To crib from another popular Jewish holiday, the question of the moment may well be: “How is this High Holiday season different from all others?”
Pittsburgh area rabbis will be addressing that query and more this year within their holiday sermons.
“It’s essential that we name what’s going on and speak with an awareness of our present circumstance,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation. “At the same time, we must not lose sight of the timeless and ever urgent message of the High Holy Days.”
“Ours is not the first generation to enter a new year in a time of tremendous challenge,” Bisno noted.
While not committing to speaking specifically about the challenges of the pandemic, Bisno said he would be “addressing the new perspective and insight our liturgy suggests. This year, unlike any other, forces us to make meaning in these High Holy Days in radically new ways. We will be addressing the challenges this presents for all of us.”
Beth El Congregation of the South Hills’ Rabbi Alex Greenbaum will be presenting three sermons, each with a different theme.
“Rosh Hashanah day one, I will be doing racial inequality. So, modern and historic views on Black Lives Matter, from Abraham Joshua Heschel to today. Day two, the title of the sermon is ‘The Conservative Movement was created for COVID.’ It talks about the focus of continuous community and adapting to the times, especially with technology and Judaism.”
On Yom Kippur, Greenbaum said his message will focus on hope.
“Hope in a time of hopelessness, light in a time of darkness. We’ll start around Passover, the ninth plague of darkness, talking about a time of darkness and where we find hope. How to manage hopeless feelings in a time of quarantine,” Greenbaum said.
The South Hills rabbi’s Kol Nidre sermon is titled “Civil Rights and Liberties: Where’s the Civility?”
Chabad of Squirrel Hill Rabbi Yisroel Altein has been working for some time on his sermons and acknowledged the need to scale back their length this year.
“It’s something you always want to think about in advance but, the shorter you speak, the longer you need to think about it,” he explained. “You’ve got to think long and hard to get it to the point, concise and uplifting.”
Rather than comment strictly on today’s news, Altein is trying to keep his messages spiritual and focused on the season.
“That being said, we obviously need to learn from our current events and how they affect our High Holidays and our relationship with God,” he said. “So, we will definitely be speaking about the idea of how we can learn from COVID-19 in our relationship with God.”
Another theme Altein will address is community and the individual.
“The importance of seeing how the community comes together to support each other and how each individual matters and can affect each other,” Altein said. “The underlying message of all the issues we’re experiencing is how we interact with the community without losing the importance of the individual, and how the community interacts with the individual.”
Temple David Rabbi Barbara Symons said it is important for people to focus on their own voices this year.
“Given that we all feel a little powerless due to the pandemic and the health concerns and so forth, all we have is our voice,” she said.
One of the themes she will explore is how to seek meaning through words.
“So, the actual Kol Nidre prayer and talking about other words that come out of our mouth including and related to racist words and other words that maybe we don’t even realize speak to a larger culture,” she said.
Symons will also address the issues being experienced by the community in the current climate.
“I think the key here is that Black Lives Matter and the pandemic are exposing some of the cracks, and the question is, ‘What do we do to fill in those cracks?’ I think that weaves through all of my sermons, but some are more focused on that than others.”
“I try to find some part of my sermon that is relevant to all the Jewish texts,” explained Parkway Jewish Center’s spiritual leader, Cantor Henry Shapiro. “It all starts there, but you have to connect it to the times you’re living in. I usually work to incorporate something I can relate to and themes that will draw me back to a Jewish center.”
The cantor likens his message this year to a “self-help” approach.
“What can you do when you’re under circumstances that you have no control over? That’s my basic premise and starting point,” he said.
Trained as a musician, Shapiro likes to give himself some opportunity for improvisation in his sermons, identifying larger themes and ideas, but not finalizing his messages too early.
One of the themes he’s still riffing on is the idea of “the overarching effort we all make to be positive and what we do to improve things, and that they will, in the long run, prevail. Certainly, we should acknowledge that we’ve given our all.”
In addition to the unusual pandemic backdrop of the rabbis’ High Holiday messages, the manner in which some of them will be delivered is also unique.
While Beth El’s services will be broadcast live on Zoom, some safeguards have been built into the programs.
“Not everyone is comfortable using Zoom,” Greenbaum noted, “so we’re also livestreaming so you can just view it. But, because we have to prepare for anything, we have to prepare for the possibility that something will go wrong with the internet or Zoom. So, we are also prerecording everything. If something goes wrong, we can put that up immediately.”
Bisno stressed the need to find ways to keep the congregation engaged when they are tuning in to services online.
“We’re streaming it aware that the person is alone, they’re not in community, and can walk out at any time,” he said. “We have to keep their attention in a very different way.”
Rodef Shalom’s services will be 60-minutes, Bisno said, and “preaching fits into that. So, in one of our sermons, Rabbi Sharyn Henry and I have a conversation, but we’re seated on a long row in the middle of our sanctuary. We’re conversing across it and recording it with four different cameras. The next one, I address people starting at the ark.”
The look and duration of this year’s High Holiday services may be different, but one thing is certain: Pittsburgh rabbis have found a way to meet head-on the storied curse: “May you live in interesting times.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.