A rabbi’s work is never done, and that’s especially true for High Holiday sermons, which they can spend as much as a year preparing.
“If we’re going to take a look at the entire holiday, we have two days of Rosh Hashanah,” said Rabbi Reuven Mann of Congregation Torat Emet. “And with Yom Kippur you have many opportunities to speak, because it’s a full day.”
Mann draws upon the entire year to prepare for the High Holiday sermons, using the time to convey all the messages he wishes to share with his congregation. But he doesn’t limit himself to a dedicated script.
“I’m spontaneous, I leave the door open,” Mann said. “I’m prepared in a general way, but I don’t script everything, because I want to be creative.”
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, the associate rabbi at Temple Chai, said she is constantly on the hunt for inspiration for these sermons. Whether it’s from anecdotes, personal life experiences or literature, Koppell said she has an ongoing file of High Holiday inspirational material.
“I do take it very much to heart that for many people they’re not regular synagogue attendees,” Koppell said. “I really want to give them something that’s going to be so personal and meaningful. There is a lot of pressure to share something that is going to have a powerful impact.”
Some rabbis plan to use the High Holidays to discuss a larger topic or theme for their congregation to reflect on. Rabbi Micah Caplan of Congregation Or Tzion is using his sermon this year to discuss the concept of transition as it relates to Rosh Hashanah.
“People come to the synagogue on the holidays to be inspired with feelings of hope and optimism,” Caplan said. “At the same time, they are hearing the melodies and the tunes that we’ve been hearing over centuries of what these holidays represent.”
Caplan thinks it’s a matter of finding perspective and mastering the feeling of uncertainty a new year can bring.
To help his congregation grasp what he’s talking about, Caplan hands out a physical object that connects them to the sermon.
“Some years it’s been a mirror, some years it’s been a keychain, some years it’s been a wristband,” Caplan said. “I’ll be handing something out this year that has to do with transitions, so stay tuned.
“If you want to know what it is, you’ll have to come to Rosh Hashanah.”
Rabbi Yosef Garcia of Avde Torah Jayah said it’s always exciting to see new faces and teach the themes of the holidays. He spends many months getting his sermon ready. This year, Garcia hopes to use his sermon as an opportunity to discuss issues that affect the Jewish community — even if those issues are disturbing.
“There’s a lot of things that have been happening on the political side,” Garcia said. “There’s been a lot of things in the Jewish community where us as Jews have been suffering a lot. Incidences of Jews being attacked.”
Relatedly, Koppell wants the congregation to know, as soon as they walk in the door, that her sermon is a place for safety and understanding.
“I’m looking to create a refuge from the disturbing culture we find ourselves in right now, and encourage people to look within,” Koppell said, adding that her sermon will likely be introspective as well.
While the rabbis have their own unique approaches to the sermonizing process, they are united by one key idea — that the holidays are a time for Jews to focus on the community as a whole.
“The things that you do should not cut you off from others,” Mann said. “You should seek to inspire others, even the ones you disagree with. But you should respect them and recognize that we need to work together.” JN