Since this year’s High Holy Days, followed by Sukkot and Simchat Torah, will arrive relatively early, the Jewish Voice asked area rabbis, via email interviews, how they’re handling the pre-holiday preparations. We also asked them to share something about their messages.
Some rabbis, such as Rabbi Marc Mandel of Newport’s historic Touro Synagogue, answered by saying the holidays never come early. “There’s a joke that goes something like this,” he said. “The Jewish holidays are either early or late – they are never on time.
“The truth is, as rabbis, we are preparing for the High Holy Days all year long. It could be in the middle of March, and I might read something, and say to myself, this would be a great topic for a High Holy Day sermon,” he said.
Rabbi Leora Abelson, of Congregation Agudas Achim in Attleboro, agreed with Mandel on the holidays’ timing as she never considers them early “since they are at the same time every year on the Jewish calendar.”
Abelson nonetheless planned by vacationing in June and July “so August can be devoted to preparing for the High Holidays. I still have the full month of Elul, which is a time for spiritual preparation,” she said.
Rabbi Ethan Adler, of Congregation Beth David of Narragansett, said he avoids the holiday crunch by pacing himself.
“Since there is so much to do in preparations, I usually begin High Holy Day efforts by the beginning of June,” he said. “We have several folks who enjoy chanting the Torah and Haftarah selections, and I begin to work with them by early spring. I actually enjoy the holidays.”
Rabbi Michelle T. Dardashti, the associate chaplain for Brown University’s Hillel, also cited planning as being the key to her holiday prep.
“In collaboration with student leaders and colleagues, I ensure that all planning and details are arranged in the summer months. I know that the messages of my sermons will have to remain malleable and responsive to news and events, but I begin drafting musings – on big ideas inspiring my thinking and moving those around me – throughout early summer, and develop them through July and August.
“My process includes reading books and articles by thinkers, teachers and activists writing on relevant themes, and necessitates finding time during the relative quiet of these months for deep personal reflection and replenishment,” she said. “This summer, I’m fortunate to get to do some of the latter while in Israel with my family. Prayer is integral to all of these strategies – making time to deepen prayer practice, and praying that all the strategies prove successful as Tishrei approaches.”
The first question elicited some introspection from Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser, of Temple Sinai in Cranston, who has changed his approach over the last 20 years.
“When I first started, I felt a tremendous weight in getting ready for Rosh Hashanah, and especially for Yom Kippur. I thought that the congregation depended upon me to create a service that would be moving and memorable, that it was my job to inspire people,” he said.
“I convinced myself that my sermons had to be written perfectly and they had to be presented perfectly. I exhausted myself. It was only after doing this for a number of years that I even noticed the arrogance of that approach.”
Now, instead of aiming for perfection, he tries “to recognize that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not require me to be powerful and important in people’s lives. For the people who make the commitment necessary to come to these services, the Days of Awe are already powerful and important,” he said.
Goldwasser and Abelson both said their messages will reflect the current political climate.
Goldwasser will respond to the “sense that many people have that our society is entering a period of crisis. People feel that the world has become a much more angry, frightened and intolerant place. They are scared that our nation and our world may become unrecognizable if we continue to erode the values of inclusion, tolerance, love and respect for people who are different from ourselves.
“I will spend some time talking about what each of us can do as individuals and as a congregation to strengthen the values of community, democracy and justice. By keeping the focus on the spiritual aspects of healing our broken world, I hope that it is a message that will benefit everyone,” he said.
Abelson echoed that sentiment.
“This year, many people feel a sense of hopelessness or fear about the direction of change our world is moving in. The Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe) give us the opportunity to dig deep for sources of hope and find meaning in committing, together, to building the world we want to live in,” she said.
Dardashti, like Abelson and Goldwasser, said her sermons also will reflect the pervasive feeling of insecurity held by so many people today.
“My sermons will address the challenge of leading with resilience, purpose and love through transitions. The Jewish world, America, the American Jewish community and our Brown RISD Jewish community are all experiencing seismic shifts amidst critical transitions.
“Transitions, ultimately leading to enduring positive changes, are core to the teshuva (returning, refocusing), for which we strive during this period. I hope to outline the tools our liturgy and texts afford for moving meaningfully through the personal, communal, domestic, global transitions we face,” she said.
LARRY KESSLER is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of the rabbis comments at jvhri.org.