Shoah scholar steps into High Holy Days role
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Shoah scholar steps into High Holy Days role

At Emanu-El, it's two rabbis, three cantors - and Deborah Lipstadt

As problems go, this was a good one.

For as long as anyone can remember, Temple Emanu-El of Closter has had at least two services on the High Holy Days. Even when it was Temple Emanu-El of Englewood, two rabbi/cantor teams would rotate through two large rooms.

Now, though, the shul needed a third service. Its membership has grown significantly in the last decade. It tried holding two services and simulcasting one of them to a third room, but that, unsurprisingly, was not satisfactory.

This year, the shul’s leaders decided to use its newly created promenade-level space for a third service.

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Deborah Lipstadt

Two of the three services will be led by conventional rabbi/cantor teams – the synagogue’s clergy, Rabbi David-Seth Kirschner and Cantor Israel Singer, will be joined by Rabbi David Hoffman, Cantor Zev Scherl, and Cantor Greg Shafritz. The third rabbi position – the cantor does all the davening, the rabbi all the speaking – will be filled by Dr. Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University in Atlanta.

Lipstadt is very much not a rabbi, but she is a well-known academic, the Dorot professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory. Her work in studying the Shoah led her to an epic showdown with notorious Holocaust denier David Irving, who sued her for libel. She won, in a trial that damaged his reputation (to the extent that he had any) and further burnished hers.

She also was extremely active in the powerful although ultimately unsuccessful effort to convince the Olympic committee to allow a minute of silence in memory of the athletes murdered at the Munich games 40 years ago.

“She’s a real advocate, and she’s brilliant,” Kirschner said. “Most of the time, when you think of a scholar in residence, you don’t think of a High Holy Day sermon, but this is a unique opportunity to bring her to our synagogue.”

Lipstadt said that this is not the first time she has delivered a talk at services. “When I lived in DC, I belonged to the Library Minyan, so in many respects it feels familiar,” she said. “And it feels good.”

Having someone other than a rabbi present a sermon is not new either, she said. “The rabbi certainly has learning and rabbinic authority, but wisdom and insight can come from many sources. I give Rabbi Kirschner credit for doing this. It’s an intriguing model. I’m very excited about the opportunity to bring people both my insights as another Jew, as well as my insights about more contemporary events.

“But I’m not coming to speak as a scholar of the Holocaust, as such,” she added.

She feels that preparing for her talk is a way to help herself prepare for the High Holy Days themselves. “I’m going to talk about the deeper meaning of these days,” she said. “I will talk about the opportunities Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer any Jew who shows up in shul – and not only those who show up, but everybody. They offer a tremendous chance for personal growth and change. This is an opportunity for an ontological experience – an experience that changes our very selves. That’s so often lost in the pomp and circumstance of the day. We’re often thinking about when we will go for the meal, or when do we get out of here, or who is wearing what. What I want to say is don’t lose it! Don’t let it pass you by. It’s a unique opportunity to really have a moment of personal growth and personal reconciliation with yourself, and to emerge at the other end of the holiday season as a somewhat different person.

“I want to challenge people,” she said.

She is aware that these few days will be unlike time she’s spent as a shul scholar in residence. “When I come to a synagogue to give a lecture on my academic area of expertise, I talk about what is done to Jews. I talk about Jews as objects. This gives me an opportunity to talk about Jews as subjects, and about what we can do individually and collectively.

“I am going from the detached academic, the critical and analytic thinker, to become someone who has a stake in the race. I’ll be talking to myself as much as I’ll be talking to the congregation.”

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