5780: Our Annual Rosh HaShanah Sermon Roundup

Inside Leadership

5780: Our Annual Rosh HaShanah Sermon Roundup

Rosh HaShanah flatlay with honey and pomegranates and apples

This is the sixth year I have prepared this Rosh HaShanah “sermon round-up.” Typically, at some point in my work on this project, my wife will lean over my shoulder and ask me, in her own style, “So. How are the Jews this year?”

Some years that is a difficult question to answer. This year the answer is clear: The Jews are afraid.

Sermons about anti-Semitism dominated this Rosh HaShanah. And although this survey excerpts dozens of sermons on anti-Semitism, it nevertheless underrepresents the number of rabbis who preached on the topic this year because, where I had a choice of two sermons from the same rabbi, I chose the one that did not focus on anti-Semitism.  

A number of rabbis (rabbis Daniel Gropper and David Stern, for example) noted that this was the first time in their rabbinate that they had offered a sermon on anti-Semitism. And virtually every rabbi who spoke about anti-Semitism stressed that, today, the Jewish community faces threats from the political right and from the political left.

In that vein, Rabbi Jonathan Blake spoke for many, saying, “Anti-Semitism isn’t a right-wing thing or a left-wing thing. It isn’t a Republican Party thing or a Democratic Party thing, despite the efforts of many to paint it that way.”

Reading the anti-Semitism sermons, one after another was unsettling. Thankfully, there is a longstanding rabbinic tradition to end a sermon with a nechemta, "message of comfort." Rabbi Stacy Friedman offered this (and I, in turn, offer it to you):

“But anti-Semites don’t get to define us. We do. And the greatest threat for American Jews would be to lose sight of the breathtaking power, the wisdom, and the redemptive hope inherent in Judaism. We define ourselves by the depth of our prayers and the righteousness of our deeds.”

Perhaps befitting such a difficult year, there were more sermons than usual that took a theological tone, talking about views of, and relationships to, God. I found these – including sermons from rabbis Joel Abraham, Craig Axler, and Beth Kalisch – among the most memorable.

I was also struck by the number of sermons that discussed the feelings of loneliness with which so many are struggling. Rabbis Angela Buchdahl and Michael Latz took on this topic as the central theme of their sermons.

Transitions, too, often make for interesting sermons. This year Cantor Sara Sager offered a lovely valedictory, and two rabbis (Evan Moffic and David Widzer) gave insightful talks to newly merged congregation sharing their first Rosh HaShanah together.

And finally, rabbis spoke about a range of contemporary issues. There were a number of moving sermons on climate change (rabbis Daniel Bar-Nahum, Sharon Brous, Dan Moskowitz, and perhaps most powerfully, Sydney Mintz). Some spoke eloquently on racial issues (rabbis Joe Black, Barry Block, and Greg Weisman), while others took on immigration and, in particular, the situation on the U.S./Mexico border (rabbis Rick Jacobs, David Reiner, Dianne Cohler-Esses). Rabbi Peter Rubinstein offered a stirring call to action touching on many of these issues.

If you have only have time to read one sermon: I think I’d recommend Rabbi Jen Gubitz’s poetic meditation on the challenge of living Jewishly in the modern world. (Or maybe Rabbi David Stern. Or perhaps Rabbi Josh Winston or Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles.)

If you think you only have time to read one sentence: Rabbi Rachel Timoner captured the year better than anyone, saying, “If we just sat here, all of us, and cried together today, that might be the most eloquent response to the year we’ve just lived through.”

A Word about Process (Pretty Much the Same as Last Year, but Well 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 October 7, 2019, 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 the sermons 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.

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. Pulling a paragraph out of context is especially challenging for sermons that are more poetic in tone. And 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 an asterisk (*) after the title indicate that sermon was originally unnamed and that the title listed here was chosen by me. 

Without further ado…

"Near My God to Thee"
Rabbi Joel N. Abraham, Temple Sholom (Scotch Plains, N.J.)

What does it mean for us to come close to God? We often talk about the concept of b’tzelem elohim - that we are all created in the image of God. Few of us believe that means that God has two arms, two legs, and a nose. Rather we imagine that there is, within each of us, some spark that strives toward the Divine. There is something that we can treasure and respect in each other, but also a piece of us that imagines something better, that, like Abraham, believes that the Judge of the earth must do justice, and, therefore, so must we. But, we can also come to close, when we imagine that our divinity allows us to command others, that our needs or judgment are higher than those around us, that we can treat our planet with impunity, because we have the power to think and to act.

"Sacred Time Connections"
Rabbi Laura Abrasley, Temple Shalom (Newton, MA)

Taken together the promise of Shabbat Shalom is what so many of us long for: an entire day to stop doing. A few precious hours to rediscover our whole self, our holy self. Give yourself this gift or maybe just a few hours of this gift, once a week. Lose yourself in a good book . Talk to your spouse or children about big ideas. Sit in your yard, and watch the clouds pass by. While I cannot promise you will feel holy after you experience this gift of Shabbat, I do think you will feel more whole.

"From Faith to Fear"
Rabbi Stephanie M. Alexander, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (Charleston, S.C.)

We cannot, nor should we, stick our heads in the sand and pretend everything is all rosy and good. Not everyone we meet or who crosses our paths has good intentions, and it is important to be aware and alert. But when we feel fear in the presence of a person we don’t know, a stranger, it’s also worth asking ourselves: Where is my fear coming from? Is it possibly from a story I’m telling myself? If so, then might we be making ourselves afraid.

"Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Va’zeh (We Are Responsible, One for The Other)"
Rabbi Mona Alfi, Congregation B’nai Israel (Sacramento, CA)

We saw an Israel that is struggling with the idea of religious pluralism, and we saw Israelis who are fighting to make religious pluralism the norm. We saw an Israel that is feeling overburdened and overwhelmed by the high cost of living and being in a constant state of war, and we met Israelis who want to do something about it, and are speaking out and working for social justice and against economic inequality.

We saw an Israel that disagrees passionately with itself on every political issue, and we engaged with Israelis who aren’t afraid to wrestle with all of it.

What we saw was an Israel that was flawed and complicated and most of all real.

And it was then that I realized that this, this is the Israel that I love. Not the imaginary Israel that is always perfect and in the right, but an Israel that is struggling the best it knows how.

"Jan Karski and the Inhabitants of Sodom"
Rabbi Charles Arian, Kehilat Shalom (Gaithersburg, MD)

As long as there is a Jewish community we will argue with each other about how much time, energy, and money we should devote to specifically Jewish interests and how much to the general welfare. If we do not take care of our own needs, we will not exist. But if we only take care of our own needs we have no reason to exist; nor would we have a right to complain when others don’t help us when we are in need. Or as Hillel put it over 2000 years ago: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

"Seeking (and Finding) God"
Rabbi Craig Axler, Temple Isaiah (Fulton, MD)

That the world as we experience it today, on a personal, familial, communal, national or global level - is not perfect, or just, or kind, or even very pretty; That this world often appears to be catastrophically broken is not an indictment of a God who is powerless, or an indication of a God who is some kind of cruel and manipulative chess-player. Rather, it is the greatest and most powerful opening for each and every one of us, alone and together, to actualize the very purpose for which humanity was created in the first place. To bring healing to the broken, to mend the societal breech, to seek out places of need on both grand and small scale and to see our role in answering the call. This is the very essence of what it is to be a human being, a person created b’Tzelem Elohim - in the image of God - a manifestation of God’s care in mortal form. And, at the same time, we know it is an endless and necessarily impossible pursuit. We mend, and there will always be another stitch coming loose at the very same instant. Were that not the case, there would no longer be a need for human beings and I believe we would cease to exist.

"A L’dor v’dor People: Climate Change"
Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum, Temple B’nai Torah (Wantagh, N.Y.)

We are a l’dor vador people, a generation to generation people who pride ourselves on leaving something of value and import for the next generation. We teach our children the importance of teaching their children. It’s why we are here today. We are a people who, for thousands of years, have told again and again our sacred story, the story of a God who is able to overcome nature, splitting seas, sending locusts, turning water into blood and staves into snakes. We tell these stories to recognize that only God rises above the forces of nature. It has become clear that we were wrong. Storms are stronger, temperatures more extreme, and the effects, from human migrations to famines to flooded cities, are our doing, not God’s. We have played with the equilibrium of the climate, by pumping carbon into our atmosphere, and have altered the creation God left us, to leave to our children. But we can still change the future. The Days of Awe remind us that the future is not yet written, and we are always able to turn our attention and to change our actions.

"Suing the Nazis"
Rabbi Lisa Sari Bellows, Congregation Beth Am (Buffalo Grove, IL)

We are a people loyal to the democratic values of justice for all, of non-discrimination, of taking in the stranger, the widow, the orphan, of hesed, of love and kindness, of speaking up against injustice like our ancestor Queen Esther did when she heard of Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews. We read in Esther Rabbah (8:6) “What is the meaning of ‘you keep silent?’ [The meaning of this is] if you are quiet and do not advocate for your people now, your destiny will be to be silenced for all eternity. Why? Because you had the opportunity to speak out in order to do good in your lifetime and you did not.”

"All of Life is a Reality TV Show"
Rabbi Marci Bellows, Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek (Chester, CT)

Honestly, most of us are practically live in our own reality shows thanks to social media. Thanks to our addictions to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram, we are able to share the minutiae of our lives with our online friends, and I’m not saying that this is strictly a bad thing. Yet, major life moments are not real until they are “Facebook Official.” Events in the world can only truly be processed based on the responses they get on Twitter. We can’t visit an exciting location without posting a photo to all of our Instagram Followers. We can’t witness something funny without posting a snarky comment on Snapchat.

These events in our lives are certainly real. But our online personas are not necessarily honest. Just as the producers of the shows edit for the best ratings, most of us edit what we put online in order to project a certain persona. Now, I’m not encouraging you to write anything embarrassing or negative, rather, I’m asking you to consider what happens between each post, in our own lives and the lives of our friends. What happens between our moments in the public eye, when we are behind closed doors, when we don’t think anyone is watching.

"The Religious Courage to Rejoice"
Rabbi Andi Berlin, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple (Beachwood, OH)

We are not commanded to be “happy”. We are often commanded to be joyful. When wondering why, one need only look around the world for the answer. Happiness, or ashrei, is a sustained, long-term feeling of wellness. How can we be commanded to feel ASHREI when at different points in everyone’s life, either through internal or external forces, all is not well? But, in Torah’s wisdom, we recognize that even in the midst of sorrow and tragedy, it is yet possible to experience bursts of joy.

"With Hope in Our Hearts"
Rabbi Allison Berry, Temple Shalom (Newton, MA)

We must give our children the tools to understand who they are so they can go off into the world confident and clear about their Jewish identity and their place in Jewish history. We are being told that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist, but we’ve forgotten - or some of us don’t know - why Israel came to exist in the first place. After thousands of years of hate and oppression, Israel is the dream of our people fulfilled. This doesn’t mean we need to teach our children that everything Israel does is always right, but we can tell them it is their birthright to engage, to wrestle, to hold Israel close and to get to work actuating the dream of what could be.

"Stuck in the Thicket"
Rabbi Joe Black, Temple Emanuel (Denver, CO)

[D]espite our history of activism and our ability to say the right things and be at the right places at the right times, despite our recent powerful expressions of support in the wake of tragedy, I believe that, in many ways, when it comes to understanding issues of race today, many of us are like the Ram caught in the thicket – unable to extricate ourselves from the gordian knot of fear and mistrust that plagues our society. What further complicates issues is that fact that, although we, as Jews, have been the recipients of hatred and racism, most of the members of our Jewish community are not people of color. Our White Privilege is very real – whether we choose to see it or not.

"From the Ruin to the Road"
Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake Westchester Reform Congregation (Scarsdale, N.Y.)

Anti-Semitism isn’t a right-wing thing or a left-wing thing. It isn’t a Republican Party thing or a Democratic Party thing, despite the efforts of many to paint it that way. In fact, Anti-Semitism doesn’t even need Jews to breathe, as evidenced by the prevalence of Anti-Semitic attitudes in places with scarcely any Jews, like Japan and Indonesia.

When we politicize Anti-Semitism, using it to smear our political enemies—when we tar entire groups with the charge of Anti-Semitism—we distort the truth and dismiss the pain of the victims. If you cannot recognize that no one political movement, party, or “side” of the fractured national conversation has a monopoly on Anti-Semitism, then you simply aren’t looking hard enough.

“The Trouble with Celebrating the Civil Rights Movement” (link coming soon)
Rabbi Barry H. Block, Congregation B’nai Israel (Little Rock, AR)

I wonder how the conversation might change if we memorialized slavery, convict leasing, lynching, and Jim Crow alongside our celebration of desegregation. We may even have to acknowledge that not every member of this congregation was a Civil Rights hero. What if each of us examined our own lives, our own hearts, and our own family histories, recognized the bias within, and resolved to make our own personal repair and reconciliation? We might open the door to a better future worthy even of Elijah.

"Civility"
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor Congregation Shirat HaYam (Nantucket, MA)

I am not so Pollyannaish to believe that the current state of incivility is unique. Nor do I believe, as others proport, that responsibility lies with one person, or one group of people (regardless of how they are amalgamated and identified). In a democracy, where freedom of speech is paramount, conflicting views have been, and will always be, articulated. But there were times in which things that might have been publicly shared, were quietly thought, and disappeared into the ether of consciousness, rather than laid bare for all to hear. Just because one thinks something, doesn’t mean that one has to say something. Like times in the past when everything seemed to go to hell in a handbasket, society was pulled back from the brink and did not devolve into anarchy.

"The Climate Crisis Is Here. What We Do Now Matters."
Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR (Los Angeles, CA)

Torah calls us both to imagine and fight to manifest the ideal. God created the earth for human beings to enjoy, protect and defend.

But over the course of time, we forgot what it meant to hold this sacred inheritance, and instead, we burned, polluted and destroyed.

The only choice now is to radically recalibrate. We recognize that l’hathila, from the outset, we would/could/ should have developed a deeper awareness of the preciousness and precariousness of the earth. We should have seen trees as the life sustaining miracles they are. We should have protected our biodiversity and invested in renewable energies and been responsible stewards of all we had been entrusted.

"Healing Loneliness: Making a Big Shul Feel Small"
Angela W. Buchdahl, Central Synagogue (New York, NY)

Nothing important is easy.
Creating connection requires some sacrifice.
In Hebrew the word for “sacrifice” is KORBAN.
The root of that word literally means: “to draw close.”
Sacrifice brings us close.
Synagogue life teaches us all how to do this by showing up for each other
at shivas, sickbeds and simchas.
And on Jewish time, not ours;
No matter how crazy your week—Shabbat arrives. Every Friday night.
The bris has to be on the eighth day.
And the funeral is never convenient.
But still—We. Show. Up.
We make those sacrifices because we know this is how we draw close.
Synagogues are the antidote to our disconnected culture.

"Listening to the Voices of Children Where They Are" *
Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, Romemu (New York, N.Y.)

As best as we can. Because we can't do it all, and we can't do it perfectly. Let’s remember that it’s not only upon us parents to do this kind of listening. All of us need to listen to the voices of children WHERE they are. Collectively we need to protect them and safeguard their legacy. Parents cannot do it alone. It takes a village. It takes a community. It takes society. It takes a global effort. We need to be in this together. EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US.

"Taking Care of Ourselves" *
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, Congregation Beth Israel (Colleyville, TX)

Our life circumstances are diverse; our needs and our wants and our struggles are diverse. While every situation is different, what’s universal is that we need to take care of ourselves. Some people consider taking care of themselves to be selfish or indulgent, but Jewish tradition considers self-care to be mandatory. Maimonides explains (Mishneh Torah, Human Dispositions 4:1) that staying healthy is what God wants and expects of us. To stay connected to God, we should strive to do that which is “healthful and life-imparting.”

"The Spirit of Emanu-El"
Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson, Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York (New York, NY)

History has proven that courageous religious leaders and institutions can shape public discourse. Many of us, hearing the enmity and the divisiveness all around us – witnessing the assault on honesty, civility and decency and the contemptuous, autocratic finger in the eye of democratic norms – have begun to question the political viability of principles we once deemed fundamental to our identity as Jews and as Americans. The synagogue has been and will ever be a bulwark against such cynicism and our fortress of hope. Here we will lift up a voice of moral leadership proclaiming that kindness and justice must always remain the warp and weft of our social fabric. Our own wellbeing, and America’s future as an example of compassion, democracy and freedom to the world depend on it.

"From Despair to Hope: Facing Our Depths And Lifting Toward Hope"
Rabbi Denise L. Eger, Congregation Kol Ami (Hollywood, CA)

Even our greatest leaders, give voice to despair that creeps into life. But what is the difference? Between their depths of pain and despair and those of whose statistics I recited.

It is a Jewish difference. The difference is our faith’s focus on creating a better reality. Even when it is hard. Even when it seems impossible. Judaism puts the emphasis on building a new world, not just for the Jewish people but for everyone. Judaism puts the emphasis on resilience. Judaism puts the emphasis on hope.

"Weaving our Communal Challah Together"
Rabbi Avi Fine, Temple De Hirsch Sinai (Seattle, WA)

If we want Temple to be warm and welcoming, we must be warm and welcoming if we want to be greeted and engaged, we must greet and engage.

If we want Temple to be a place where people celebrate together and are comforted, then we must celebrate and comfort.

If we want to make Jewish friends, then we must be friendly.

Like a homemade challah, a community is best when braided by the hands of its members.

"We Define Ourselves"
Rabbi Stacy Friedman, Congregation Rodef Sholom (San Rafael, CA)

But anti-Semites don’t get to define us. We do. And the greatest threat for American Jews would be to lose sight of the breathtaking power, the wisdom, and the redemptive hope inherent in Judaism. We define ourselves by the depth of our prayers and the righteousness of our deeds. We define ourselves by the strength and compassion of our community. We define ourselves by loving our neighbors and the stranger in our midst, because ultimately, as Elie Weisel reminds us, “The role of Judaism is not to make the world more Jewish, the role of Jews is to make the world more human.” That’s why we’re here.

"It’s Time to Take Back Authorship of Our Story"
Rabbi Dara Frimmer, Temple Isaiah (Los Angeles, CA)

Though we long for a simple story line, to be a Jew, is to embrace paradox: we are protected and vulnerable, we are confident and afraid, we are powerful and powerless, we are surrounded by allies, and, we are forever lonely. And in what might be the greatest paradox, to be a Jew, is to seek the strength and wisdom that emerges from such an unusual and uncomfortable identity.

“Anti-Semitism” (link coming soon)
Rabbi Jordie Gerson, Greenwich Reform Synagogue (Cos Cob, CT)

If our entire Jewish identity – and the story we tell ourselves about Judaism is comprised of persecution, hatred and violence, it will be, at best, a guilty rationale for affiliation, and, at worst, an anemic, guilt driven narrative. If we only show up at synagogue on Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and after anti-Semitic incidents, if the primary story we pass on to our children and grandchildren is that we are Jews primarily as a protest against anti-Semitism, how can we expect them to find joy in their Judaism, or build a positive Jewish identity? If we tell our grandchildren that the main reason for them to become bar or bat mitzvah is because of what their grandparents or great grandparents suffered, can we be surprised when they resist? For Judaism to be compelling in the lives of future generations, it has to feel good, it has to mean community and meaning and joy, not discrimination, hatred and fear. For Judaism to have staying power and feel as precious and extraordinary as it truly is, it has to feel like something worth fighting for.

"This Year Hurt"
Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel, Congregation Beth Israel (San Diego, CA)

There were moments I struggled with God this year. I struggled to figure out what is God’s role and what is my role. Maybe controlling behavior is not why God resides among us and within us. Maybe God’s job is not to stop evil but to teach us goodness, not to destroy bad behavior but to inspire us to build kindness, not to alter inhumanity but to command us to embrace and nurture tolerance and engage in chesed, compassion. Some injustices in the world are brought about by truly evil people we do not yet, and may never, understand. I don’t need to give you examples of that.

"Double Down on Judaism"
Rabbi Andy Gordon, Bolton Street Synagogue (Baltimore, MD)

It’s not easy, but we must share our entire selves, including our Jewish selves. We look to our tradition and the prophets of old for comfort and guidance. We reach out to our allies and our neighbors to listen, to learn, and to teach. We speak up when we see anti-Semitism or any acts of hatred. For is it not better to work together when we can, than to not be part of the conversation at all?

"Drilling Under Your Seat"
Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser, Temple Sinai (Cranston, RI)

Torah teaches us to see each human being as a reflection of God’s image. We must not isolate ourselves from others or put ourselves on a pedestal above them. We must see each person as our fellow, our friend, and our companion in life’s journey. We must love others and care for them as they wish to be cared for, not always as we wish for them. That is the lesson that Rabbi Shimon required an additional year in the cave to learn, and it is the lesson that he wanted to teach with the story of the man drilling under his seat.

It is a lesson that we especially need to take to heart in today’s world. Consider the ways that we so easily “drill under our own seat” in today’s society.

“Combating Hate with the Power of Love: Antisemitism Here & Now & What We Can Do About It”
Rabbi Daniel Gropper, Community Synagogue of Rye (Rye, NY)

If we become hateful, then we allow the other to win because they have turned us into a shadow of our higher self. Protesting what hatemongers say and do is our ethical imperative. Reaching out to elected officials to enact legislation - from more stringent hate crimes laws to sensible gun legislation so that a lone wolf cannot walk into a synagogue with an AR-15- is a productive response. But if our anger manifests itself into hatred, that hatred writes itself onto our own souls. It causes untold spiritual damage. Confronting hate with love, with compassion, even with understanding allows us to stand firm while allowing our own souls to remain whole.

“By the Light of the Moon: Living Jewishly in the Modern World”
Rabbi Jen Gubitz, Temple Israel (Boston, MA)

But the sun isn’t all burn.
Jews live between the sun’s rays and the moon’s glow,
With particularity amid the universal. Truly in a lunar-solar calendar,
Adjusting and leaping every few years to make sure
that Passover is in the Spring,
And Chanukah, our Festival of Light,
isn’t in the summer
When there’s already plenty.
And maybe we need the sun’s week
to make the week’s end truly impact us.
We need the universal
to fully experience the particular power
of Jewish time.

"Perceive Us in The Book of Life"
Rabbi Matt Green, Congregation Beth Elohim (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Tonight, as we move into ten days of deep introspection, we can’t start out with the conclusion that we are worthless because of our prior behaviors. Rather, we must start out by recognizing that we have a baseline of worth and give ourselves the chance to witness ourselves. To notice who we were this past year without shaming ourselves for the things that we regret. Especially those things about us that happened because we are merely human. Because if we judge ourselves too hard, and say that we “are” the things that we’ve “done,” the possibility of teshuva will be impossible.

"The Return of Anti-Semitism"
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (New York, NY)

The message that I want to deliver on this high and holy day is of the spirit. Fighting back starts in your heart, your Jewish soul. Stand up and be counted as proud Jews. Do not cower. Do not cringe. Do not crouch. Do not quiver.

Do not consider Judaism a burden. It is a privilege beyond measure. Never forget: You are the heirs of kings, prophets, freedom fighters, poets, teachers, and moral guides who revolutionized human thought. You belong to an ancient people that changed the world. Commit and recommit to the future of our people – to Jewish education, Jewish self determination, and collective Jewish dignity. Your love of these principles – more than the hate from those people – will determine the future of Judaism.

"From Tishah B’av to Sukkot: On Hate and Hope"
Rabbi Neil Hirsch, Hevreh (Great Barrington, MA)

Antisemitism is the prejudice that animates all other prejudices. Those who hate us hate others too. Such is the flip side of intersectionality. We are in it together because those who hate us bring us together. “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” We do not just have a problem with race and ethnicity in America today, we also have problems with gender, class, and immigration status, each animated by bias and hate. Hate against women is animated by the same anger that fuels prejudice against the immigrant community. Racial discrimination and age discrimination are energized by the same vise. Those who hate the Jews do not think of us as White, they think of us as other. Other, in the same way that people of color are other; other, just as LGBTQ folk are other. In other words, we are in it together because those who hate us see us as interlocking with other minorities.

"Regaining the Jewish Middle"
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller, Temple Beth Torah (Ventura CA)

But we are called not to pursue any one political party’s agenda, we are here to pursue the Jewish people’s agenda of justice, compassion, and coexistence. You are already a registered member of the Jewish party. That is the center from which we can speak out about behaviors and words that are wrong, regardless of the political party of the one who speaks them. All of us are equally called to respond to Ilhan Omar’s comments that “it’s all about the Benjamins” as we are to call out President Trump when he uses code words like “disloyalty” about American Jews, speaks of globalism at the U.N.,or gives lukewarm scripted responses to racial and anti-Semitic violence. We can support PM Netanyahu’s politics if we choose, and still speak out against his support of the ultra-nationalist, far-right racist Kahanist party. (Otzmi Yehudit).

There is a place for truth, for speaking truth to power, for letting our moral imperative guide us. We can’t live in the camp of righteous indignation 24/7, or we will never heal the ills of this world. It is the position we need to take judiciously, and thoughtfully, while we tackle real issues by listening and compromise.

"What Can We Learn from the People of Gander"
Rabbi Marc Israel, Tikvat Israel Congregation (Rockville, MD)

I never expected that Come From Away, or any other Broadway show, would impact me as this show did. In the succeeding months, when a mitzvah opportunity has come up and I start to think that I am too busy, I have tried to stop myself and think: “What would the people of Gander do?” I wish I could claim that I have found ways to be as selfless as they were and to extend myself in ways that I didn’t think possible. Unfortunately, I’m not there yet. But I believe this thought process has helped motivate me to take baby steps in that direction.

And I believe that’s what these High Holidays are all about – we know we won’t be perfect, but I hope that each of us can take a few more steps towards making our society a more humane place, for our most vulnerable members, knowing that when we take care of their needs, our entire society benefits.

"Our Migrant First Family: Abraham Passed the Test, but Will We?"
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Westchester Reform Temple (Westchester, N.Y.)

I believe our faith requires us, with every fiber of our beings, to oppose inhumane conditions in which migrant infants, children, and their parents are locked up in overcrowded cage-like facilities, without diapers, forced to sleep on concrete floors, to drink from toilets, and to go without toothbrushes or showers for weeks; this disgraceful policy of deliberate cruelty is a moral affront to the religious values we cherish.

"Intruder"
Rabbi Jennifer Jaech, Temple Israel of Northern Westchester (Croton on Hudson, N.Y.)

We are connected to all the good people who condemn violence and hate. We are connected to our neighbors who embody every hue of human color, ethnicity and identity. And we are connected to all who have been targets of violence and hate. We are connected to our fellow Jews, to those who live today and to generations that came before us. We are connected to the church goers, the mosque goers, the students in universities, high schools, elementary schools; the Walmart shoppers, the protesters, the movie goers, and the country-music fans. In the darkest moments, we are not alone.

"Into Yourself"
Rabbi Linda Joseph, Bet Aviv (Columbia, MD)

Our task at this High Holy Day season is to discover the essence of our selves. Like Abram, we must be willing to leave the familiar land and we also must be willing, to metaphorically leave our father’s house. Willing to deconstruct, reconstruct, what we think we know. Leaving our father’s house means opening ourselves up to new ways of thinking and conceiving.

"Let Us Proclaim the Sacred Power of Our Days"
Rabbi Cassi Kail, Temple Beth El (San Pedro, CA)

Today we have gathered to welcome in a new year, and to think about the possibilities that lay before us. The truth is that, although today is significant in that we are here as a community, praying, singing, and reflecting, today isn’t the day that matters. At least not more than any other day. We often think the Hayom in Hayom Harat Olam – a word we translate as “today” – refers to Rosh Hashanah itself. But Hayom can also mean, “This day.” What if the day that matters most is the day in which currently reside? What if today is every day?

"In the Image"
Rabbi Beth Kalisch, Beth David Reform Congregation (Gladwyne, PA)

You have been blessed with an aspect of God that nobody else contains, because God needs you to do some work in this world, however small, that nobody else can do. Your missions, Rabbi Soloveitchik taught, are based not only on who you are and what your gifts are, but just as importantly, on the time and place that you are born into. It is the uniqueness of who you are most deeply, combined with the urgency of this moment. This is part of your responsibility this Rosh Hashanah: to find and to fulfill the pieces of God’s work that you were meant to do.

"Empathy"
Rabbi Larry Karol, Temple Beth-El (Las Cruces, N.M.)

Rather than focusing on what drives people apart, there are always connections that can bring human beings together, even when they disagree, and even when they may assume that their diverse backgrounds and beliefs render any connection impossible.

Some people who have experienced the worst expressions of human hatred and an extreme lack of empathy realize that what happened to them should lead them to improve the plight of those currently in dire straits and to encourage all people not to treat any person with disrespect, indecency or inhumanity.

"Unrealized Gratitude"
Rabbi Marc Katz, Temple Ner Tamid (Bloomfield, NJ)

Rosh Hashanah is a time to reach out to those in our past and bring closure to unfinished sentiments. It’s not just the season to call someone up to apologize (though that’s very important) but also to praise them, to thank them. This is a season to let out the words and thoughts that are better seen by others. If this season is about completing unfulfilled projects, I want to know how we find closure with those we might never see again. How can we thank someone, who isn’t there?

"Strengthening the Fabric of Our Community"
Rabbi Dusty Klass, Temple Beth El (Charlotte, N.C.)

That feeling of disconnection is real, and it is not limited to our interactions at temple. We have become increasingly disconnected from our neighbors, our coworkers, and even our friends and family. America values individualism more highly than any other country in the world. And there are benefits to prioritizing oneself: Studies show that wealth and education levels are higher in countries that value individualism. Yet, as I spoke about last year, choosing “me” over “we” has its drawbacks. When we consistently choose “me”, we create little one-person islands for ourselves; islands where we are in charge. And being in charge can be great. But those one-person islands can get pretty lonely.

Judaism stands in contrast to American individualism. We are commanded to pray in community, celebrate in community, and mourn in community.

"Cloaks of Skin, Cloaks of Light: Two Ways of Seeing Each Other"
Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles, Temple Isaiah (Los Angeles, CA)

We have countless opportunities each day to open up a pinhole of light. To open our Ayin HaTov, impart our positive soul-energy through the way we look at people, and in doing so, change the phenomenon. We can transform the children of slaves into the descendants of kings and queens. We can transform refugees into holy priests and priestesses. We can transform the illiterate into proud learners. We can transform bitterness into forgiveness. We can transform cloaks of skin to cloaks of light. We can move through this crazy catawampus world and see that with a little work and a little love, we can make this place the home we’ve been searching for all along.

"The Values We Express When We Disagree"
Rabbi Asher Knight, Temple Beth El (Charlotte, N.C.)

[W]e are the antidote to the madness of our world. We can respond with a counter-cultural corrective. We can build relationships of meaning and purpose. We can belong and connect with something bigger than ourselves. For all the legitimate fears that we may have about increasing antisemitism or the ills that plague our world, we can choose to feel connected in ways that help us to be strong and versatile enough to face any fear, to tackle any obstacle, and to live joyful lives.

"500 Floral Arrangements for Margie Reckhard (z”l): In Defiance of Loneliness"
Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, Shir Tikvah Congregation (Minneapolis, MN)

Stop waiting. You: There. You’re the 10th person in our minyan. Without you, the geometry of our community is incomplete. We need you. And you need us. We are a people once discarded as slaves, alone to ourselves and the universe. We were liberated from bondage; we need not be lonely. Today, this new year, the story we tell is one of showing up for each other. And ourselves.

"On Parenting, and Being Parented" *
Rabbi Daniel Levin, Temple Beth El (Boca Raton, FL)

Our very existence is a product of Divine love. We have been given so many extraordinary gifts – life is an embarrassment of blessings. We are each given the gift of life, the astonishing opportunity to simply live and experience the wonder of being. We are given intellects that can consider and reason, that can invent and innovate – we are given souls that can wonder and adore, that can remember and can dream. And we were given the gift of Torah, a Divine gift of wisdom that can lead us to experience the profound depths of holy experience, to resolve the inequities and injustices of human life, and to channel the holy gift of love to restore and heal this shattered world.

"Beth Am B’Yachad: The Complexities of Being Jewish in America Today"
Rabbi Jason R. Levine, Temple Beth Am (Seattle, WA)

There is no one simple way to be Jewish as a community, and our membership needs to embrace the complexity of American Jewish life today. This means we cannot just tweak what we do in worship, in education, in how we experience Jewish community. We need to engage more ideas, approaches, and voices, more complexity in how Temple Beth Am and we “do Jewish.” And mostly, we need some self-awareness and humility, appreciating that how we connect with Jewish tradition is not how others might, being open to learn from them. Awareness of our full Jewish community will lead to improved education of the general public about our depth and diversity, alleviating anti-Semitism and building greater knowledge. May our complexity be a blessing that we continue to explore and revel in.

"A House of Prayer for All People"
Rabbi Leah Lewis, Temple Menorah (Redondo Beach, CA)

We welcome the new year, 5780, on a firm foundation of diversity. Just take a look around. In our tiny corner of the Jewish world alone, there is curly hair and straight hair and red hair and blonde hair and blue hair and no hair. There is white skin, brown skin and black skin and every shade in between. There are people who believe and people who question, people who practice the traditions of the rabbinic sages and people who practice the traditions of their yoga masters, people who were raised Jewish, people who were raised in other faiths, people who were raised with no religion and people who are not Jewish. This is the striking reality of living in a society where we have been welcomed and accepted more than at any other point in Jewish history.

"Our Identity, Our Politics"
Rabbi Seth M. Limmer, Chicago Sinai Congregation (Chicago, IL)

We do need to work together with other people. Even when it is messy. Getting ourselves a little dirty isn’t always fun, but our Jewish identities commit us to improving our world, even if it hurts. For the Jew, since the time of Abraham, our real self-interest is the interest of all humanity. We cannot separate out what we need from what others need. That is a Jewish impossibility. This is why our Jewish Identity does not fit neatly into contemporary categories of American politics. America today is divided into different camps, each absolving itself of any responsibility towards the other. The Jew stands in defiance of this divide.

"Mending Our Cracked Vessels and Healing Our Broken Selves"
Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin, Congregation Beth Israel (Scottsdale, AZ)

According to this foundational story, the world God created is inherently broken. Our job, as humans and as Jews, is to be the enactors of tikkun olam, to be the ones who repair the cracks. Our purpose is return God’s creation to wholeness. And as a part of that creation, High Holy Days allow us to begin with ourselves. Before we can do tikkun olam and mend the jagged edges of our world, we embark on this internal journey of tikkun atzmo, mending the jagged edges of ourselves.

"Thoughts and Prayers"
Rabbi Mark Miller, Temple Beth El (Bloomfield Hills, MI)

“Thoughts and prayers” are fine, but they are not the Jewish way. Our version can be found right in your High Holiday prayer book. Go ahead, open your machzor to page 109 – we just read it a few minutes ago: “But repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.” And when are we supposed to do these three things? Look at the previous page … after violence, death, storms, or disease. The exact same sorts of things that have led other people to offer “thoughts and prayers!”

"We Are the Flood and We Are the Ark"
Rabbi Sydney Mintz, Congregation Emanu-El (San Francisco, CA)

Today we come together to celebrate the birthday of the world, Hayom Harat Olam-this is the day the world was born. Human beings have only inhabited the planet for 200,000 years, yet since the advent of agriculture, 12,000 years ago, we have destroyed 83% of all wild mammals and 50% of all plants. There have already been 5 major extinctions and the 6th one is happening right now. Humans are the perpetrators and humans are the victims. We are the flood and we are the ark.

"We Cannot Stop Noticing"
Rabbi Evan Moffic, Makom Solel Lakeside (Highland Park, IL)

We cannot stop noticing. We cannot stop noticing the gun violence in our streets of Chicago. We cannot stop noticing the families split apart by a corrupt criminal justice system and broken immigration system. We cannot stop noticing the assault on our social and democratic values we see on display here and Israel.

50 years from now, sitting in this sanctuary, I hope they say at that we did notice. That we did notice and amplify the efforts of all of our members and organizations working for justice. That we did notice what is right and good about our country and our tradition and voted and organized and acted to preserve them.

"The Right to Forgive"
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, Temple Shaaray Tefila (New York, NY)

My friends, just as those of us who've made mistakes in the past year have a decision to make about whether we will attempt in these days to apologize or not, so, too, those of us who are holding on to deep brokenness have a choice to make, too. Whether or not those who have wronged us have repented, we have within our control the ability to move forward, or to stay where we are; to be forever tied to loss and pain, or to search for places where there is abundant love that is sustained by a source, deep and invisible, like an oasis in the desert.

It is easy to hold onto resentments, pain, and victimhood. We are raised with a sense of fairness, a sense of what is right and what is wrong. And it is not right that we should experience rejection, cruelty, or betrayal.

And, though, if we choose, we do not have to remain shackled to those old hurts.

"Guardians of the Earth"
Rabbi Dan Mosokovitz, Temple Sholom (Vancouver, BC)

What should we say to Rebecca and to Evan, two of the many Temple Sholom teens who are leaders in the Climate Strikes from this past weekend?

“Sorry guys, but you’re just kids, so idealistic, you don’t know, wait till you’re older, you’ll understand.” Isn’t that what the older generation always says, isn’t that what our parents said to us? Put yourself in their shoes, if you have more of your life ahead of you than behind you as our teens and Millennials do, the future looks very different than it may to those of us who are older.

Look, it’s not my intent to scare you, but we need to overcome our overwhelm, and we need to stop dismissing what those younger than us are insisting.

"Anti-Semitism All Over Again"
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz, Congregation L’Dor V’Dor (Oyster Bay, N.Y.)

Let’s stop pointing fingers at them and start pointing fingers at ourselves. Stop making excuses for your side and start owning the problems within. So, if you are a devoted Democrat, I want to hear you loudly call out the anti-Semitism in the party you claim as your own. And if you are an ardent Republican, then call out the hate that is given breathing room within your party. It’s all too easy to say, “It’s all their fault.” It’s so easy to send congratulatory emails to like-minded friends that say, “Look at how bad they are. The Democrats are just as bad as Corbyn’s Labour Party.” Or, “Look at how awful they are. Republicans are giving license to racism.” anti-Semitism is found on both the right and left.

"Responding to Hate with Compassion"
Rabbi Mara S. Nathan, Temple Beth-El (San Antonio, TX)

If I say something hurtful, I want to know about it. Even if, in the moment I am embarrassed or ashamed. It's worth it. I want to believe that most people in their daily lives would like to be kind and thoughtful. I want to believe that most people’s anti-Semitic comments (the off-handed ones that seem to come out of nowhere …the ones that leave us speechless, angry and feeling betrayed) come from a place of ignorance rather than spite.

If we are able to react from a place of calm, clarity and compassion, we model graciousness and kindness and we educate and further dispel falsely conceived truths and stereotypes. Even if your heart starts to race and you feel your face get hot, a simple “Can you please tell me more…”, might actually build a bridge or create a new ally instead of fortifying barriers of misconception, misinformation and ultimately isolation.

"Two Truths and a Lie"
Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple (Cleveland, OH)

I encourage you: before each nightfall of the ten days of repentance, prepare your testimony. Ask yourself in your heart: Are you a person who defaults to truth, or do you greet most of what of what you hear people say with suspicion? Don’t judge your answer. You are who you are, and you will not have a perfect record of judgment and being judged. The mistakes we all make often lead to grudges, vendettas and long-held bad feelings. In my experience, and in keeping with Jewish tradition, it is best to scrutinize the grudges we hold and ask ourselves what they yield that is more fruitful than forgiveness and understanding of oneself and others.

"Truth and T’shuvah"
Rabbi Gary Pokras, Temple Beth Ami (Rockville, MD)

On Rosh HaShanah we consider the truth of our lives as we have lived them over the past year. Shammai teaches us to use our personal perceptions as our guide to truth. Hillel, challenges us not only look through our own eyes, but also through the eyes of the other people who “were there.” Hillel teaches that we are not the singular arbiters of truth, and that speaking accurately is connected with seeing accurately – which brings us back to the primary question before us.

“Vayelchu Sh’neihem Yachdav: Walking Together to a Land of Purpose”
Rabbi David Reiner, Congregation Shir Shalom (Ridgefield, CT)

There are conflicting narratives about conditions at our southern border and the people seeking refuge in our country. What one source describes as “fact,” another source declares as “fake.” Conditions are constantly changing. What does not change, what is indisputable, is the humanity of the refugees and immigrants seeking asylum in our country. Let us remember that nearly all of our ancestors, if not we ourselves, were once strangers here. We were refugees and immigrants seeking freedom, safety, and a brighter future in this land of promise. Tweets and partisan spin cannot distract us from acknowledging that this is a human issue; this is a moral issue; this is a Jewish issue.

"Whose Life is This Anyway?"
Rabbi Lara Regev, Congregation Rodef Shalom (San Rafael, CA)

Yet when the people who are in pain are our close friends and our family, people in whose lives we are engaged, our responsibility is even greater. We celebrate with them in good times, we cry with them when they are sad, and we walk their path of mourning by their side. And most of all, we don’t scroll past their story and forget - unlike my experience in the grocery store. I’d like to suggest that we consider what the world would be like if we didn’t just leave these people and their stories behind and walk away.

"Stronger Together"
Rabbi Yoni Regev, Temple Sinai (Oakland, CA)

Being in community—even for one night—requires looking around and acknowledging who is with us, allowing room for what they each bring along with them: sadness and loss over the memory of a loved-one, fear and pain due to an invisible illness, joy and pride over the birth or accomplishment of a child or grandchild, bewilderment and questioning over the course of events in the world. Being in community means more than just sharing a space—it means sharing a connection—however tenuous and brief.

Here at Temple Sinai, we emphasize and celebrate the importance of community. We treasure our diversity of opinions and backgrounds, the tapestry of our cultural heritages and ethnicities. We strive continuously to live up to the ideals of inclusion, access, and acceptance that inform our core values, because we know that we are stronger when we stand together. We are stronger when our hearts unite. We are stronger when we feel invested in the wellbeing of those who surround us here on this holy night.

"Nachamu – Comfort"
Rabbi Sarah Reines, Congregation Shaaray Tefila (New York, NY)

Let’s remember—we are the inheritors of a tradition and part of a people whose history has been marked by struggle and survival. Each generation has built upon the efforts of the last, challenged and strengthened by its own external and internal struggles. We are all in this together! We all take turns being the Messiah, the prophet, the leper, the rabbi, sharing pain without shame, calling for action, heeding voices beyond our own, stepping out and jumping back in, caring, caring, caring, always caring! Weeping for our world, and marveling at its majesty, from the shells in the deep, to the stars in the heights.

"Renew Us Once Again"
Rabbi Yael Ridberg, Congregation Or Hadash (San Diego, CA)

So when we think of before, is it always better than now? And will what we consider now, always be better than after? What have we learned? What might we offer our selves of the past? How do we anticipate the future? Hadesh yameinu kekedem [renew our days as in the past] are like words spoken in a dream. The truth of course, is that we cannot go back. The past cannot be literally renewed, we cannot return to those days before, but we can pull forward the experiences of the last year and their importance to fuel our future. We can dream of the days to come in our desire to renew ourselves and the world.

"Planting Seeds for Eternity"
Rabbi Debra J. Robbins, Temple Emanu-El (Dallas, TX)

I remember visiting the rain forest in Olympic National Park. Trees lay stretched across the forest floor. Wrapped in moss, embraced by decomposing leaves, seeds found their way into the bark and put down roots, cradling themselves, growing out of the log. Nurse-logs, nurture life after their own lives have seemingly ended. Thousands of species in every forest, depend on dead wood to live.13 It is true for the trees and for us. We depend on “dead wood” to plant the seeds of our lives. On Rosh Hashanah we consider the nourishment we receive from those who came before us, AND how our lives will provide the nourishment for future gardens.

"Weaving Wounds into Wisdom"
Rabbi-Cantor Elana Rosen-Brown, Congregation Rodef Sholom (San Rafael, CA)

After witnessing the last few years of the Jewish community’s response to our current political climate I would argue that there remains room for us to continue to examine our legacy of trauma and how it impacts our actions and reactions. I’ve observed that as an American Jewish community we have internalized so well the rallying cries of “Never Again” and “Tikkun Olam,” and in so many ways for good, but we often neglect to see the corresponding need for cheshbon haNefesh—reflecting on our triggers, our reactions, and our words before or in sequence with jumping to action. I am drawn to the ways that our community both at Rodef Sholom and the broader American Jewish community might more deeply engage in continued and conscious awareness of when we are re-activated by trauma and the work that remains to be done four ourselves and our community in this arena.

"Who Are You – I Am Jewish"
Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg, United Hebrew Congregation (St. Louis, MO)

Honestly, I worry that some of our kids, let alone our adults, think of Judaism as an activity, not an identity. When the activity is over, there is no need for a synagogue. There is a huge difference between being able to declare “I am Jewish” and saying “I have bar mitzvah lessons and religious school on Tuesdays and Sundays just like I have softball or soccer on Mondays and Thursdays. We don’t just go to religious school or to Shabbat services like we go to the gym. We go because they connect us, ground us to our Jewish identity, to understanding that it is from Torah and this incredible tradition that we get not only narratives, rituals, and values but also a sense of purpose and connection in this world.

"The Complicity of Silence"
Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein, Central Synagogue (New York, NY)

Perhaps more than ever before we must be part of the action, not simply to vote but to support those we would choose to lead, to share our resources of energy and money and passion with those organizations fighting for what we believe we can’t do alone.

And it is not only for this moment. Silence is seductive. It puts us on the sidelines and makes us complicit whenever we choose the sidelines over action. But the sidelines are not the place for us, not as Jews and not as Americans. Let us intentionally make a difference, now and always. This is a time for each of us to rise up and proclaim “Hineni! Here I am! Send me!”

"Torah is Your Heritage. It Belongs to You."
Cantor Sarah Sagar, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple (Beachwood, OH)

We are the inheritors of a faith that, because of its insistence on life and our divine creation, insists as well, on the potential for sanctity – whatever we may be doing: from awakening in the morning to getting ready for bed at night, to rejoicing in the bounty of this world, to giving thanks for the food we eat, to celebrating freedom, justice, learning, the Sabbath, holidays and festivals, to moving into a new home, starting school, having a new experience, greeting someone we haven’t seen in a while, putting on a new piece of clothing, even taking out the garbage or making love.

"Our American Jewish Wakeup Call"
Rabbi Jeff Salkin, Temple Solel (Hollywood, FL)

I have a friend who has chronic fatigue syndrome. He gets sick. He gets better. He gets sick again. It is in his system. It will always be in his system.

Do you know what antisemitism is?

It is the chronic fatigue system of history – an infection that is there, that remains dormant within the body – and given the proper conditions and given the failure of a society’s immune system – it always re-appears.

Antisemitism is the oldest hatred. The oldest ism. A virus that mutates into a parade of libels. The oldest obsession.

"Pioneering the Road to Yes"
Rabbi Zachary R. Shapiro, Temple Akiba (Culver City, CA)

Friends, there are so many opportunities before us. But there are so often stones that block our access to fully embracing life. Sometimes we don’t even dare to dream because those stones are so huge, so intimidating. We learn to live without being able to drink form the well of life.

And perhaps that’s just fine.

But perhaps we are just convincing ourselves.

What would happen if we faced life daring to move the stones - pioneering a road to yes when facing a resounding “no”? Imagine, just imagine what our lives would look like if we could harness the strength to transform defeat into opportunity.

"Echad: A Sermon for Rosh HaShanah 5780"
Rabbi Micah Streiffer, Kol Ami (Thornhill, ON)

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, who struggled so deeply with sadness, said: “You should make every effort to pray with sincerity. But if you cannot, even the effort is precious in God’s eyes.”

Even the effort is precious. First you have to know that. Before you can fix the world. Before you can repair what’s broken. Before you can go out love your neighbor as yourself, first – first and foremost – you have to love yourself.

That’s the challenge, and that’s task of these days. To see ourselves through God’s eyes. To see our own goodness. And even as we recognize our own imperfections, to recognize the holiness, the wholeness of the selves that we already are.

"Be The One"
Rabbi Peter W. Stein, Temple B’rith Kodesh (Rochester, N.Y.)

Antisemitism coming from outside the Jewish community is certainly a heinous example of hatred that threatens to destroy us. In no way do I minimize the rising threat of violent antisemitism in our time when I speak about sinat chinam. Rather, I lament that the crisis of our times has two elements. Yes, I have great concern about specifically antisemitic discourse and actions...how could I not after Charlottesville and Pittsburgh?

But, there is also a destructive divisiveness in our society in general, including within our own Jewish community. In this new year, I hope that we will be the ones who begin to counter this. It is urgent that we find ways to learn to listen and learn to speak, especially with those who may have different worldviews or different perspectives.

"Antisemitism"
Rabbi David Stern, Temple Emanu-El (Dallas, TX)

The presence of antisemitism is painful and enduring. The challenge before us is to be vigilant, but not fearful, because fear will distort who we are. We can’t let antisemitism drive us into tribal isolation, drawing the wagons into a circle, hopelessly distrustful of the world around us. If the targeting we experience as a minority leads us to fear and target other minorities, the anti-Semites have won. If the only message we give to our children is “Be Jewish, because your ancestors suffered and died for the privilege,” the anti-Semites have won. If the only Jewish cause that excites us is fighting against our persecutors rather than fighting for our values, then the anti-Semites have won. If antisemitism breaks our hearts, but does not break them open to the suffering of others, then the anti-Semites have won.

"I am a Jew"
Rabbi Rachel Timoner, Congregation Beth Elohim (Brooklyn, NY)

If we just sat here, all of us, and cried together today, that might be the most eloquent response to the year we’ve just lived through.

...

We are a people who both value tears and are fluent in them. As much as today is a celebration of the new year, these ten days are meant to be a turning point, characterized by tears, tears of remembering, tears of repentance. Judaism teaches that tears are what open the gates of heaven. When we cry God remembers us and pays attention to our world. Jeremiah tells us that Rachel cries for our people, refusing to be comforted as long as we are still suffering. The midrash tells us that Rachel’s tears include a rebuke of God for allowing us to remain in suffering for so long. This day is also called Yom HaZikaron the day of remembering. Because when we cry, God remembers us. But also when we cry we remember who we are, because when we cry we remember what we care about.

"Jew By Choice"
Rabbi Rochelle Tulik, Temple B’rith Kodesh (Rochester, NY)

Many of us were raised to believe that there was only one right way to be Jewish. We were raised understanding that a certain level of practice or observance was required and that not adhering to certain standards made us “bad Jews.” If you don’t keep kosher, you are a bad Jew. If you don’t come to services, you are a bad Jew. How many High Holy Day sermons have you listened to telling you you had to do more, be more, believe more? This is not that sermon. Reform Judaism is built on the value of choice. Choice through knowledge, informed choice. We should all be Jews by choice. And yet, so often born Jews have a harder time embracing their choices. Jewish guilt we understand, Jewish choice, not as much.

Establishing a Jewish home might look different in every house we enter. Participating actively in the life of the synagogue and Jewish community might be different for every person in this room. That is okay. It is more than okay. In a society built on keeping up with the Jones’s and constantly comparing ourselves to others, I want to encourage you to make Judaism a part of you that is truly yours.

"The Next Chapter: Understanding, and Addressing, White Privilege" *
Rabbi Greg Weisman, Temple Beth El (Boca Raton, FL)

The next chapter in the story of race in our country, after slavery, violence, and legal segregation, is the chapter we are living in now, the chapter of white privilege. It’s the chapter in which according to the law everyone is the equal. It’s the chapter when blatant acts of racism- in public policy, in educational practices, in policing, in art and culture- are both forbidden and not tolerated. No more separate but equal, and no more Archie Bunker either. But it’s the latest chapter in the continuing story of how white and black Americans live different realities, live different truths, based on the color of their skin. The great challenge in recognizing white privilege is that it is so elemental to our lives that we barely notice it. Living with privilege has often been described as being like a fish who lives in water. The fish doesn’t even know that it is in water; it would take being removed from it for the fish to realize how it’s been sustaining itself all along. It is evidenced by the things that we take for granted, the things that we think of as normal. It’s only when we learn that for others of other skin. tones, these enjoyments are nowhere to be found, that we become aware of the privilege that we have.

"Living in the Wilderness" *
Rabbi Josh Whinston, Temple Beth Emeth (Ann Arbor, MI)

We are living in the wilderness and we are going to experience another Sinai moment. There is no other way to get to the promised land, but before we can stand at Sinai again, to experience the healing that that moment precipitates, we must recognize that we are in the wilderness. The wilderness is not a place we can fix just as our collective trauma is not something we can bomb our way or even legislate our way out of. Now is no time to run from our trauma or wallow in our trauma, it is time to draw near, to examine, and even to atone for the hope that this would heal some other way or on its own. Our catharsis won’t come with impeachment, and it won’t come with a new election. It is time to begin releasing that breathe of New York 9/11 air. Let it out. Not because all is ok, not because the world is at peace, and not because we are sure of the next step. Exhale because if we don’t we can’t move forward and nothing ever will be OK.

"The First Time, Once Again"
Rabbi David Widzer, Kol Dorot: A Reform Jewish Community (Township of Washington, N.J.)

[T]he fact that Moses rebuilds the Tabernacle repeatedly means something for our spiritual life. We work hard at being good people, at being kind friends, at doing the right thing. And then something comes along and tears that down. We make a mistake. We say the wrong thing. We lash out in anger or frustration. We hurt the people we care about. We aren’t the people we had tried to be. And our carefully constructed inner Mishkan comes crashing down. What we learn from Moses is that, when that happens, we work to build our Tabernacle anew, once again. As the 20th century Chasidic leader, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, teaches, “Whenever we fall, and our spiritual world collapses around us – like the dismantling of the Tabernacle – we must raise it up anew.” (Netivot Shalom, on Parashat Shemini.) We have done this before, but each time we start to build that inner Mishkan, we begin again for the first time. We are old. We are new. We try again.

"Behold We are a Stiff-Necked People"
Rabbi Todd Zinn, Chicago Sinai Congregation (Chicago, IL)

We live in a deeply broken world, a world filled with violence and pain, a world filled with strife and derision. We live in a world built on the suffering of others, where other peoples stories are corrupted. Ours is a world which erases the narratives of entire groups of people from the cultural conversations, a world which diminishes the impact of individuals, and a world where the instruments of power, the institutions and the culture, reinforce these behaviors.

"Opening the Door: Beth Am B’Yachad"
Rabbi Ruth A. Zlotnick, Temple Beth Am (Seattle, WA)

Today we suffer from an epidemic of loneliness because in the digital age we’ve lost many of those spaces where we can relax, and breathe, and be valued for who we really are. The synagogue can be such a space. This is where we can tell our stories and hear others’ stories and learn how our story continues the lineage of our ancestors. This is where we learn how the customs and teachings of Judaism can render life meaningful. This is where we can safely forge new and genuine friendships. The trick is, in the 21st century, we can’t “do” synagogue the same way we’ve always done it; we must reconsider how we gather as a congregation.

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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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