Rabbi Julie Greenberg's 18-year-old son Raffi had an usual request for his milestone birthday: The Yale University freshman asked for a collection of his mother's sermons.
Greenberg — religious leader for the past seven years at Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir "Heart of the City," a Reconstructionist Synagogue — hadn't exactly kept past sermons in a neat file, virtual or otherwise, and began scouring her hard drive, where she eventually discovered samples of her work in disparate folders.
For the first time in her two-decade-long rabbinic career, Greenberg was forced to reread her sermons and began noticing patterns, particularly in the ones she'd done for the High Holidays.
Mostly, the rabbi noted, she'd focused on teshuvah, or repentance, and hadn't delved into other High Holiday themes, such as tefillah or tzedakah. Greenberg decided this year to address the importance of prayer.
"It's about coming into a relationship with yourself and really coming into a relationship with God," said Greenberg. "Prayer is about going within and beyond to seek truth."
For most American pulpit rabbis, there's simply no platform quite like the High Holidays, when pews are packed and retractable doors open up to make room for dozens, if not hundreds, of more seats.
Some rabbis start planning and writing weeks and months in advance, others say they treat it no differently than a typical Shabbat talk and sketch it out with just a few days to spare.
Rabbi Robert S. Leib of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Abington, noted that with the Beijing Olympics still relatively fresh in people's minds, he planned to focus on lessons that can been gleaned from Olympic athletes, such as swimmer Michael Phelps, who captured eight gold medals.
Just as success for some Olympic winners came in just a fraction of time — "where the difference between gold and silver was just .01 of second" — people should keep in mind the fact that, "time, ultimately, is all we have. There is not a moment to spare — literally. Every second counts, and those are lessons that can be applied to other areas in our lives."
Rabbi Jay M. Stein of Har Zion Temple, a Conservative synagogue in Penn Valley, plans to discuss notions of Jewish survival on Rosh Hashanah.
"I'm sort of a post-Holocaust Jew," said Stein. "As much as my identity was formed by the most horrific tragedy in our history — unparalleled in human history — I also believe we're at a stage where that generation is beginning to die off, and we need to assert our claim to citizenship in the world community."
Stein said that it was important to speak positively about Jewish identity, and not just as a reaction to the Holocaust. While he said he had no intention of minimizing the Holocaust, he also said it was important that Jews assert their identity "in a world where we're still not beloved by many people."
Rabbi Solomon Isaacson of Congregation Beth Solomon Kollel and Community Center, an Orthodox synagogue in Northeast Philadelphia, said that during a time of great financial uncertainty, he would focus on the simple act of helping others.
Rabbi Ephraim Epstein of Congregation Sons of Israel, an Orthodox shul in Cherry Hill, N.J., acknowledged that he hadn't "written one word" of his sermons and had only decided on a theme late last week. And he hasn't exactly gone with something light; Epstein plans to address the twin themes of life and death.
"Death spooks people out," said Epstein. "I think exploring what the Torah and Talmud, and modern day knowledge, have to teach us regarding the mysteries of death will place the holiday in greater perspective."
Staff writers Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg, Aaron Passman and Bryan Schwartzman contributed to this report.