‘Looking back and looking forward’: Pittsburgh’s Jewish clergy prepare Rosh Hashanah messages
Rosh HashanahHigh Holiday Themes

‘Looking back and looking forward’: Pittsburgh’s Jewish clergy prepare Rosh Hashanah messages

Identity, relationship with God and communal responsibilities among topics to be addressed

Arthur Szyk, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Arthur Szyk, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The shrill sound of the shofar blast signals the start of a new year. This Rosh Hashanah, local spiritual leaders are looking to emulate the auditory effect and similarly impact those nearby.

Through sermons and conversations, Pittsburgh’s Jewish clergy hope to prompt reflection and action this holiday season.

Cantor Rena Shapiro of Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge said she is addressing “inclusion” and focusing on Moses to generate an awareness of self, others and the divine.

Within Exodus 4:10, Moses tells the Lord, “I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

Generations of commentators have parsed the passage. The takeaway isn’t necessarily Moses’ inability to masterfully elocute, Shapiro said, but what it says about the parties. Moses — like Miriam, Aaron and every human — was made “b’tzelem Elohim” in the image of God; by choosing Moses to convey divine instruction, she explained, God indicates that humans are not only physically and emotionally diverse, but that their differences were also created in God’s image.

Being made in God’s image, she continued, “doesn’t mean that we’re endowed with a divine perfection of sorts, but rather that we are who we are.”

When Moses serves as God’s mouthpiece, the lesson isn’t about power or ability, but rather — for both God and humanity — “we are all who we are,” Shapiro said.

Rabbi Elchonon Friedman of Bnai Emunoh Chabad in Greenfield said one concept he’s gravitated toward this holiday season is refining the relationship with God.

“Very often we tend to look at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as days of judgment, and that the more merit we have helps us get a good verdict for the coming year,” Friedman said. “But we also know that the way we act, God reciprocates for us. When we judge another person favorably, and we help someone just for the sake of kindness, God will reciprocate.”

Interacting positively with people yields a greater spiritual connection, he continued. Instead of merely reading High Holiday liturgy and asking God for “complete kindness,” it behooves people to exhibit similarly godly behavior when dealing with others.

Photo by Lilach Daniel via Flickr at flickr.com/photos/21593523@N04/15154568538

Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler, said her intention this holiday season is to remind congregants about their various strengths.

One of the defining features of B’nai Abraham, she said, is its commitment to hospitality.

“When we say that we are a welcoming congregation it is really the truth,” Gray-Schaffer explained. “Every single person in the congregation — and it is a smaller congregation — talks to someone new, and strangers are quickly integrated into our community.”

Another quality she will address is the congregation’s sense of responsibility.

“When something needs to be done they really step up and do it,” Gray-Schaffer said. “We lost a very beloved president, Eric Levine, last year. He was kind of the person who liked doing everything, and we got used to him doing everything.”

After Levine’s death, however, “the board stepped in and everybody took parts of the myriad number of things that he had done,” Gray-Schaffer said, adding that Rosh Hashanah is a critical time to remind congregants of their talents.

After 13 years at the helm of B’nai Abraham, Gray-Schaffer is retiring on June 30.

“This is going to be a big year of transitions for my congregation, and they are very nervous,” she said. “I want them to realize, from my viewpoint, what their strengths are, and what they have exhibited and are exhibiting to me, regardless of who is their spiritual leader.”

Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Temple Sinai said the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial helped him identify critical Rosh Hashanah topics. During the holiday, he will deliver a sermon on what’s next for the community after the trial. Another sermon will focus on what it means to be a liberal Zionist.

Regarding the trial, Fellman said he wrestled with whether to use his pulpit to broach such a sensitive subject.

“Somewhere between the second and third phases of the trial, I concluded that I wanted to talk about it and that, as a community, I think we need more framing of the thing,” he said. “I think it’s still very much on our minds as a community. We’ve witnessed something extraordinary, in that the perpetrator was convicted and held accountable. Regardless of whether you support the death penalty or not, the fact that the perpetrator has been held accountable is a giant step
forward in Jewish history and the question for us is, ‘So what? Now what?’”

Answering these questions requires examining “our tradition,” he added.

Fellman pointed to the Torah’s description of the binding of Isaac (the passage is typically read during Rosh Hashanah). Although the text records Abraham and Isaac’s travels to the land of Moriah, mountainous ascent and near filicide, “we don’t hear about what happens after,” he said.

There’s a parallel to what happened in Pittsburgh, Fellman continued.

“We spent all this time focused on the trial, but what comes after?” he asked.

“There are lessons from Abraham, Isaac and Sarah about moving forward and what we do as a community.”

Fellman’s other Rosh Hashanah address will ask listeners to consider Jewish peoplehood and international ties.

“The Reform movement has a colorful history with Zionism,” he said. “Still, the call to be a Zionist is stronger than ever.”

Fellman will address the “messy and complicated” relationship between the Diaspora and the Jewish state while advocating for those abroad.

“We are called to be supporters and lovers of Israel, even if we disagree with its policies and government,” he said.

Fellman said that both of his talks should hit at the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jews.

“What are the big issues facing us as Jews, what are we facing in Pittsburgh and where are we headed?” he asked.

Investigating these questions requires tradition and introspection, and Fellman thinks Rosh Hashanah is a perfect time to do so.

“It’s a combination of looking back and looking forward,” he said. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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