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Community, mental health and gratitude all have a place in this year’s High Holiday sermons
By Shannon Levitt
Arizona Jewish News
September 20, 2022
Rabbis across Greater Phoenix, like rabbis the world over, are sitting down right about now to put their thoughts to paper as they prepare to address their congregants for High Holidays.
More than at any other time of the Jewish year, these sermons represent the best of long-form writing and deep thinking. While some rabbis are just putting the finishing touches on their sermons, some procrastinators might be starting to sweat a little. For example, Scottsdale’s Congregation Or Tzion’s Rabbi Andy Green puts himself in the latter camp.
“I’m a notorious procrastinator,” he told Jewish News. “What I have to say and how I end up saying it won’t be finalized until closer to the big day, but it will be ready the morning I deliver it.”
He already knows some of the things he will be talking about: how the Jewish community has responded to the challenges of COVID-19 and how “social division has fragmented our communities in a way that didn’t exist before.”
In Paradise Valley, Temple Solel Associate Rabbi Debbie Stiel also plans to discuss “toxic polarization.” Though it’s “a very tough issue,” she said, “it is an important topic to face so that we keep connections with others, even if we disagree with them. We need to continue to see the holy in others despite our differences.”
Green, Stiel and other local rabbis intend to use the time and space they’re given each year during this period to provide thoughtful analysis of many complex ideas. They want their congregants to take this time to listen and reflect on their messages. While so much of everyday life seems to consist of simple and short bursts of ideas and thoughts, many programmed by social media algorithms, rabbis use these sermons to slow things down, think about timely topics and encourage others to do the same.
For example, after two years of mostly online High Holiday services, many of Greater Phoenix’s rabbis will be emphasizing the importance of community to their large and primarily in-person congregations.
Chabad Jewish Center of Mesa Rabbi Laibel Blotner said this is the perfect year to talk about community. He pointed out it is the hakhel year, a time when Jews have historically gathered following the shmita, or sabbatical year. He sees the timing as opportune.
“The fact that the first year in three years that Jewish people have an opportunity, uninhibited for the most part, to come together and be in our synagogues is also a year associated with gathering, is divine providence,” he said.
“God has given us this year that we can come to the synagogues and feel, for the most part, safe, and we should try to make sure that this is the largest Rosh Hashanah and the largest Yom Kippur.”
Temple Chai Associate Rabbi Bonnie Koppell in Phoenix will also be emphasizing the importance of community, especially the synagogue. She plans to talk about the present by invoking the past, that of her childhood Jewish community in Brooklyn.
“As we walked to one of the two local shuls on the High Holidays, it was a joy to see the streets fill with more and more people and to sense the deep connection that we all felt to each other,” she described in one sermon.
With so many members coming to Temple Chai in person after two years of live streaming, Koppell will tell her congregants: “We, all of us here together, are the creators and sustainers of this fragile and precious community.”
Rabbi Alicia Magal, spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley, is developing her sermon with the idea of “waking up.” She, too, will talk about new ways of creating community in, what hopefully, will soon be a post-COVID world.
“We’ve been in a kind of sleep over the past two years and are just now slowly awakening,” she plans to tell her congregation. While “we aren’t out of the woods yet,” she will encourage people not to remain “spiritually asleep to new possibilities.”
It is time to wake up to “new ways of interacting and showing up in our family, our community and the wider world,” which includes our responsibilities as citizens of a world that is imperiled on many levels, with “the poor, refugees, the war-wounded, the choking environment and the melting icebergs.”
Cave Creek’s Congregation Kehillah Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman will talk about how all of these same problems and responsibilities can “leave many of us feeling overwhelmed,” which sometimes leads to paralysis.
“There is so much for us to do to heal the injustice and pain in the world and also to heal the earth. Small things, in the communal aggregate, do move us forward. Kindness, compassion, commitment, teshuvah, as always, are sorely needed.”
Temple Solel Rabbi John Linder said, “At a time of great despair, Jews must do what we’ve always done — lean into hope,” The hope that he will speak about will be focused on “our temple’s youth and families, our country’s democracy and our obligation to be agents of change.”
Temple Kol Ami Rabbi Jeremy Schneider in Scottsdale will be discussing mental health and the toll two-and-a-half years of a pandemic and its pursuant isolation have taken on his congregation. While “we did a pretty good job of checking in on others, have we checked in with ourselves? What steps are we taking to address anxiety and depression?”
He will tell his audience how important it is “that in our annual gathering to make ‘atonement,’ we also make sure we are ‘at-one-ment’ with our mental health and ourselves.”
Chabad of the East Valley Rabbi Mendy Deitsch plans to address “the multi-dimensional human being and its inner strength to deal with today’s world issues.”
Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan will talk about spiritual renewal and how to achieve it through prayer and positive psychology, which studies the traits that help people thrive. “It is based on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work and play,” he explained.
Temple B’rith Shalom Rabbi Susan Schanerman in Prescott will be celebrating her first High Holidays with her new congregation. She looks forward to meeting “the entire congregation” and plans to focus “on personal themes of self-forgiveness, crafting the self and coming home to Judaism.”
In Chandler, NefeshSoul Congregation Cantor Roger Eisenberg, who will be writing and delivering his first ever High Holiday sermon, will focus on the concept of gratitude.
“Even in times of grief, we can be grateful for the compassion of those who comfort us. Even in times of fear, pachad, we can find hope in yirah, in the humility of awe,” he will tell his congregants.
Rabbi Stephen Einstein, who will be leading services for Congregation Beth HaMidbar in Yuma for his eighth year, will talk about change and remembrance.
The above is only a small sampling of what will be discussed in synagogues across the city. Much of it is serious fare, but on the lighter side, Einstein also will talk about Yom Kippur’s 100-plus rules for practicing business. JN
There are many rabbis and temples in Greater Phoenix, more than we had room to include. Please visit our digital Community Directory 2022 for a comprehensive guide to all of our local spiritual resources.