What They’re Hoping To Hear

Everyone’s Itching for Insight — on Taxes, Israel or Iraq — in Sermons

By Brian Mono

Published September 26, 2003, issue of September 26, 2003.
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Tony Davis knows exactly what he want to hear from his rabbis when he sits down in his pew this High Holy Day season, although he admits to having been disappointed in the past.

“I would like them to speak specifically about how American Jews can effectively support Israel at this time,” said Davis, 33, a private-equity investor who attends services at Temple Sholom in Chicago, a Reform synagogue. “Rather than critique, I would like to hear them talk about support.”

The recent collapse of the road map and the subsequent spate of terrorist attacks against Israel appear to have intensified American Jewry’s concern for the State of Israel this holiday season, lifting it above other pressing American concerns such as the economy and the war in Iraq. And American Jews such as Davis are not averse to paving their journey to atonement with a pro-Israel message.

“I don’t think you can divorce politics from how Jews go about living in this world,” Davis said. “At a time of reflection and atonement, it’s [also] time to think about being more engaged in the world, and that includes being engaged in the world politically.”

There is nothing new about rabbis sending political messages through High Holiday sermons, and support for the Jewish state in particular has been a staple of American sermons since Israel’s dramatic victory in the Six-Day War in 1967.

“Prior to the Six-Day War, the Jewish community often politicized religion along the lines of concern about the outsider in American life,” said Murray Friedman, director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University. “Particularly in Reform and Conservative synagogues, you had a pattern of concern about social issues and race relations.”

Following the Six-Day War, he said, Jews turned increasingly inward and “began to be concerned with our own physical well-being.”

Meanwhile, Friedman points to the facts on the ground in Israel right now as the most compelling concern facing the American Jewish community, especially “by virtue of the collapse of the peace process.”

“I think the peace effort that was taking place had raised some rather high hopes,” he said. The Bush administration “had put its entire prestige on the line by pursuing a path of separating the Palestinian Authority from [Yasser] Arafat and focusing on the efforts of [Mahmoud] Abbas, and now people are bitterly disappointed, confused and not sure where to go. And so they turn to their religious leaders to help them decide where to go.”

Friedman also linked concern for Israel with the resurgence of antisemitism around the world, particularly in European countries.

“The growing sense that antisemitism is on the rise is augmented by the way Israel has been treated, particularly in the West,” he said. “Many in the West have expressed a schizophrenic pattern by talking about the retaliatory actions of Israel and ignoring the terrorist attacks that have produced a mounting list of casualties.”

In effect, what some American Jews seem to be seeking from their sermons is more than just the typical High Holy Day relief from fear and anxiety about the future, but also a practical political discourse that will help them have an effect on the world in the year to come.

For Debbie Deutschmann, 33, a High Holy Day sermon on Israel at Beth Shalom in Columbia, S.C., is an opportunity to get a quick insight on the Arab-Israeli conflict that she can share with her non-Jewish friends.

“There are so few Jews [in South Carolina], and I’m supposed to be this ‘wonderful’ expert, and I am not. It’s just difficult,” said Deutschmann, who attends services at her 300-family Conservative congregation about once a month. “At least at services I can get an insight because the rabbi is hooked into all the Israeli papers that I don’t read.”

Richard Herman, a founding member of Sha’arei Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Raleigh, N.C., expressed a similar sense of cultural isolation on the subject of supporting Israel — and countering the threat of Islamic fundamentalism — down South. He looks to the sermons he attends weekly and on the High Holy Days to provide himself and his fellow worshippers with a counterweight to local and national press coverage.

“We tend to get a negative bias about Israel in our local paper,” said Herman, a 60-year-old retired systems operator. “So, it’s nice to hear a balanced view.”

All this is not to say that American Jewry is solely concerned with the Jewish state. The economy, the war in Iraq and, of course, the whole notion of repentance and our relationships with our relatives, friends and neighbors are also topics that worshippers expect their rabbis to address this High Holy Day season.

Deutschmann, who has been attending her synagogue for more than a decade, said her rabbi tends to focus on the significance of life-cycle events in his High Holy Day sermons, and this year she expects him to add a personal touch to his talks.

“Our rabbi is older, and he just lost his wife, and I know he will be focusing this year on his loss and moving forward,” Deutschmann said. “I know that is what we [the congregation] will expect, and I’m looking forward to hearing about it.”

Meanwhile, Davis, the pro-Israel activist from Chicago, said he would not mind hearing a sermon that reflected on the relationship between the Bush administration’s economic policy — such as its penchant for tax cuts — and tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

However, he admitted, “if our rabbi were to talk about that, he might upset every Republican in the audience.”

Yet, even those who otherwise tend to eschew direct political commentary in their High Holy Day sermons, such as Ruth Simon, a member of Temple Micah in Washington, a Reform congregation, appear to give a free pass when it comes to the situation in Israel.

“I tend to like something that has more to do with the holiday and the understanding of human connections, and the meaning of spirit and how we look deeper into ourselves this year,” said Simon, 57. For years she has helped her rabbi, Daniel Zemel, type up his High Holy Day sermons. This year, however, he switched to a word processor.

“He always does one of the four [on Israel], and I am used to that being 25%,” she observed, “but I wouldn’t want it to be more political than that.”

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