Avraham Bronstein, the rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., has been feeling throughout the year like there are many large forces shaping the world that are beyond human control—from rising antisemitism to climate change to “anti-democratic politics” to “the Israeli-Palestinian reality.”
“My feeling has been that things are off-course in a way that seems hopeless to affect,” the rabbi of the Modern Orthodox synagogue told JNS.
In his High Holiday sermons this year, Bronstein intends to preach about how “the feeling of smallness actually is what helps us connect to other people in a way that manages these large, unfolding crises,” he said.
“I intend to speak about how research demonstrates how feelings of awe encourage people to think and act with greater empathy towards each other,” Bronstein added. “The major religious themes of Rosh Hashanah are really about inspiring us to repair relationships with people here on Earth.”
Bronstein was one of several rabbis across the religious denominational spectrum who shared his High Holiday preaching plans with JNS. On Rosh Hashanah, which begins on Sept. 15 at night—and during the Ten Days of Awe and on Yom Kippur—U.S. rabbis will emphasize different aspects of the holidays and of Jewish tradition.
Jewish religious leaders told JNS that they intend to address such subjects as intergenerational friendships; Israel; artificial intelligence; how human connection and community can be antidotes to loneliness and anxiety; inspirations for repairing relationships; bar and bat mitzvahs; and Jewish pride.
‘An epidemic of loneliness’
Joshua Stanton, the rabbi of East End Temple, told JNS that he intends to preach about intergenerational community and friendship on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
The Reform synagogue on East 17th Street in Manhattan is working to actively build bridges, and foster connections and closeness across generations, Stanton said.
He noted that research suggests that those with intergenerational relationships might live longer and said that during an “epidemic of loneliness,” it is important to have those sorts of friendships in one’s day-to-day life.
“This is something intergenerational friendships could help answer, and synagogue communities in particular can respond to,” he said.
The rabbi also aims to talk about the Jewish state and what Jews owe their fellow Jews, who live differently than they do.
“Israel is a topic that is front of mind to so many American Jews, who feel a deep connection to our spiritual homeland and are struggling with some of the actions of the current government,” Stanton said. “I want to talk not only about the tribes that entered the Holy Land in the Torah but also about those who didn’t and what they owe each other.”
On Yom Kippur, Stanton intends to preach about artificial intelligence and what it might be able to reveal about people’s humanity.
“I don’t think artificial intelligence is going away anytime soon, so we’re trying to figure out how to engage with it, how to harness its potential and how to reduce its risks, and we do so as human beings,” he told JNS. “The primary starting point is how we engage with it based on who we are and where we’re coming from.”
Cantor Olivia Brodsky at East End Temple told JNS that she coordinates music during services to fit the sermon themes.
“When the rabbi speaks about intergenerational programming and the effort in our congregation to have more of that, the song that I’m going to be singing after that sermon is ‘L’dor V’dor,’ which literally means ‘from generation to generation,’” she said.
Robyn Fisher, rabbi of the post-denominational synagogue Beth Or Miami in Florida, intends to sermonize on the High Holidays about how human connection and community are antidotes to post-COVID-19 anxiety and loneliness.
“We’ve done more and more Zoom services and programming because people are more comfortable in their isolated spaces, and they don’t want to venture out,” Fisher told JSN.
“Some of them have a fear of whatever is out there in terms of viruses like COVID-19, but I think they’ve also become comfortable and complacent in their spaces,” she added. “At the same time, people are craving connection, so it’s an intentional thought on what we can do to bring them back.”
The congregation will host a speaker during Selichot prayer services that seek Divine forgiveness and take place before Rosh Hashanah. “We’re doing a lot more in-person things in order to inspire them to come back together,” Fisher said.
Full-circle ceremony linked to Eastern Europe
Jason Miller is a Conservative rabbi in West Bloomfield Township, Mich., who officiates at bar and bat mitzvahs across the country, as well as overseas. He is scheduled to lead a Rosh Hashanah service at the non-denominational congregation Ramat Shalom Beth Israel Synagogue in Plantation, Fla.
In his sermons, Miller intends to talk about his experience working with bar and bat mitzvah students, and how their commitment to continuing their Jewish heritage encourages him.
He plans to talk about an experience he had when he officiated at a bar mitzvah ceremony for four boys at once. The four, who are friends and live in West Bloomfield, are all first-generation Americans whose parents immigrated from the former Soviet Union.
“It’s a very powerful story,” he said.
Miller’s sermon will also be about Jewish pride and heritage. “Forty years ago, Jews in the former Soviet Union couldn’t celebrate a bar mitzvah, and now these same Jewish people are celebrating their grandson’s bar mitzvah,” he told JNS.
“I’m going to tie that into the current war between Russia and Ukraine,” the rabbi added. “I think that American Jews should be doing more for the Jewish community in Ukraine during the war.”