For rabbis, the High Holy Days present an opportunity akin to a president’s State of the Union address. But this year, that opportunity to reach a large number of congregants with messages of significance and inspiration is fraught with risk. When asked about their priorities, religious leaders across the community acknowledged the heightened political tensions that pervade the atmosphere and the challenge they face to provide guidance while avoiding partisanship and alienating some members.
One word, they know, could split a congregation or drive members away; that has been evident from incidents covered in this newspaper. On the other hand, a failure to address what is foremost in people’s minds could also leave congregants feeling that their religious leader is out of touch. In their answers to questions from NJJN, a broad spectrum of rabbis reflected on — as one respondent put it — just how narrow the path is that they are treading.
Conservative Rabbi Eliot Malomet of Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth said he plans to make his intention clear from the outset. “We come to shul on these days not seeking political analysis or punditry, but for the spiritual resources to sustain ourselves through life, which is often challenging and demanding,” Malomet said he will tell his congregants. “Turn off the news during these days. Focus on your own spiritual vitals.”
In the sermon text he provided NJJN, Malomet focuses on three sets of “gates” from the liturgy: gates of strength; of teshuvah — the mission to fix not the world but ourselves; and those of hope, “perhaps the hardest set of gates to go through, especially when considering that our lives are in the balance.”
He concludes with words applicable to anxiety about illness or social malaise: “Finding hope is in itself a serious challenge, but we also have to be open to the possibility that hope will find us. Hope is an essential life force. Standing at the Gates of Hope, we cannot help but be pulled through.”
Fellow Conservative rabbi Michael Pont of the Marlboro Jewish Center plans to focus on the deeply personal battles facing many people, and the need for resilience.
“I see many people, including some of my congregants, struggling mightily, which is leading to high rates of addiction and suicide,” he told NJJN. “My message is that God created us with the ability to face adversity, persevere, adapt, and find peace. This is true both when it comes to physical and emotional trauma.”
For many people, the worst stress of the past year has come from angry disagreements with close family members or old friends. In an effort to transcend such divisions, Rabbi Marc Kline, leader of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, said he plans to call for greater openness and mutual respect.
In an email to NJJN, he wrote: “This High Holy Day period witnesses the world standing at a crossroads. The polarization of society stands to uproot everything that people of faith hold sacred.
“We have made the matters of social justice for which the prophets screamed matters of partisan political debate,” Kline continued. “We revere the prophet who screams against corruption in our worship experience, only to dismiss and demean the voices of prophecy walking amongst us.”
At least for the holy days, he wrote, he will call on his audience to “reframe” their conversations. “Our experience is that the congregation’s soul grows when people experience a welcoming embrace and the atmosphere of celebration,” he said.
Kline said he will emphasize how solving problems is more important than assigning fault. He writes in his sermon, “If homelessness is our concern then we have to get past pointing fingers at whose policies caused it and get down to returning people to appropriate and dignified homes.” In regard to problems with the health-care system, he says, “we need to stop blaming administrations and figure out better ways to care for our ill and infirm.” On guns: “If gun violence makes us afraid, then we need to stop debating the politics of violence and create better ways in which to care for those who feel that violence is their only path to redemption.”
Summing it up, he writes: “We need to realize that love means more than pushing the ‘like’ button on Facebook; it requires an investiture in each other. We can disagree politically and still respect each other…and learn from each other.”
It’s a delicate balance. Reform leader Rabbi Ben Levy of Congregation Etz Chaim-Monroe Township Jewish Center said, “Regarding the ‘current situation,’ I walk a narrow path…. I don’t want to blur the separation between ‘church and state’ by dragging the morality of the Torah through the mud of partisan politics. Also, as the congregation will feature people of all political stripes, I am careful not to offend anyone lest they come to ignore Scriptures’ message of chesed [loving-kindness].
“On the other hand,” he continued, “I will comment upon current governmental and societal practices such as they relate to our ethical and moral responsibilities as Jews loyal to the divine-human Covenant.”
Regarding how he will approach his sermon, Levy said, “During these High Holy Days the Eternal touches our souls with divine kindness and forgiveness. We, created in the divine image, are then called upon to share this chesed with others. This is the true measure of our faith.”
At this specific time in history, Levy said, the role model we should turn to is the patriarch Abraham, who “shines as a paragon of chesed in his treatment of fellow travelers, in his politics, his applications of justice, covenantal vows, and marital relationships.”
Orthodox Rabbi David Bassous, leader of Congregation Etz Ahaim, the Sephardic synagogue in Highland Park, said it is specifically because of the present climate that he plans to focus on the vital importance of spiritual continuity.
“Despite, or perhaps because of, the many controversies swirling around us this year, it is more important than ever not to lose sight of our main goals as Jews: to pass on our glorious heritage to the next generation,” he said. “I personally feel that previous generations have been woefully inadequate in this regard.”
An abbreviated list of Bassous’ priorities includes belief, knowledge, and love of God; love of Torah and learning; pride in heritage, including love of the Land of Israel and the Jewish people; pleasantness in relation to God and in human relationships; good character traits exhibited through manners, tolerance, and cooperation; spirituality, or deriving satisfaction, joy, and a feeling of growth from prayer and acts of devotion; the importance of donating to Jewish education and causes; and the importance of getting married and adding to “the minuscule number of Jews in the world.”
Parents, he said, play a key role. It was his own parents’ enthusiasm and determination to share their passion for Torah study and religious observance that overcame his resistance and eventually inspired a similar love in him.
“Today we are all busy,” Bassous wrote. “Teaching and reinforcing good behavior in our children, teaching our children to derive satisfaction, joy, and a feeling of growth from prayer and performance of the mitzvot must be applied during this short time that we spend with them each week.”