By Rudy Malcom
Last fall, many synagogues were unable to hold High Holiday services in person because of COVID-19. About one year later, the end of the pandemic remains out of sight as cases surge again due to the delta variant.
During a Yom Kippur sermon, Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation will explore how to navigate this uncertain landscape using teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity), both on the individual and community levels.
“How do we use these actions to get the most out of life, fulfill our potential and be liberated to a certain extent from whatever’s holding us back, giving us the courage to move to the next stage of whatever it is?” Grossman asked.
In her other sermons, Grossman plans to stress the importance of empathy in the midst of racism and antisemitism, drawing on the biblical story of Sarah and Hagar, as well as the contemporary one of the Dan Jerusalem Hotel. At the beginning of the pandemic, 180 COVID-19 patients from a variety of backgrounds quarantined at the hotel.
“There were all sorts of people who were there — Jews, Arabs, religious, non-religious — and they wound up finding a way through with compassion and shared humanity, getting along in a very moving way that holds great promise for Israel and for all of us,” Grossman said.
She also expressed her appreciation to be able to come together in person, even if at limited capacity with masks.
Like Grossman, Rabbi Doug Heifetz is thankful to be able to see people in person at Congregation Beit Tikvah, noting that “there might even be a limited window” to do so.
More optimistically, Heifetz will consider the “possibility of life returning to normal” in one of his sermons.
“As the world returns to normal, that doesn’t mean we have to return to our lives as they were,” he explained. “We can rethink what enriches our lives and rebuild not to the normal that was, but to something more positive and uplifting that allows for greater compassion.”
At Chabad of Park Heights, Rabbi Elchonon Lisbon will wait until a day or so before the holidays to decide on the particulars of his sermons, though he predicts COVID-19 may be a part of them.
“I always try to bring a story or anecdote that highlights a thought that I say,” he said. “The theme is probably the same — this is now the 5782nd year — but the stories are different.”
Lisbon said that the High Holidays aren’t about celebrating “creation of the world … as much as man’s participation in perfecting the world.” Rosh Hashanah marks the sixth day of creation, not the first, which speaks to humankind’s capacity to address the world’s challenges through recognizing a higher power, Lisbon said.
During her Rosh Hashanah sermon, Susan Wolf Dudley, founder of the Classical Reform Temple, will emphasize the need to remember that “we are all brothers and sisters, children of the one God.”
Amid a divisive political climate, Wolf Dudley will underscore a need for peace and unity.
“We are all naked people, vulnerable and defenseless, not enemies,” she said. “We like to have good times and play nice like they taught us in kindergarten. Every one of us is a fragile human being who wants most of all to love and be loved.”
For nearly 20 years, the Classical Reform Temple has hosted High Holiday services adapted from the original version of the Reform movement’s Union Prayer Book. The service is entirely in English, Wolf Dudley said.
This year, services will be held entirely over Zoom.
While she hasn’t yet written her sermon for Yom Kippur, Wolf Dudley noted that all of her sermons deliver the same message.
“Treat each other with respect, be kind, spread peace and love, and remember to count our blessings,” she said.
Rudy Malcom is a freelance writer.