judaism.

Mark J. Pelavin

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