Area rabbis will cover a lot of ground this High Holy Day season, calling on their congregants to think about issues such as parenting, biblical personalities, and religion itself. Almost all will speak about Jews’ relationship with Israel, some using their sermons to kick off the synagogue’s participation in the year-long celebration of Israel’s 60th birthday called "Israel@60."
Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Sha’ar in Tenafly will focus on responding to conflicting and contradictory messages about religion. On the one hand, she said, we bear daily witness to expressions of religious fundamentalism, there’s increasing religious rhetoric in the world of politics, and references to religion are more prominent in the media than ever before.
On the other hand, as a society, we are becoming increasingly secular, fewer people flock to sanctuaries, and many are questioning the whole enterprise of religion, with books such as "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris and "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" by Christopher Hitchens becoming national bestsellers.
Lewittes said that she "would like to tackle, as a liberal, yet traditional Jewish leader, how to articulate a vision for a life of religious faith and practice."
The rabbi wants to help listeners draw a distinction between religion and faith, saying "We often suffer when we equate the two. It may require a painful, surgical separation to rearticulate a helpful paradigm," she added.
On the second day of Rosh HaShanah, Lewittes will speak about Israel, exploring "not just what is our moral calling" toward questions such as the peace issue, but looking at the bigger picture, "the role of Israel in our identity. I want to cut away from political correctness and plunge deeper," she said, explaining that she wants listeners to explore the synergy between Jewish identity and the State of Israel.
On Yom Kippur, she will speak about prayers and rituals referred to in the service and suggest that they are based on "evolving sets of binaries which animate Jewish life, such as purity and impurity, or permitted and prohibited."
To help congregants formulate their own religious vision, she will ask them to identify "the binaries that ground us today." Pointing out that what speaks to one denomination or community does not necessarily work for another, she said she will explore the questions, "What are the poles of Jewish life for modern Jewish communities; and how can we organize religious meaning for ourselves?"
Lewittes noted that her sermons will be "less formal, and more interactive with the use of text study. I want to engender as much discussion as possible," she said. "For these experiences to be most productive spiritually, the community needs to be engaged and involved as fully as possible."
Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Sholom in River Edge will take a two-tier approach to his High Holy Day sermons. On the personal level, he will admonish listeners to "be more humble, more responsible," but he will also stress the need for families, synagogues, and other institutions to be "more open and welcoming to all."
Borovitz said his overall theme will be "Know before Whom you stand." He cited a chasidic story rendering the translation as "Know before Whom you work," and said he will explore both translations in his talk. He noted as well that the erev Rosh HaShanah service will include a 9/11 memorial and will be devoted to "breaking down stereotypes.
It is time for us to get up from six years of shiva," he said, suggesting that we are still in mourning "and need to begin to choose life." Borovitz has invited Eboo Patel an Indian-American Muslim and the founder and leader of the Interfaith Youth Core to address the congregation, to help challenge the notion of stereotypes, he said.
In addition to honoring the 3,000 lost at the World Trade Center, the memorial service will include a tribute to the 11 Israeli athletes killed at the Munich Olympics. "We always remember them," he said, noting that their names are read during Kaddish, together with the names of those from Bergen County who were killed on 9/11. "I will ask, How do we remember, forgive, and not forget?" he said.
On Yom Kippur, Borovitz will speak about Israel, "the second Jewish commonwealth, and the blessings of living in a time when there is a free and independent Jewish state." Picking up on the theme of responsibility, he will remind listeners of the need to support Israel and "integrate" the state into the life of the congregation. He acknowledged that it is a "challenge" to help create a meaningful relationship between young American Jews and the State of Israel and said the sermon will kick off his congregation’s Israel@60 program.
On the first day of Rosh HaShanah, Rabbi Jeffrey Fox of Kehillat Kesher in Englewood will speak about Israel. He points out that many people in his congregation visit Israel regularly, with some spending all of Sukkot and Pesach there.
"It’s part of their regular calendar year," he said. Still, some people "don’t think about deeper issues: What does it mean to have a state? Why are we living here? How do we educate about Israel? How do we fuse Israel into every aspect of synagogue life?" These are some of the questions he will explore in his holiday sermon.
Fox said he would like to bring a synagogue mission to Israel, perhaps in February ‘009, in conjunction with UJA Federation’s second "J to J" trip, tentatively set for that time. He is also working with a representative of the Jewish National Fund to arrange a presentation at his synagogue.
On the second day of Rosh HaShanah, the rabbi will speak about the shofar, exploring "those areas in our lives where we are torn between the demands of Jewish law and our personal ethical intuition, and how that plays out in our daily lives." Then, on Shabbat Shuvah, he will talk about parenting.
"We have a young community and all of us are struggling with this together," he said. As part of this theme, he will address the issue of children in the synagogue how to impart spirituality while teaching them proper shul decorum, and the like. The synagogue recently hired a youth director and is looking to strengthen its youth program in the coming year, he said. On Yom Kippur, Fox will focus on Rabbi Akiva, "an interesting personality who changed his life at age 40," looking at issues such as "his puzzling relationship with his family" and his support of the messianist Bar Kochba.
"I’m going to tell a long story on Kol Nidre night," he said, noting that he would speak about Rabbi Akiva’s life in the evening and then "open up" the topic further the next day. He is also considering doing a Neilah appeal but one focused on mitzvot rather than dollars: Congregants will be asked to fold down tabs on cards listing areas in which they may volunteer during the coming year.
Rabbi Randall Mark of Wayne’s Shomrei Torah will devote his first Rosh HaShanah sermon to "list-making." Inspired by a presentation at the Conservative movement’s most recent Rabbinical Assembly convention, Mark will invite congregants to compile to-do lists of activities similar to those performed by God.
"For example," he said, "just as God creates, we should create; as God blesses, we should bless; as God comforts, we should comfort." Noting that "we’re called upon to be God’s partners on earth," Mark said, "we must all take a look at what God does, and strive to do those things."
For his second sermon, Mark will take up the challenge proposed by Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnold Eisen and "talk about mitzvah."
Eisen, a trained sociologist, told Conservative rabbis at a recent gathering that a major problem of the movement was that for a long time, Conservative Judaism looked at itself "as a catch-all." In the 1980s, said Mark, movement leaders tried to develop a more proactive and positive identification, tackling the question, "What does it mean to be halachic if your adherents aren’t observant?"
"It’s a safe bet in the movement that viewing mitzvah as a religious obligation doesn’t work," said Mark, "yet mitzvah as a good deed is not compelling. We need to talk about it in a way that works."
On Yom Kippur, Mark will join his colleagues throughout the area in launching a discussion about Israel. "The relationship between American Jews and Israel has deteriorated and is not improving," he said. "This needs to be discussed and grappled with."
On both days of Rosh HaShanah, Rabbi Chaim Boyarsky, youth director of Lubavitch on the Palisades in Tenafly will lead teen minyans for youngsters ages 11 to 17. On both days, Boyarsky will introduce a topic, inviting the students to respond and add their own ideas.
"We don’t do sermons," he said. "We throw in stories and get the teens involved." Boyarsky said that it has also been his practice during this service, now in its third year, to "sell aliyot for good deeds, like calling your grandmother and wishing her a good Shabbos." Youngsters are later sent "bills" reminding them of their pledges.
On the first day of the holiday, Boyarsky will speak about seeing evil in others. "Sometimes you see something negative in someone," he said, "or you don’t like them." Explaining that we see these qualities in others because we have some of those faults in ourselves, he suggested that German Jews in the 1930s were not able to fathom the depths of Nazi atrocities because they did not possess that kind of evil themselves and could therefore not recognize it in others.
"We often want to change others," he said, "but it would be better to change ourselves. Why bash others when it won’t make you feel better?" he asked, noting that even a mouse who steps on something sharp learns not to step on that item again. "It’s only by fixing ourselves that we will achieve happiness," he said.
On the second day of Rosh HaShanah, Boyarsky will introduce the concept that "everything God does is for the good." Pointing out that real anger at God can only be felt by those with a strong belief, he said that even during the Holocaust, many retained "enormous faith."
"Everyone thinks they have to face the biggest hurdles," he said, "and there is not always an answer. But perhaps by having some problem now a child will be better able later to relate to someone with the same problems."
The rabbi told a story about a diabetic asking for, and getting, candy from someone at shul, only to have his own father take the candy away. In the child’s opinion, he said, "the candy man was good, and his father was bad," but the child was not looking at the larger picture. So too, he said, we have to trust that God has a larger plan.