In holiday sermons, rabbis use the story of the recently departed Neil Armstrong and other news events to start Jewish conversations.
‘One small step for man,” one giant metaphor for rabbis.
When it comes to detecting where the cultural and religious winds are blowing in the Jewish community, there’s no better barometer than the Rosh HaShanah sermon, the one time of the year when the faithful (and even the not so faithful) pack the pews and when rabbis try out their purplest prose in a bid for relevance.
This year, with the presidential election, a still-sluggish economy and the winds of war with Iran in the air, there are plenty of so-called “topical” issues for rabbis to deal with. Some, however, will reach for the moon, metaphorically that is.
In the coming days, Rabbi Charles Klein of the Merrick Jewish Center on Long Island will devote High Holy Days sermons to such standard topics as Israel, the symbolism of the prophet Jonah and “challenges” facing the Jewish community.
And he’ll speak, on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, about one non-standard topic — the first man to walk on the moon.
Rabbi Klein says he will give a sermon on one aspect of Neil Armstrong, who died last month at 82, because the words the commander of the Apollo 11 mission made in July 1969 have contemporary relevance.
“My sermon isn’t about Neil Armstrong. It’s about the statement” Armstrong made when he set foot on the moon, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Rabbi Klein says. He will discuss “the small steps in life that each one of use could take … small steps back to [Jewish] tradition. Giant steps intimidate people. Small steps take us to big places.”
Several other area rabbis have indicated that they plan to devote a sermon in the coming days to Armstrong’s life, and to other untraditional topics, says Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis.
Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman of the Union Temple in Brooklyn, and president of the Board of Rabbis, says she will give one sermon about the Titanic, the 100th anniversary of whose sinking took place this year.
She will discuss how the ship went down after claims by its builder that it was “indestructible, unsinkable.”
“I will talk about it in terms of hubris,” Rabbi Goodman says. And in terms of “what’s really indestructible — our teachings as Jews.”
Sermon topics usually are a balance between the temporal and the eternal, between a rabbi’s interests and congregants’ concerns, Rabbi Potasnik says. “We hear what people are talking about.”
This year’s presidential election, while on the minds of many voters, probably will not be a prominent rabbinical topic during the High Holy Days, the rabbi says. “Our role is to be spiritual mentors, not political pundits. We’re not in the endorsement business.”
However, Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn says he will talk about the tenor of the national election. “I will address the nastiness of tone and vituperative atmosphere in this election cycle, and in particular, attempt to address why Jews can offer a model of communal decision-making that privileges the honor, not the burden, of citizenship.”
The themes of the yom tov period, especially teshuvah (repentance), are always the subject of some rabbis’ sermons.
“I try to talk about eternal Jewish themes more than temporal ones,” says Rabbi Gary Greene of the Marathon Jewish Community Center in Queens. “My congregants read the same newspapers I do and basically agree about most issues. My job is to teach them what they don’t know or motivate them to examine their lives and live them to the fullest possible extent with Judaism as their touchstone.”
“I like to start with the question, ‘what are the most important issues on the minds of my congregants,’” says Rabbi Steve Conn of the Plainview Jewish Center. “These issues tend to be very personal.” This year, Rabbi Conn says he will discuss “what it means to be married these days, and keeping our priorities straight” in terms of work-life balance.
Armstrong’s legacy is a natural topic, says Rabbi Potasnik. The epitome of the strong-silent man who became a virtual recluse after he left NASA and refused to capitalize on his fame, Armstrong was a national hero, the coiner of a phrase that captured the public’s imagination, a sincere Christian who during his 2007 visit to Israel declared that he was “more excited” stepping on stones in Jerusalem where Jesus putatively had walked “than when I was stepping on the moon.”
While a non-Jewish astronaut may seem a surprising choice for a High Holy Days sermon topic, topical personalities and controversies often become the subject du jour. In past years: the Olympics, and the Penn State football scandal.
For rabbis starting in a new pulpit, High Holy Day sermons, often presented to twice-a-year-in-shul-congregants, are a good chance to present themselves to a packed sanctuary.
Rabbi Rachel Ain, who recently became spiritual leader of Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan, says her sermons will address a series of broad questions: “What does it mean to share our stories? How do we get to know each other in a new year? In a world with stress and yet tremendous potential, how do we make tomorrow better than today? What is our role is using our words for good — in a society where there is chaos, how do we make the changes necessary for a healthy society?”
Several rabbis, especially in the Conservative movement, tell The Jewish Week that they will sermonize about the recent UJA-Federation of New York population study, which reported a substantial decrease in the number of affiliated Conservative and Reform Jews in New York.
“The shifting demographics … [in] Nassau County in particular … represent both an opportunity and a challenge,” says Rabbi David Senter of the Manetto Hill Jewish Center in Plainview.
At other synagogues, this is what rabbis will be talking about during the High Holy Days:
n Jonathan Stein, Shaaray Tefila, Manhattan: “Addictions, Abuse, Secrets and Teshuvah.” And the future of the congregation “through the lens of a new Vision Statement.”
n Lester Bronstein, Beth Am Shalom, White Plains: The statement in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that one should “pray for the welfare of the government, for without it people would swallow each other alive.” “I’m going to adjure us 21st-century American Jews to evolve beyond this notion of the government as ‘them’ and come to a place of full ownership and participation,” Rabbi Bronstein says.
n Andy Bachman, Congregation Beth Elohim, Brooklyn: The synagogue’s 150th anniversary. “I’ll speak about how much the world has changed since 1862 — there was slavery, Abraham Lincoln was president and women couldn’t vote — while our Jewish community and all Jewish communities around the world have continued to grow, evolve and progress.”
♦ Philip Weintraub, Congregation Agudas Israel, Newburgh: “How one of our greatest sins is insulting another person.”
♦ Jeffrey Abraham, Congregation Sons of Israel, Upper Nyack: The need for improved outreach and welcome in the synagogue to “anyone who is intermarried and/or is connected to someone who is intermarried.” And, “Facebook Friends versus Real Friends and what it means to actually be a friend.”
♦ Rabbi Klein of the Merrick Jewish Center says he’ll provide a little historical background, for younger members congregants, about Neil Armstrong. “The younger generation is familiar with [Armstrong’s] name, but can not feel the incredible inspiration that those of us who lived at that time felt.”
Each year, Rabbi Klein says, he searches for the perfect text from rabbinical literature, the perfect line from a movie, the perfect example from the news that will illustrate the point of his sermons. “Part of what you do” as a pulpit rabbi “is find the story that will deeply connect” with the congregation.
This year, Rabbi Klein says, “there was no better foundation stone than the line of Neil Armstrong.”
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