The High Holidays are an especially busy time for a rabbi, and it makes the preparation a high-pressure endeavor. Some rabbis prepares for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for several months, if not a year, in advance. But for the five new rabbis who made Phoenix their home this summer, there were just a few months (and in some cases just a few weeks) to get ready.
Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan — who became the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley in early July — said that preparing a sermon for the High Holidays is really a group effort. He and the temple’s cantor, Baruch Koritan, are working together with other members of the clergy to create meaningful sermons that connect with the people sitting in the pews.
“It’s not so much a question of conveying information but rather connecting emotionally,” Kaplan said. “How can I inspire them on these holidays? We have a very enthusiastic community and we feel like we are all one big family. The congregation is growing, which is great, and we have to work hard to make sure that those who are new are fully integrated into the community.”
One of Kaplan’s planned themes for his sermon is how Judaism can help everyone live richer and deeper lives. He hopes to have a religiously meaningful service that flows rather than drags.
Temple Beth Shalom is a spiritual home for all ages, but its community of older congregants is especially vibrant. Kaplan said that some of the older members are struggling with physical ailments.
“My challenge is to figure out the best way to convey a hopeful religious message without implying that God is going to make everything all better in all cases,” Kaplan added. “The most important thing is to inspire and uplift.”
Closer to downtown Phoenix, Beth El Congregation’s new rabbi — Rabbi A. Nitzan Stein Kokin — started working in early August. She said she received a wonderful welcome from her new community and is grateful to be able to serve such an illustrious congregation. She spent her first month listening to the congregants to discover what drew them to the Conservative synagogue. Her vision is to build a strong intergenerational community.
“Beth El is historically one of the most important synagogues in the city,” Stein Kokin said. “We’re about to celebrate 90 years in 2020. Many of our families are members in the second or even third generation. I want us to strike a balance between celebrating that history, our our tradition and legacy, but also to innovate and bring our worship and engagement into how we do things in the 21st century.”
For her first Rosh Hashanah service at Beth El, Stein Kokin is asking congregants to look inward in order to better the human being within — a classic High Holidays theme. She finds the Rosh Hashanah conversation about the renewal of humanity fascinating.
“At Rosh Hashanah we have a chance to consider our own place within the big picture,” Stein Kokin said. “We know scientifically the world wasn’t created 5,780 years ago, but marking it as the birthday of creation of the world and humanity means putting us into the larger scale and invites us to rethink what our purpose and what our goals are as individuals and as society and to move forward towards a better future.”
At Scottsdale’s MAKOR, where Rabbi Ephraim Weiss took the lead in August, he has quickly adjusted to his new position. Weiss previously served as the dean of the Jacksonville Kollel. There, he prepared for the High Holidays differently. “Most of my preparations involved giving classes and teaching people what the High Holidays are all about,” Weiss said. “Here I’m focusing more on the congregation and giving the people a more meaningful synagogue experience.”
With such a short amount of time to prepare for the service, Weiss is focusing on demonstrating how inspired his is personally. “If the rabbi is inspired then he can go ahead and inspire others as well,” Weiss said. “So my number one job is to get into the spirit of the High Holidays, and when the rabbi’s into it and inspired, it just naturally gets transmitted to others as well.” The question Weiss’ upcoming sermon centers on is, “Where do we go from here?” He wants to discuss how to create the stepping stones for real change.
Just a few blocks away, Rabbi Yoseph Wernick moved from Australia to act as Menachem Mendel Academy’s new principal. The academy has been teaching the High Holidays through the curriculum and has given all students 40 projects to complete, each of which focuses on a specific relevant concept.
For example, Wernick said that the students were learning about the idea of asking for forgiveness. The way he had them understand that concept better was through role-playing, hoping that by going through the motions, the teens would understand it at their level.
“When the kids are very young, we teach them more about how to celebrate the holiday,” Wernick explained. “We teach them how to dip the apples in honey and the songs, for example, but when they’re older we start really dive in what each holiday means and how to examine these ideas.”
Over at Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley, Rabbi Herschel “Brodie” Aberson is preparing for the first of what he hopes will be many Rosh Hashanah sermons. Aberson began leading the synagogue on July 15 shortly after he graduated from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.
Although TBSEV is the first synagogue Aberson has run, he previously served as an intern for four years at Adat Ari El near Los Angeles. There he led family services and the supplementary programing to make sure that there was something for everybody during the holidays.
“A lot of what we focus on during the High Holidays is a conversation on how we communicate,” Aberson said. “I would often create opportunities for parents and children to actually talk to each other. If there was something that was bothering a child, they had the opportunity to share it with their parents and vice versa.”
Aberson said that it gave families the opportunity to be honest and emotionally present with each other. He plans on carrying over the conversation about communication in his upcoming sermon.
When asked how he prepares such a big sermon so quickly, Aberson said that the themes that emerge around holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot are not unique to those holidays. It’s just that this is the time in the calendar when people focus on them.
“I have been thinking about questions of repentance and renewal, but I can’t imagine that many of my colleagues are not thinking about these questions all the time,” Aberson said. “So it’s not that we’re preparing just for the High Holidays, but rather we’re asking what in our year has happened that we feel we need to share for this period.” JN