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We Asked Rabbis About Their Holiday Sermons. Here’s What 65 of Them Planned to Say.

Anti-Semitism, Israel, immigration, climate change. But mostly: anti-Semitism. Aspiration, repentance, renovation, optimism, and, again, anti-Semitism. Diets, meditation, memory, anger, balance, meaning, love, waiting, faith, change — and anti-Semitism.

After a year in which 12 Jews were killed in terror attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., a year the police recorded rising hate crimes against Jews in Brooklyn and beyond, while offensive words and images spread like kudzu on social media, of course anti-Semitism is the predominant theme for High Holiday sermons. But what, exactly, will our clergy have to say about it?

We put out a call to rabbis and others planning sermons for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Below are responses from dozens of them, lightly edited for clarity; the excerpts are drafts, works in progress, in some cases just ideas.

“I will be speaking on “Now what? What have we learned and where do we go from here?” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, where the first of the two deadly shootings happened. “I crafted a new martyrology,” he added, “as we will have a special Yizkor devoted to our 11 beautiful souls.”

This is not a scientific survey by any means: we emailed rabbis and rabbinical groups, and asked them to share our questions with colleagues; we posted on Twitter and Facebook. We heard from speakers in 18 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Toronto, Canada. More than 40 percent of the responses came from women, 12 percent from the Orthodox. Some were preparing their first big sermons in a new community, others were trying hard to keep it fresh.

“Each year I am surprised that it is still so difficult,” wrote Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp of Temple Beth Shalom in Cincinnati. “How can it be after over a decade of high holy days, can this process still drive me to madness?”

She planned to talk about Joseph, shunned then loved for what made him different. Her colleagues invoked Shifra and Puah, Abraham or other Biblical characters. They quoted the scholar Deborah Lipstadt and the philosopher Martin Buber. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Muhammad Ali. They told of trips to Israel and visits to the Mexican border.

Several said they found writing sermons this year different, harder. It feels more urgent. Too many topics to choose from. “The hardest part is trying to distill a clear, values-based message that rises above current political discourse, while not running away from the cry of the moment,” said Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn. At the same time, Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles said it is “difficult because I can’t say what I really want” about the Trump administration.

“I don’t remember ever before feeling so uncertain, and so concerned,” shared Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Brooklyn’s Cong. Beth Elohim.

But Aaron Lerner, who will be leading services at the University of California-Los Angeles Hillel,said this year was no different than any other, “Judaism is a 3,000-year-old wisdom tradition,” he noted. “It applies to humans’ lives regardless of who’s president.

‘The Bush is Burning, and We Are Being Consumed’

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman Image by Handout

Our sense of holy place needs to radiate out from Israel, from Jerusalem, from Mount Moriah, where Abraham’s ram was set aflame in an all consuming offering —an “olah,” which in the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, was called a “holocauston.” That conflagration is now is devouring the entire planet.

“Es brent”…”It is Burning” is a Yiddish poem–song written in 1936 by Mordechai Gebirtig. This song, written before the Holocaust, became a symbol of Jewish resistance, calling on Jews to take action and extinguish the flames before it’s too late, to save their beloved town.

We need to show that kind of courage now, to save our planet. The shtetl is burning. Paradise is burning. Notre Dame is burning. The church and the mosque and the synagogue are being set aflame. Moriah is burning. The Amazon is burning. The world is burning. The bush is burning —and we are being consumed.

Joshua Hammerman
Temple Beth El, Stamford, Conn.

‘All I Can Do Is Meet Them Where They Are’

Rabbi Pamela Gottfried

Rabbi Pamela Gottfried Image by Handout

I first meet mother and son in the waiting area outside the courtroom. Samanta is holding a large bag filled with papers in one hand and Joshua’s small hand in her other. I greet her and learn she fled Mexico when Joshua was a baby, to be with her parents and sisters here in Atlanta. I bend down to meet Joshua. Volunteering to accompany asylum seekers at their hearings, I’ll spend the next few hours keeping 3 year-old Joshua occupied and quiet in the courtroom.

Accompaniment is not easy for those of us trained as problem-solvers. There is nothing I can do for Samanta and Joshua, or for the other asylum seekers I’ve accompanied in immigration court. Their cases are complicated, and often rejected by lawyers as unwinnable; many of them face almost-certain deportation. I can’t fix anything or change their circumstances. I can’t offer advice or false hope. All I can do is meet them where they are and be present with them, so they’re not alone.

In this morning’s Torah reading, we learn this lesson of accompaniment from God, who meets Hagar and Ishmael where they are. When Hagar is overwhelmed by anguish and fear, the angel of God calls out to Hagar, to tell her she is not alone. If we relate to Hagar’s suffering, if we feel compassion for people around us who are suffering, we can imitate God and be present with them where they are: maybe we can ease their pain, diminish their despair.

Pamela Gottfried
Cong. Bet Havarim, Atlanta

‘I Won’t Be Written in the Book of Life Without You’

Rabbi Ron Stern

Rabbi Ron Stern Image by Handout

Imagine looking into your grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s eyes and saying that you did nothing in the face of climate change and our continuing environmental degradation.

Judaism provides a parable for human-caused environmental destruction: the story of Noah. Life on earth is destroyed as a consequence of human action. We are living in the age of Noah again, but there’s no ark, no Divine hand to bring salvation. It’s on us and we must do it so that the next generations inherit a livable world.

There is a myth that states that we really don’t need others for our own well-being — that we can go it alone. The truth is that regardless of our stature in life, or the vastness of our resources, we depend upon others. An acute awareness of that needs to affect the way we act in the world and the policies and principles that guide our society. Ultimately we’ve got to say and believe that: I won’t be written in the Book of Life without you. The well-being of others depends on us, and we depend on others.”

Ron Stern
Stephen Wise Temple, Los Angeles

‘In Truth, Both Sides Would Be Much Happier If We Erased Ourselves’

Rabbi Allison Berry

Rabbi Allison Berry Image by Handout

I stood with 60 Temple Shalom members as we watched Shabbat descend over the walls of Jerusalem.

I spoke to a couple here in our community who voted for Donald Trump exclusively because they believe he is the leader who can keep Israel safe.

I had coffee with a Temple member who confided that he was devastated by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Wiping away tears, he reflected that Israel was not the place his parents (or mine) promised it would be.

These conversations about Israel have moved us from an appreciation of the beauty and the miracle of our homeland to something so political and so fraught with controversy, that many of you who identify as Zionists have chosen to entirely disengage from the conversation. …

I’m truly frightened by this ongoing tension between the political right and left. Both sides are using Israel as a wedge in their battle against each other. And who wins? Not us. Because in truth, both sides would be much happier if we erased ourselves..

Allison Berry
Temple Shalom, Newton, Mass.

‘You May Have Heard of Him: His Name was Moshe Dayan’

Rabbi Philip Scheim

Rabbi Philip Scheim Image by Handout

Some three decades before the darkness of the Holocaust enveloped the world and destroyed so much of our people, groups of young Jews, moved by the Zionist idea, left the homes they had known for the uncertainties, hardships and dangers of untamed Palestine…

On the first kibbutz to be established, Degania, a debate unfolded. Would it not make sense, some argued, at the outset, to ban marriage, so that there would be no children in the short term? Given the harshness of the physical environment, the incredibly difficult circumstances, that opinion was seriously considered. Maybe it would have made sense to delay births until a greater measure of security would be achieved.

That argument, ultimately, was rejected. Irrespective of the hardships, the uncertainties, there would be marriages and babies would be born at Degania. And so, in the very early hours of May 4, 1915, the first baby born in Degania, indeed the very first baby ever to be born on a kibbutz, came into this world. And yes, you may have heard of him. His name was Moshe Dayan.

We must be grateful, notwithstanding the challenges we faced along the way, that our parents, our grandparents, took the risk of seeding future generations when uncertainty prevailed; that they labored long and hard so that their descendants could earn advanced degrees in fields whose names they could not even pronounce, that they had faith that their children, their grandchildren, those who would follow them in their family lines, would accept their mission to prevail in this world, as citizens and as Jews, willingly and enthusiastically.

Philip Scheim
Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am, Toronto

‘The Obligation to Hear’

The first-day-readings of Rosh Hashanah have both Hagar and Chana crying. Only God hears. I plan to compare this to the tekiyat shofar. The obligation to hear. Even when there is no sound through the breaks of the shevarim and teruah sounds.

Dina Najman
The Kehilah of Riverdale Riverdale, N.Y.

‘If We Don’t Understand That it Also Meant “Never Again for Anyone,” Have We Learned Anything At All?’

Rabbi Yael Ridberg

Rabbi Yael Ridberg Image by Handout

The Torah instructs us, more than any other mitzvah, to remember: Shabbat, Amalek, our time in Egypt, that we were strangers, to follow the commandments, etc. History and memory, knowledge and meaning, are meant to impel us towards a life of purpose.

In the last year, as we have borne witness to anti-Semitism and violence and the ongoing migrant/refugee crisis at the border, the Jewish community has found itself on the horns of a dilemma: can the memories of our past fuel our care for others in crisis, or are they so sacrosanct that to use them as reminders desecrates them?

“Never again” after the Holocaust certainly meant that Jews should never be rounded up and slaughtered, but if we don’t understand that it also meant “never again for anyone,” have we learned anything at all?

Yael Ridberg
Cong. Dor Hadash, San Diego

‘It Is Back. Or It Never Really Left.’

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld Image by Handout

We thought it was dead, gone. Like measles. But it is back. Or it never really left.

So this American Jewish generation, like worldwide generations across the ages, must confront a world in which it is not always safe to be a Jew, publicly or even privately.

Adam Kligfeld
Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles

‘Help Us To Not Be Afraid’ Or ‘May We Have The Capability to Be Grateful’

Rabbi Maya Glasser

Rabbi Maya Glasser Image by Handout

Our God, and God of our very fearful ancestors, in the coming year 5780, help us to not be afraid. Help us to not be afraid not because we have no fear at all, but because we don’t let our fear hold us back as we cross the very narrow bridge of life.

May we balance like a tightrope walker, conscious of all that we cannot control, but brave enough to move forward slowly and carefully. May we have the capacity and the strength to choose abundance, finding blessing all around us in the big and little parts of this chaotic and beautiful world, and may we have the capability to be grateful for it all.

Maya Glasser
Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, New Brunswick, N.J.

‘If You Don’t Breathe In, You’ll Never Make A Sound’

Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer

Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer Image by Handout

We spend so much time and effort on diets. Food and what we drink is a huge focus of our lives. I wonder if we think about breath enough.

One could say that breath is the hechsher lemitzvah, the preparatory act for fulfilling the mitzvah of Shofar. If you don’t breathe in, you’ll never make a sound. And the flip side is true. The Mitzvah of Shofar gives our breath a purpose.

The average human breathes 22,000 times a day. On Rosh Hashanah, 100 of those times will be with intentionality and purpose. One hundred of those times will be to blast the shofar.

Perhaps the point of the shofar is to help us realize just how powerful our breath is. When used intentionally, it can make the most startling noise. Having awareness of our own breathing brings into focus, and attention the now. This moment. This breath.

Yechiel Shaffer
Pikesville Jewish Congregation, Pikesville, Maryland

‘It Feels More Urgent This Year’

Rabbi Paula Marcus

Rabbi Paula Marcus Image by Handout

I’m sharing stories about the people we met on the trip to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. I’m mentioning past civil rights work and encouraging our community to educate ourselves, listen to people of color, and join a community read of White Fragility.

Paula Marcus
Temple Beth El Aptos, Aptos, Calif.

‘He Was a Little Different From the Other Boys Around Him’

Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp

Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp Image by Handout

In our tradition, there is a story of a young man who had an Incredible imagination and insight in the world. He was a little different from the other boys around him.

Where his brothers were praised for their shepherding skills, this boy was praised for his remarkable beauty. Where other boys were interested in the physical world, this boy was interested in the cerebral world and interpreting dreams. Where the other men wore drab linen cloaks, this boy liked to wear a robe with colors and long sleeves, more like the princesses of his time, than the princes.

And because he was different, he was rejected. In one lifetime, he was given up for dead three times. Thrown away into a pit, sold into slavery, locked in prison. The people who encountered him were disturbed by his differences. And so they cast him out, hoping he’d never see the light of day.

And this was his life for almost 20 years. Until one day, the very thing that made him so hated — what made him different and therefore worthy of hate — those very differences were noticed, not as a burden, or something to be disgusted by, but rather, for what they truly were: holy gifts, given at birth and mixed with the spirit of the Divine.

And once Joseph was loved for who he was, he rose up out of prison, into Pharoah’s palace, becoming one of the most powerful political leaders in all of Jewish history.

Miriam Terlinchamp
Temple Sholom, Cincinnati

‘They Were Understandably Terrified’

Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin

Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin Image by Handout

This week, I traveled to El Paso and Juarez… We did not go to any ICE detention centers but we did travel to a shelter in Juarez run by the Mexican government, which holds 500 people, all families.

When we arrived, we were surrounded by beautiful, smiling children and their parents. The parents were staging a modest protest because they had just been informed they could only stay in the shelter for two weeks and then they would be released to the streets, basically to fend for themselves. They were understandably terrified. Several of the parents spoke English and they shared stories of the terror they left behind in their home countries. I have to admit that I started to cry.

Looking at the faces of these desperate families, I kept asking myself, “this is who our government is so scared of?”

Debra Newman Kamin
Am Yisrael, Northfield, Illinois

‘Folks on Both Sides of Every Political Conversation are Listening’

Rabbi Michael Ross

Rabbi Michael Ross Image by Handout

Writing sermons this year is “much, much harder. Saying anything close to political, such as commenting about anti-Semitism, takes a lot of crafting and awareness that folks on both sides of every political conversation are listening.”

Michael S. Ross
Temple Beth Shalom, Hudson, Ohio

‘Life Without Remembering is a Frightening Place’

Rabbi Naftali Citron

Rabbi Naftali Citron Image by Handout

If a picture is worth a thousand words and a moment in nature is worth a thousand pictures, how come the mishna says that if someone interrupts their studies to say, ‘How nice is this tree?’ it’s as if they forfeited their life?

The Torah is a memory center, life without remembering is a frightening place. Even though a moment in nature equals 1 million words, it’s still nothing compared to forgetting who you are. We remember our spiritual journey, our history in the last 100 years, the shtetl, the Holocaust, the founding of Israel, the rebuilding of Torah. We can only truly be in the moment when we stop forgetting so that we can truly live in the present.

Naftali Citron
The Carlebach Shul, New York

‘For the First Time, I Don’t See the Way’

Rabbi Rachel Timoner

Rabbi Rachel Timoner Image by Handout

Three years ago, I came here just before the election with a warning of what was coming. I knew. Two years ago, I spoke about love and fear, and I gave you little metal hearts to put in your pockets to remind you of how strong your heart is and that love is real, even when it seems like all there is around you is fear.

Last year, I came to speak about faith and hope, and not giving up on each other or on our country. But in this last year, for the first time I don’t see the way. I really don’t know what’s coming or what we can do about it….

I spent months this year trying to bring together a national multifaith coalition and devise a strategy for closing the camps. I was working with some of the smartest people I know. But we could not come up with a strategy that would work…I have been up at night about that, and about the anti-Semitism that is growing in all directions.

I have spoken out about it whenever it appears on the left, and I will continue to do so. But if I am honest, I am most afraid of what’s coming from the right. The authoritarianism that is growing globally, Israel’s alignment with those forces, and the white nationalism that is infecting this society.

Rachel Timoner
Cong. Beth Elohim, Brooklyn, N.Y.

‘We Can Change Who We Are by Changing What Goes into Our Head’

We are who we are because of what has gone into our heads. We can change who we are by changing what goes into our head…and before we seek compassion from God we need to show compassion for his creations.

Sid Slivko
Bay Terrace Garden Jewish Center, Queens, N.Y.

‘You Never Get Knocked Out By a Punch You See Coming’

Rabbi Avis Miller

Rabbi Avis Miller Image by Handout

Before the prayer for the U.S., I will invite anyone born outside the U.S. to stand, then those with parents born outside the U.S., and so on. When everyone is standing, we recite the prayer for our country.

At another service, to describe a positive aspect of life in Israel, I will insert the moving story of an Arab medic speaking at the wedding of a Jewish Israeli bride whose life he saved.

I’m emerita from Adas Israel in D.C. and now lead services at 6th & I, probably the closest synagogue building to the White House/Capitol. Because those who attend are knowledgeable, politically sophisticated and involved, I try in my sermons not to focus too much attention on what everyone knows is going on literally down the street from us.

My sermon this year, “Belonging to a Bigger Story,” talks about the shift in the ways we American Jews have defined our identity, from the Shoah and Israel to today’s renewed threats of antisemitism:

Of course we need to be vigilant. In the words of Muhammad Ali, ‘You never get knocked out by a punch you see coming.’ But we must not let anti-Semitism define our story as Jews.

Avis Miller
Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Washington

‘No Shortage of Topics’

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner Image by Handout

I am using the theme of Fiddler on the Roof to talk about finding balance. In some ways, writing sermons this year has been easier: No shortage of topics.

David-Seth Kirshner
Temple Emanu-El, Closter, N.J.

‘Faith is About Affirming the Truth That the World is Essentially Good’

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz Image by Handout

Our lives are made up of an infinite number of pieces. And just when we think we are in the groove and have it figured out, something happens and we are forced to reconsider the whole picture.

As one rabbi put it, “Why trade a perfectly good question for a simple answer?” But sometimes in pursuit of an answer, we become so focused on the answer, so convinced that there must be proof, that we forget the essence of meaning found in the quest itself.

Meaning, even at its most basic level, involves figuring out how you fit into the world around you. It is in developing faith in your environment, in those around you, and in the power that sustains our world. Faith is about affirming the truth that the world is essentially good, in spite of any evidence to the contrary.

The meaning of life is found not in a particular belief, but in the process of faith we develop along our way.

Cheryl Peretz
Or Tzion, Scottsdale, Ariz.

‘We Need to Make an Effort to Put Ourselves in the Other’s Shoes’

Rabbi Suzanne Singer

Rabbi Suzanne Singer Image by Handout

Our opinions are formed based on our values and expectations. We usually make fairly snap judgements about others based on very little information because it is efficient for our brain to work this way. Take the following experiment:

When researchers showed people photographs of faces and provided a few details about their owners, the respondents determined within 60 seconds if they liked or disliked the individuals behind the faces. They decided if they were innocent or guilty of a crime…given the few details with which they had been provided.

We need to make an effort to put ourselves in the other’s shoes, to open our minds and to really listen to the other’s story. But we also need to get to know people who are different from and, often, less fortunate than we are.

— Suzanne Singer
Temple Beth El, Riverside, Calif.

‘The Best Response to anti-Semitism is to Strengthen Our Jewish Identities’

Rabbi Merrill S. Shapiro

Rabbi Merrill S. Shapiro Image by Handout

To understand what anti-Semitism is, we must understand what it means to be Jewish. We must also understand that anti-Semitism can be classified as “Purim” type of anti-Semitism calling for the annihilation of all Jews and “Channukah” type of anti-Semitism calling for the assimilation of Jews into a larger — for us, mostly Christian — society.

Recognizing that anti-Semitism is not the greatest danger to diaspora Jewry — rather, assimilation is a greater danger — we can further look at history and discover that the best response to anti-Semitism is to strengthen our Jewish identities and become ever more connected with the beliefs, traditions, customs, ceremonies and traditions of our people.

Merrill S. Shapiro
Cong. Shomrei Torah, Tallahassee, Fla.

‘In Rabbinic Hebrew, Kosher Means Morally Fit’

Rabbi Alexander Davis

Rabbi Alexander Davis Image by Handout

In modern Hebrew, kosher means fit, even physically fit. But in rabbinic Hebrew, kosher means morally fit, worthy, legitimate. An animal can be kosher, fit for consumption. A Torah scroll can be kosher, acceptable from which to read. And a person can be kosher if they are worthy, honest, of noble character.

And that is what we are talking about today. In Hebrew, we call such a person an adam kasher. There are many similar words, tzadik, a righteous person, a mensch, a kind, caring person. I can’t say that adam kasher is the most well- known term. But it’s my pick for the most needed word of the year 5780.

Alexander Davis
Beth El Synagogue, St. Louis Park, Minn.

‘Who is Waiting for You to Show Up Differently?’

Rabbi Noah Arnow

Rabbi Noah Arnow Image by Handout

Waiting can mean continuing to do the same thing to see if it will have the desired effect. For the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, and often for us, the clock we watch while waiting is internal — it’s a question of how much we can endure, how long we’re willing to wait.

But sometimes, like Abraham and Sarah, waiting as they age for God to fulfill a promise of children, we really are running out of time as we wait.

Waiting doesn’t have to be an action; it can also be a feeling, an awareness of the difficulty of the passage of time — whether time is passing too slowly or too quickly.

And maybe there are also people waiting for us — waiting for us to be the people they need us to be, the best versions of ourselves. Who is waiting for you to show up differently, to see, to understand, to speak up?

What is our world waiting for you to do in it?

And who is God waiting for you to be, to become, this New Year?

Noah Arnow
Kol Rinah, St. Louis

‘People Hate That Which is Elusive’

Rabbi Marc Katz

Rabbi Marc Katz Image by Handout

In the face of anti-Semitism we might do one of two things. Out of fear, we might sacrifice our Jewishness to fit in — or we might embrace our Jewishness but pull away from things that we are passionate about because we face anti-Semitism there. The key is to not let anti-Semitism define you.

People hate that which is elusive, that which they do not understand. The more open we are with our Judaism, the more we defiantly laugh in the face of those who seek to undermine us.

Showing up at Temple Ner Tamid after Pittsburgh is an act of defiance. Walking into social justice spaces as a proud Jew even if we might be asked unfairly to answer for every action of the Israeli government is an act of defiance. People should know that their neighbor, their customer, their patron is Jewish. For if they do, it will bring into focus the personal costs of ignoring anti-Semitism.

Marc Katz Temple Ner Tamid, Bloomfield, N.J.

American Racism is Part of Our Collective Identity

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf Image by Handout

One thing is clear: the story of Jews in America is that Ashkenazi Jews became accepted as mainstream white Americans. And this means that we Jewish people have assimilated and now include the story of American racism as a part of our own collective identity.

In order to make a better life for ourselves here, we readily bought into the American racist paradigm that says that privilege can come — and doors can open — for white people who work hard, who pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

If white-skinned Jews accept the benefits of privilege, then we must also take on responsibility for the two great original sins of America — namely, the genocide of Native Americans, and the enslavement of Black people, and the subsequent culture of racism that lurks behind all the blessings of American life. You can’t have one without the other.

— [Gil Steinlauf](
Kol Shalom, Rockville, Maryland

‘We Should Be Thoughtful And Strategic in Our Responses’

Rabbi Carl Perkins

Rabbi Carl Perkins Image by Handout

I have never previously spoken about anti-Semitism from the bima on Rosh Hashanah. I haven’t wanted to. As Deborah Lipstadt has written in her recent book, Antisemitism: Here and Now,, anti-Semitism is not about Jews; it’s about anti-Semites.

But this year I feel that I must. After Pittsburgh and Poway, things are different. The investment — in time, money and energy — that synagogues have made in the wake of those assaults is stark evidence of that. It’s in the air. Everyone is thinking about it.

I hope to make several points that Deborah Lipstadt makes in her book: First, we must respond to anti-Semitism. We ignore it at our peril. Second, we mustn’t OVER-react to anti-Semitism. This is a less popular message among Jews, but just as important as the first.

We should be thoughtful and strategic in our responses. Finally, we mustn’t allow anti-Semitism to become the fulcrum of our Jewish lives. Rather, we should pursue purposeful, meaningful, joyful Jewish lives. Period.

Carl Perkins
Temple Aliyah, Needham, Mass.

‘He Wanted His Rabbi With Him’

Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana

Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana Image by Handout

I was invited by Senator Ron Wyden to accompany him on an inspection of border facilities in El Paso, Texas, and across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The senator brought three Oregonians – an immigration attorney, a pediatrician and a rabbi. I was, of course, the least qualified person to accompany him, but he told me and others that based on his experience at previous border trips, he wanted his rabbi with him.

There was much on this trip which broke my heart: the dangling of hope held out with one hand and snatched away with the other, the unwillingness to consider the humanity of those fleeing their homes and seeking safety here, the mind-numbing bureaucracy designed to discourage any application for asylum. But one of the elements which struck me the most was the language used.

I walked away with the phrase I heard over and over again – at the ICE facilities, at the border crossing: “We’re full,” they repeated. “We’re full – as if the entire country were a lifeboat which had exceeded its capacity. Before hearing your story or considering your circumstances, the hand goes up: “we’re full.”

Michael Z. Cahana
Cong. Beth Israel, Portland, Oregon

Trump Is ‘Decidedly anti-Jewish’

Rabbi Judith Halevy

Rabbi Judith Halevy Image by Handout

Donald Trump may or may not be an anti-Semite, but he is decidedly anti-Jewish.

Let me be clear. This is not a political discussion of the policies of the Trump administration. Rather, I am saying that certain behaviors of the President stand in direct opposition to the Jewish values that we are here to “remember” today.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin states: “You may not call a person by a derogatory nickname, or any other embarrassing name, even if he is used to it…. Better to throw one’s self into a fiery furnace than cause embarrassment, for all those who go down to Gehinom(Hell)are able to rise again, except three types of people, and one of those is one who embarrasses his friend in public.”

I dread this upcoming political season, when I know that every opposing candidate will be skewered by a cruel nickname. In Hebrew we say this behavior is “katan alecha” just too small to be worthy of a Jew. As Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us, “If we are not more than human, than we are less than human.”

Judith Halevy
Taos Jewish Center, New Mexico

‘I Will Never Forget Where I Was the Morning of Oct. 27, 2018’

Rabbi Ben Herman

Rabbi Ben Herman Image by Handout

I will never forget where I was the morning of Oct. 27, 2018. I was in California, interviewing for a position. Before Shabbat services I was asked if I heard about Pittsburgh. ‘No,’ was my reply. I was brought into a separate room and told the story of the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue.

On one foot, I did the best I could to respond to this unprecedented attack inside a Jewish house of worship. I was in shock, hardly able to believe that such an event had occurred. Later I learned I knew the rabbi from a professional-development course. I also learned that my rabbinical school roommate had grown up at New Light Synagogue, one of the three synagogues in the Tree of Life complex. Since Tree of Life we have watched a shooting at Chabad of Poway, half an hour from where my wife grew up, as well as a shooting half an hour away at Young Israel of Bal Harbor. We have also seen anti Semitic cartoons printed in the international edition of The New York Times, a sign of a hooked-nose Jew at a university and a United States representative make the comment: “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”

These incidents reveal an inconvenient truth: anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head stronger and stronger within the public sphere.

Ben Herman
Bet Shira Congregation, Miami

‘Focusing on Human Needs Behind the Political’

Rabbi Melanie Aron

Rabbi Melanie Aron Image by Handout

I’m using work I have done with cognitive behavioral therapy to try and address the anxiety in the Jewish community, lest it lead us to make bad choices.

— Melanie Aron
Cong. Shir Hadash, Los Gatos, Calif.

‘Anti-Zionism Does Equal Anti-Semitism’

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt Image by Handout

Anti Zionism does equal anti-Semitism. The answer to anti-Semitism is to be stronger Jews.

Stuart Weinblatt
Cong. B’nai Tzedek, Potomac, Maryland

‘How Do Women Respond to Anger and Injustice?’

Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz

Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz Image by Handout

The middah, or Jewish virtue, of anger — ka’as — is one with which we all struggle. How do we respond when we’re angry? What do we do when we feel powerless?

This Rosh Hashanah morning, we will take a closer look at women, anger and power. The overarching theme of anger applies to all of us, and we will explore it through the particular lens of women’s experiences.

The Exodus is the seminal story of the Jewish people. The two dominant personalities referenced are Moses and God. But, before our ancestors could reach the Sea of Reeds, five women turned their frustration, anger, lack of agency into powerful actions yielding productive outcomes.

Faith Joy Dantowitz
Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston, N.J.

‘Echoes of Something We’ve Heard Before’

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat Image by Handout

The United States has drastically reduced the number of refugees we accept each year. In 1980 we took in 200,000 refugees. The average in the last decade had been 70,000 a year. Last year, the number of refugees allowed into the United States was only 30,000. And now there’s talk of cutting further, to 10-15,000 — or all the way to zero.

It’s easy to think that this doesn’t impact us directly. After all, we’re not refugees. But the national climate impacts everyone — whether it’s a climate of welcome, or one of closed doors. And to say “hey, our people made it out of a burning building, it’s not our problem if someone else’s home is on fire” is inhuman. That is the opposite of Jewish values.

Besides: the same language being used to target refugees and asylum seekers is also used to target us. This is the hateful language of white supremacy. White supremacists see immigrants and refugees and people of color as “invaders” taking jobs and homes and resources that are rightfully theirs… and they see Jews the same way, regardless of the color of our skin.

And all of this brings echoes of something we’ve heard before. Maybe you’re thinking of Nazi rhetoric and propaganda that spoke of Jews as invaders and vermin infesting the Fatherland. But this is far older than the 20th century. In Torah we find this language in Pharaoh’s mouth…

Rachel Barenblat
Cong. Beth Israel, North Adams, Mass.

‘It Is Time For Us to Move Beyond Simply Surviving’

Robyn Fryer Bodzin

Robyn Fryer Bodzin Image by Handout

Rosh Hashanah is a time for cheshbon hanefesh, for change, a time for growth and a time for recalibrating and recalculating. This Rosh Hashanah, it is time for us to move beyond simply surviving in this world to thriving in it.

Robyn Fryer Bodzin
Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto

‘We are Called to Partner With God’

Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz

Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz Image by Handout

We do not know what tidings tomorrow’s news will bring, or even what is pinging on your smartphones at this very moment. But if there are any words of comfort I can offer, it is this: though the world is constantly in flux, what we are called to do, and who we are called to be, has not changed.

Like the generations that came before us, we are called to recognize the majestic unity of God and the divinity inherent in human beings. We are called to partner with God, and to be responsible for each other. We are called to build a better world for future generations, and also to celebrate the moment we are living in right now.

The chaos of our world does not excuse us from living by the teachings of our tradition. Rather, our traditions call us to confront the world’s chaos, to search for light in the dark corners, and to lift up the sparks of holiness we find there.

Leah Rachel Berkowitz
Cong. Kol Ami, Elkins Park, Penn.

‘We Are Not in the Shtetl Fearing a Pogrom’

Rabbi Elliot M. Tepperman

Rabbi Elliot M. Tepperman Image by Handout

Regarding anti-Semitism, the take-away will be something like: What can we do? – Talk more about our own experiences of anti-Semitism, acknowledge it as a reality – don’t erase it.
– Don’t allow for or participate in Jewish erasure.
– Learn to identify anti-Semitic bias and respectfully point it out to allies or near allies when you see it.
– Notice if you are triggered — remember that this is not Europe in the 30’s, we are not in the shtetl fearing a pogrom.
– Remember that after Pittsburgh, Americans, neighbors, the media responded with love, affirmation and achdut.
– Reach out to other victims of hate. We are not free until all are free.

Elliot M. Tepperman
B’nai Keshet, Montclair, N.J.

‘We Have Started Viewing Everything From Our Own Political Neck of the Woods’

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg Image by Handout

We have started viewing everything from our own political neck of the woods. What an unfortunate way to be making decisions. And for us Jews, it can be downright dangerous.

Who is our greatest anti-Semitic threat here in America? Chances are the answer you give will tell us where you stand politically. Liberals will say the greatest threat is from the right. Conservatives will say its from the left.

The greatest danger for us as Americans and as Jews is when we allow politics to define who we are. In the words of George Will: “Politics is important. Politics is fun. Politics can be noble. But do not derive your sense of yourself, your identity and the meaning of life from politics. Politics doesn’t have that big of a jurisdiction.”

Mitchell Wohlberg
Beth Tfiloh Congregation, Baltimore

‘We Put the Oxygen Mask on Our Face Before Putting it on Others’

Rabbi Rachel Ain

Rabbi Rachel Ain Image by Handout

We know that we need to look out for our own. We all know the saying: We put the oxygen mask on our face before putting it on others…And so we must look out for ourselves — as Jews and as Zionists. We must protect ourselves. Which we are doing.

We must be proud of who we are. We must educate about our history. We must be honest with ourselves that maybe even in this great bastion of freedom, we, as Jews, need to look out for ourselves when people question our rightful place here or in Israel.

But that doesn’t mean closing off from others. Actually, quite the opposite. It means engaging with others. Creating allies. Standing up together in the face of hate. Caring for ourselves means that if we want people to stand with us, as members of humanity, that we must stand with others when they are victims of hate.

Rachel Ain
Sutton Place Synagogue, New York

‘We Have a Chance to Live Today With No Regrets or Grudges’

Rabbi Aviva Fellman

Rabbi Aviva Fellman Image by Handout

Whether we live to celebrate another year or not, we are obligated to live our best life. The final line, “But repentance (Teshuvah), prayer (Tefillah) and righteousness (Tzedakah) have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny” should serve as a reminder of how to live life fully and with meaning.

With teshuvah as part of our daily practice, we are forced not to wait until the end of the year to repair relationships because, we may not make it. We have a chance to live today with no regrets or grudges.

Tefillah enables us to live in relationship with God, ourselves and community. We create moments that let us acknowledge how we pass through the world and constantly reassess and articulate our appreciation, gratitude and fragility.

Aviva Fellman
Cong. Beth Israel, Worcester, Mass.

‘What If What We Did Here Really Mattered?’

Let’s return to something we know that works quite well for times of uncertainty and times of promise. Religious communities don’t merely exist as destinations for life-cycle celebrations. They are the centrifugal forces of connections and meaning.

Let us ask now: What if what we did here really mattered? What if what we say and do really does have a significant impact beyond our little shtetl on the corner of Densmore and Ventura? We are well-proven to be the bellwethers of social change and growth. We are Or l’Goyim – lights to the world. The moment our anxieties are met with wisdom not with fear, but with loving change, the world will surely follow.

Joshua Hoffman
Valley Beth Shalom, Encino, Calif

‘How Will You Take a Stand?’

Rabbi Eve Posen

Rabbi Eve Posen Image by Handout

Ayeka: Being completely present is hard. With all the distractions in the way today, it is perhaps the hardest thing for any of us to do, to put other things aside and be present. We even have apps that remind us to be mindful.

How strange is that – one of the causes of our daily distractions is also attempting to offer a solution. But as the gates begin to close, the challenge is one of both Ayeka and Hineni. Mindfulness means asking each other “where are you?” and being able to answer “here I am.”

Today, on our day of eternal judgment, the yom haDin, I encourage you to affirm your answer. Are you here? In a world where we see injustice nearly every day, how will you take a stand?

Will you work to combat homelessness in our own city? Or, will you allow your conscience to be moved at the dire situation at our borders, not just fighting for reasonable process for asylum but also to change our policies abroad so that other, corrupt governments will change and create countries people want to remain in instead of run from?

Eve Posen
Cong. Neve Shalom, Portland, Oregon

‘There Really Isn’t an App for That’

Growing your own food isn’t convenient. Learning about the good mushrooms from the bad and then looking at 500 mushrooms until you find an edible one, it takes a long time. And it isn’t just true of what satisfies us physically, it’s also about what fulfills us spiritually.

Learning Hebrew takes time — to read it and even longer to understand it. Knowing the songs of our liturgy takes not so many hours, but it takes time, consistency, focus, and the energy to deal with all of the beautiful and complicated parts of being in community week after week.

Even to learn how to make a kugel! Yeah, you can go online or watch a video on social media. But to take the Sunday afternoons of your youth and learn the recipes passed from generation to generation, and then feed them to your kids? That takes time, connection, and consistent commitment to show up, love, and be loved.

The food that keeps you healthy and the Jewish communities that keep you spiritually alive and connected? You can’t get it at a drive-thru. There really isn’t an app for that. It comes from a personal and a communal commitment to doing things the right way — the long way….

Let us resist the urge for a Burger King life. There are greater goods in this world than having it your way, right away. There is wisdom that cannot be contained in a Tweet.

Rachel Isaacs

Beth Israel Congregation, Waterville, Maine

‘We Will Not Let Our Haters Define Us’

I am not asking you to be Jewish out of spite or out of chauvinistic pride. I am asking you to be Jewish, I am asking you to have faith, because Judaism grew and evolved to support our ancestors through some very difficult times, including anti-Semitism much more threatening than anything we see today.

I am asking you to be Jewish because Jewish practice sanctifies time and space, and time-tested Jewish wisdom guides us through the thickets of life. I am asking you to be Jewish because our story reminds us of what is possible when we live with faith in the face of fear.

If we do that, we will not let our haters define us. We will not allow ourselves to shape our whole existence as Jews around fighting off the people who want us dead or gone. We and we alone will define ourselves, for ourselves.

We will tell a story in which we are the subjects and not the objects. That, by the way, is why I did not devote this whole sermon to the politics of anti-Semitism. Since last Rosh Hashanah, our haters took away the lives of twelve holy Jews as they gathered in prayer. They took away our sense of security and much else besides. And I will be damned if I let them take away Rosh Hashanah too.

Benjamin Goldberg
Cong. Kneses Tifereth, Port Chester, N.Y.

‘What Will Be the Aspirations of our Future as a Community?

Rabbi Debi Wechsler

Rabbi Debi Wechsler Image by Handout

Just as we have aspirations for our synagogue, we also have aspirations for ourselves as individuals. The Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe are the setting for that. It presents a context for us think about our lives and to set goals for ourselves.

The Yamim Noraim are aspirational course corrections for human beings.

Every human being goes through it, every congregation goes through it, and even countries go through it. What is it that we do every four years if not engage in aspirational course corrections to our nation? Those passionate public debates about healthcare and judicial reform, about gun control and climate change – they are the way our nation returns to our founding aspirational documents.

Debi Wechsler
Chizuk Amuno Congregation, Baltimore

‘How is it Even Possible to Live Today as an Optimist?’

Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein

Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein Image by Handout

There is so much to be pessimistic about. About our climate, our health. About the state of the world, and the divisiveness in our discourse. How is it even possible to live today as an optimist? So how do we summon that hope? That optimism that we will survive? That we will grow and that we will be O.K.?

Positive Psychology founder Martin Seligman teaches:“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world … tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback. … Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.” …

It seems that within the optimist, hope is a type of fuel. In the face of disappointments, they recover more quickly and hope encourages movement forward. Hope encourages resourcefulness. Hope is that in a person that tells them to keep searching.

Martin Buber, the great modern Jewish theologian taught that nothing can doom man but the belief in doom, for this prevents the movement of return.” He is using the word, return, as in teshuva. We translate it as repentance, but what it means is the return the the version of ourselves that is most authentic. Some would call it living our best lives.

FDR famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Jews say it a little differently. We say, Kol haolam kulo Gesher Tsar Meod. The world is a very narrow place. V’haikar, lo lephached klal, But the essence is not to be afraid. And if we do fear, we can actively introduce hope.

Dahlia Bernstein
Cong. Beth Orr, Bellmore, N.Y.

Happy Birthday; Don’t Eat

Rabbi Paula Winnig

Rabbi Paula Winnig Image by Handout

My 60th birthday is on Yom Kippur. I am writing about the legacies, planned and unplanned, we leave behind.

Paula Winnig
Cong. Achduth Vesholom, Fort Wayne, Indian

‘Rosh Hashanah is About Looking Back’

Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg

Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg Image by Handout

But in the Mahzor this day is not called Rosh Hashanah. Do you know what it’s called? Yom Hazikaron. The Day of Remembrance. Rosh Hashanah is about looking back as much as it is about looking forward. It’s about confronting our past, the past year and beyond: the years that led to this past year.

In that sense, it’s about our families’ past, our people’s and our nation’s past. It’s having the presence of mind to take a sober look at the Pyrrhic victory that was institutional Conservative Judaism in the early years of this historic building which was constructed by one of its flagship congregations.

And it’s having the courage, even in joyous times like Beth Am’s moment of renewal, to avoid complacency, to point us back toward life’s biggest questions, even when simple answers are not readily available to us.

Daniel Cotzin Burg
Beth Am, Baltimore

‘We Need to Elevate the Souls of Our Communities’

Rabbi Larry Sernovitz

Rabbi Larry Sernovitz Image by Handout

The world is filled with brokenness. This may have always been the case. People are looking for comfort and safety. Kids are in the corners of their classrooms in active shooter drills, preparing to throw scissors and textbooks at the offender. Climate Change in plaguing our world. White Supremacists are ever present while anti-Semitism is rabid and children are locked in cages.

The challenge for any rabbi is to restore hope in the hearts and minds of the Jew in the Pew. We need to elevate the souls of our community, along with the souls of the multi-faith communities we call our brothers and sisters.

Larry Sernovitz
Nafshenu, Cherry Hill, N.J.

‘Let Us Respond Like Jews’

Rabbi Avi Goldstein

Rabbi Avi Goldstein Image by Handout

We are blessed to live in the most affluent and successful Jewish community in history and yet are facing an unprecedented challenge.

Let us respond like Jews. Let us show up in Shul. Let us become more Jewish and simultaneously proactively enhance our safety and security measures.

And most of all, let us response to the radical hatred for Jews with radical love for our fellow Jews.

Avi Goldstein
Beth Jacob Congregation, Columbus, Ohio

‘When We Feel Attacked, How Do We Respond?’

Rabbi Claudia Kreiman

Rabbi Claudia Kreiman Image by Handout

I am framing the whole holidays around the words “Olam Chesed Yibane” — a world of loving-kindness we shall build.

Erev Rosh Hashanah, I will frame the notion of a world which is created from love and will speak about the meaning of God’s love toward us.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah I will focus on the idea of moving from random acts of kindness to a practice of Chesed, as individuals and as a community and also as a response to the realities of hatred and desperation that surround us.

On second day I am focusing on mental illness and how to build a world from love and no stigma welcoming and supporting those suffering with mental Illness.

On Kol Nidre I want to speak about anti-Semitism and our response to a world of hatred, when we feel attacked how do we respond.

On Yom Kippur day I will connect it to the Haftarah of Isaiah, around social justice as an act of love and compassion.

On Yizkor, I will connect Chesed and love to the merits of our ancestors and those who came before us.

Claudia Kreiman
Temple Beth Zion, Brookline, Mass.

‘Political Issues Are Actually Deeply Religious’

What are we as Jews contributing that makes our existence so necessary that we’re willing to pay such a heavy sacrifice?

Jonathan Leener
Prospect Heights Shul, Brooklyn, N.Y.

‘We Lose Our Sense of Direction’

Rabbi Adam Lavitt

Rabbi Adam Lavitt Image by Handout

Looking back, I was probably just a few hundred feet from the place I knew so well. I just couldn’t see it through the trees and underbrush!

Every year, this happens to all of us in one way or another: we lose sight of where we’re going — even though some part of us knows it is not far. We lose our sense of direction. Sometimes, we even forget the godly qualities that are our spiritual and moral compass as beings created betzelem Elohim (in the Divine image).

Fortunately, our tradition gives us a powerful tool to find our personal north star again. Teshuva, classically translated as “repentance” literally means “returning.” It’s about making our way back. Through this lens, getting lost in the woods can offer us all a few lessons about what we need in order to make amends, and reconnect with our higher selves — the godly qualities in us that may have gotten obscured over the course of the year.

Adam Lavitt
Orchard Cove/Hebrew Senior Life, Canton, Mass.

‘I Am Hoping to Hear the Cry of New Birth and the Cry of Moral Resistance’

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer Image by Handout

This year, I am thinking of a new connection for me: the story of Shifra and Puah. These two women are midwives. They are in the birthing room. And in the moment when Pharaoh decrees they should murder the baby Israelite boys, they refuse.

They are the moral resistance who stand up to a tyrant. Shifra and Puah are also the first names in the book of Shemot (names) mentioned after the Israelites are enslaved. And look at their names: It turns out that one of these women is named “shofar” – ram’s horn, and the other is named “cry” – the sound that comes out of the shofar. …

Shifra and Puah are the women who turn things around for the Jewish people. Generations of slavery, of decrees, and no progress. But in come these women, who embody the birthing cries, and life starts to emerge. I am hoping to hear the cry of new birth and the cry of moral resistance, the cry of Shifra and Puah, in the shofar blast this year.

Elie Kaunfer
Hadar Institute, New York

‘We Must Not Only Make Our Walls Higher’

This year has been an increasing year of anti-Semitism with Jews murdered while praying in synagogues. In response we must not only make our walls higher, we should also raise our voices and publicly express our great pride in Judaism.

The shofar is the ultimate symbol of being loud about our Judaism. We should draw inspiration from the shofar and proudly declare that they will “not replace us.”

Shmuel Herzfeld
Ohev Sholom, Washington

‘I Am Mindful of My Responsibility as a Preacher’

Rabbi Aaron Bisno

Rabbi Aaron Bisno Image by Handout

This year, especially, I am mindful of my responsibility as a preacher. My task is to argue our People’s case before the Heavenly Court, even as I come before the congregation to plead God’s case before an all-too-human tribunal. …

I appreciate fully the risks inherent in speaking forthrightly at a time of such “dis-ease” and distrust, such partisanship and paralysis, within our body politic.

However, I take no small amount of courage from the writings of Rabbi Israel Salanter, a 19th C. master of Musar (Applied Ethics) who taught: “A rabbi whose congregation never disagrees with a sermon is not really a rabbi. A rabbi who fears provoking the congregation is not worthy of the title.”

Aaron Bisno
Rodef Shalom Congregation, Pittsburgh

‘The Power of Words’

Rabbi Jordie Gerson

Rabbi Jordie Gerson Image by Handout

The power of words (good and bad, in the public sphere and the private sphere).

How to deal with anti-Semitism — what are the healthy and unhealthy responses?

Forgiveness (forgiving others, and ourselves), and judgement and the idea of mindbugs (that we’re programmed to judge in certain ways that we often don’t consider.

Yom Kippur can also be an opportunity to think not only about what we should be judged on but the judging itself).

Jordie Gerson
Greenwich Reform Synagogue, Connecticut

‘I Use Bullet Points’

Rabbi Neal Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Loevinger Image by Handout

I don’t write out my sermons, I use bullet points. But on Rosh Hashanah, I’m going to address the corrosive effect of cynicism in our society, the inability to see or even conceive of the good in others. Humility is recognizing that only God is Dayan Ha’emet and that we must admit that since we don’t fully understand others, we should judge l’chaf z’chut, which is the opposite of cynicism.

On Yom Kippur we’ll look at the liturgies of confession as a tool for the development of conscience, which is the meeting place of our spirituality, rationality and capacity for goodness.

Neal Loevinger
Cong. Temple Beth-El, Kauneonga Lake, N.Y.

‘Our Bodies and Souls Started Out Whole’

Rabbi Ariana Katz

Rabbi Ariana Katz Image by Handout

Believing that my body is a work in progress means that I buy into fat-shaming, diet-culture, and self-hatred. It means that I am not invited to make a home inside my skin. Trying to get me to believe that every body is a body that should be colonized, a flag planted in it and civilized, shrunk, normalized, whitened.

It means that I am always waiting for a far-off redemption, to a place that will be so different than the place I am in now, that will solve all my problems, finally. Believing my body is a work in progress means I cannot cultivate a sense of “hereness,” put down roots, pay attention to the realities of my being now…

It is my profound hope that we can, this season, distance the important work of teshuvah from the idea of the constant striving towards improvement, needing to earn approval. I pray we can distance any given behavior from inherent worth. Our ability to mend relationships starts with the idea that our bodies and souls started out whole.

Ariana Katz
Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl

Two Kinds of Freedom

Rabbi Joshua Stanton

Rabbi Joshua Stanton Image by Courtesy of Hannah Stampleman Photography

The most destructive force in America today is not the absence of freedom, but an obsession with the wrong kind.

The freedom for me to do what I want – whatever I want – even if it comes at your expense. The freedom to claim an unlimited share of limited resources, when everyone is working hard. The freedom to amass political power, when everyone deserves a voice. The freedom to pollute our environment, when everyone needs clean air and water and a habitable planet.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks affirms that in Jewish tradition there are two distinct meanings of freedom – one of which we see in overabundance today, and one of which we are seeing less and less of. Chofesh means personal freedom – the choices that people can make individually when they are not enslaved. If you are free to wake up in the morning and determine what actions you take, you have chofesh. This is the notion that some have taken to an extreme.

Cherut, by contrast, means a free society, with the right rules in place to ensure fairness and stability – and limits to any individual’s power over another. This is the notion of freedom that we have seen subordinated at great cost to the health of our society.

Joshua Stanton
East End Temple, New York City

‘Every Single Human Act Has the Potential to be a Holy Offering’

Rabbi Joshua Breindel

Rabbi Joshua Breindel Image by Handout

Jewish stories and teachings give us hope in troubled days and guidance in uncertain times. Our tradition teaches us that gemilut chasidim – bestowing acts of loving-kindness – is one of the fundamental principles behind Jewish community and human relations.

Similarly, the teaching of ha’alat nitzotzot (lifting up holy sparks) reminds us that every single human act has the potential to be a holy offering. We are required to engage in tochecha (constructive rebuke) when we encounter transgressions of the social order. To remain silent, we learn, is to be complicit in the breach.

At the same time, there are clear guidelines as to who and how such rebukes are to be offered. In this time of climate crisis and of the #MeToo movement, it can sometimes be hard to find the strength to continue to engage. Yet performing a mitzvah is its own reward – we can draw upon the wellsprings of our tradition to empower us as we bring healing to our world.

Joshua Breindel
Cong. Beth El, Sudbury, Mass.

‘Every Day, We Are Asked to Make Our Souls Wait’

Rabbi Dov Lerner

Rabbi Dov Lerner Image by Handout

When we calibrate our spirituality, it must never come at the cost of another’s peace; when we chart our path to piety, it must never come at the cost of another’s needs. Our sacrifices are sacrilegious if we make them without thinking about their fallout.

In fact, every day, right before we pray, there’s a mental gesture that we’re asked to make by the commanding halakhist, the Magen Avraham: “Preceding the morning prayers, one is to accept upon oneself the directive to love one’s neighbor as oneself.”

Every day, we are asked to make our souls wait, as we cement the creed of social-care in our minds. Every morning, our liturgical calling is deferred, until we commit to ensure that no one is left behind. Avraham—in the face of an edict from on high—knows that he is not leave without first speaking to his wife.

So, over the coming days, as we embark on our journey to the summit of our self-awareness, let us not get knotted in our own heroics at the cost of those around us. Let us take the time to analyze the impact of our choices; let us make the time to identify those who need us to listen to their voices. In the footsteps of our founding father, let us heed the call of heaven, but pave the path to piety with patience, empathy, and compassion.

Dov Lerner
Young Israel of Jamaica Estates, Queens, N.Y.

‘Do We Have a Responsibility to Investigate?’

Rabbi Aaron Lerner

Rabbi Aaron Lerner Image by Handout

We often know our values but find it difficult to implement them, especially in consumer settings.

Let’s say we agree that we’re trying not to steal or that we’re against animal cruelty. How can we ascertain whether the shirt we’re buying involved wage theft along a very opaque supply chain? Or whether the steak in front of us comes from a mistreated animal?

Do we have a responsibility to investigate? If so, how deeply?

Aaron Lerner
Hillel, University of California-Los Angeles

‘If We Only Fight Fire With Fire, the Whole World Will Just Keep on Burning’

Rabbi Sarah Krinsky

Rabbi Sarah Krinsky Image by Handout

That is what prayer can do. That is why I’m here. That is what I hope, over these next 10 days, we can create together — a space of prayer that is not about what we do, but is about who we allow ourselves to be.

Because without such an outlet, our lives have the danger of turning into “ad laasot,” an endless series of worthy, holy action but without any space for emotion or release — the very things that make us human, that make the outcome of this action worth it.

Without such an outlet, the world has the chance to harden us so severely — to scare us so successfully — that our fighting turns us into versions of ourselves that we no longer recognize. Strong and “victorious,” maybe, but closed off, insensitive, aggressive, quick to judge.

This danger – the danger of allowing ourselves to become too overrun by fear, or by loneliness, or by anger — the danger is that if, in such a state, we are let loose into a world on fire, we are all too tempted to respond in kind. But if we only fight fire with fire, the whole world will just keep on burning.

Sarah Krinsky
Adas Israel, Washington

‘The Boundaries Between Stories Are Permeable’

Rabbi Jesse Paikin

Rabbi Jesse Paikin Image by Handout

A man named Paul Salopek started walking six years ago to retrace the steps of the first humans who migrated across the earth. He has at least six years left, and as he walks, he has noted that spanning nations, continents, and time zones on foot lessens those obstacles to true communication.

You arrive on foot, literally at eye level with the people that you’re meeting. Your boots are planted on the same earth. Day after day, month after month has altered the way he experiences life on the planet.

Closer to home, Anthony Bourdain, on each of his television shows, brought us closer to people – not to get the perfect shot; not to make money for his advertisers, but to communicate a message of the fundamental intertwined nature of humanity. He acknowledged his role to play in persuading people to feel empathy for the Other. To be kind, to be curious. To ask the questions that bring you closer. To find a way to look at things and say, “wow.”

Whether from a perspective of a billion feet, or two-feet – there is a fundamental truth about our lives waiting to be seen and understood, if only we would open our eyes: The boundaries between stories are permeable. One story bleeds into another, because human life bleeds into each other.

And Judaism has a word for this awareness: Chesed.

Jesse Paikin

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Washington


Correction, October 1, 12:06 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misspelled Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp’s name.

Editor’s note: submissions have been edited for length and consistency.

Jodi Rudoren is Editor-in-Chief of the Forward follow her on Twitter, @rudoren. John Kunza, audience editor, and Irene Katz Connelly, audience intern, contributed.


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