Pandemic and protests prevalent in rabbis’ High Holiday sermons

Rabbi Sarah Krinsky
Rabbi Sarah Krinsky (Courtesy of Rabbi Sarah Krinsky)

The topics of Rabbi Scott Hoffman’s High Holiday sermons are a no brainer. Hoffman, who leads B’nai Shalom of Olney, says he always preaches about the year’s biggest events.

“In 2001, that was easy, right? 9/11 was the story,” Hoffman said. “The two stories this year are fairly obvious. So number one, you have to find some way to remember the victims of COVID.

“And the second story, of course, is all the unrest [due to the killings of] George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and all the Black Lives Matter stuff.”

Rabbi Hannah Goldstein of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation the District, said this year the pandemic and the nationwide protests over racism and police violence are both calls for introspection.

“In other moments in history, we’ve stood in these kinds of inflection points. Somehow, it has allowed us to actually see the world differently and to make change in positive ways, even in the face of so much loss,” Goldstein said. “[This year,] there’s so many question marks as we look to the new year, and I think that there is an opportunity for us to ask some really important questions about who we are, what we care about [and] about how we take care of each other.”

It’s these ideas that Goldstein wants to get across in her holiday sermons. Her talks will focus on the potential to create in the midst of destruction.

It is the rare rabbi who can overlook the High Holiday sermon. It’s the way to rally the congregation, chart the course for the year ahead and speak to an overflow audience, a congregation eager for uplift. The past year has provided no shortage of material for a sermon, the rabbis interviewed for this story say. Yet no rabbi will handle the subjects the same way.

Rabbi Sarah Krinsky has also been influenced by both the pandemic and the protests, but doesn’t plan to speak about them directly in her sermons. Instead,

Krinsky, of Adas Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Washington, said she will speak about what is real and meaningful for her and congregants. That includes isolation as a result of the pandemic. So her High Holiday sermon will focus on imagination and the power of the mind to take people to other places.

“In these moments when we are physically constrained, I feel like I and many people have been tapping into the ability of our mind to transport us to other places in a different way,” Krinsky said. “So I’ve been thinking about different ways in which the holidays themselves are sort of like spiritual preparation for our imaginations.”

Krinsky said holiday liturgy calls for readers to use their imagination to understand the text and that the text’s limitations further the need for imagination. The act of transformation the holiday calls for is an act of imagining a better version of ourselves.

Last year, Rabbi Gilah Langner’s sermons focused on the climate change crisis. This year, her talks at the Arlington-based Kol Ami — The Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community will touch upon racial injustice. Langner said her aim is to use traditional text to add insight to timely issues.

“Racial injustice is very much front and center in our consciousness,” Langner said. “A lot of synagogues are taking up this issue and trying to really work, struggle and figure out how we can be allies, [how] we can be anti-racist.”

The main theme for Kol Ami services on Erev Rosh Hashanah is “remember us for life.” On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the congregation plans to explore the idea of founding fathers, whether it’s Abraham or Thomas Jefferson, and to grapple with coming to terms with their misdeeds. On the night of Kol Nidre, Langner plans to talk about teshuvah (repentance) and reparations for the African-American community.

Rabbi Chaim Cohen of Chabad of Loudoun said he plans to mention the pandemic in his sermons, but the focus will be on how to re-engage in Judaism to live “a more excitingly Jewish life.”

He says he’ll focus on six topics to accomplish this: identity, freedom, values, family, independence “and, last but not least, you’re going to think this is crazy, but the Talmud says that you need to teach children how to swim.”

“This is obviously in a physical sense,” Cohen said. “But it also is metaphorical. If we adopt these six elements, I believe we will learn how to navigate the rocky waters we’re living in.”

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