High Holidays are ‘Glory Days’ for Area Rabbis

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Rabbi Barry Schlesinger was sitting in Citizens Bank Park a few weeks ago listening to Bruce Springsteen when a revelation hit him:
“The Boss” would’ve been a terrific rabbi.
“That concert was like a religious experience,” said Schlesinger, the new rabbi at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia, who’s looking forward to returning to near where he grew up. “He was a preacher, and he had his congregation rocking and rolling.
“He is everything a rabbi should be. He’s got spirit. He’s got soul. He loves his fans, and they know every verse of his songs like we know the Shema.
“He turned music into a spiritual experience.”
Perhaps that’s where Schlesinger got his cue for his first High Holiday sermon in Philadelphia, which is where he’ll be at least for the next few years, although his “home” is Israel, where he’s been the last 40 years.
“Basically, I’m going to focus on the sound of the shofar,” said Schlesinger, who’ had been working at a synagogue in Ottawa the last few years, just as another rabbi new to the area, Lawrence Troster of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester, also had a strong Canadian connection after working for several years in Toronto. “According to Judaism, the shofar is sounded both days of Rosh Hashanah.
“I’m going to talk with the folks about how this nonverbal prayer should inspire us to act. Where do want the sound of the shofar to take us?”
He’ll also tell the moving story of when he was a student rabbi in Netanya, Israel and found an unlikely source to blow the shofar.
“They told me about a Jew from the Soviet Union playing in the Israeli Philharmonic who wanted to blow it,” recalled Schlesinger, who’ll make a couple of trips a year back to Israel, where his children and grandchildren live. “He’d been denied his Judaism in Russia, and now he was in Israel.
“I taught him how to play on the phone. He knew the beats and the staccato sound a shofar makes. I met him a day before Rosh Hashanah, and he was outstanding.
“Elie Wiesel once wrote about the Jews of silence in the former Soviet Union. This Jew of silence was no longer silent. It inspired everyone in the congregation.”
While that will be Schlesinger’s introduction to his new congregations — keep in mind Shaare Shamayim offers both traditional and egalitarian services — Troster will touch on a topic closer to home.
That will be the upcoming election.
“Rabbis don’t endorse candidates from the pulpit,” said Troster, the 15th rabbi at Kesher Israel, which has been in existence for more than a century. “That’s a good thing.
“It frees us to talk about important social issues. One of the things I want to start with is the issue how do we really make a change? Personally? In the community? What’s stopping us? I’m going to reflect on that.”
While the news cycle and the election rhetoric often sounds like a prophecy of doom, Troster doesn’t believe Judaism sees it that way.
“There’s a positive message in our tradition that believes we can change,” said Troster, who most recently was a rabbinic scholar in residence at Greenfaith, the interfaith environmental coalition in New Jersey. “We’re not stuck on a lot of things to feel depressed about.
“The High Holidays give you a chance to start the year with a clean slate. It’s a very optimistic message.”
That’s similar to the kind of message Rabbi Joshua Waxman intends to deliver at Reconstructionist Or Hadash Congregation in Fort Washington.
“I try to think about what it is I think people need to hear and specifically what they need to hear in connection with the holiday,” said Waxman, who’s flexible enough that should something big take place in the next week or so — though not as cataclysmic as 9/11, when rabbis universally had to change their sermon topics — he can adapt. “Messages of renewal, hope, change, redemption.
“This year, I’m going to be speaking about our attitudes toward race and racial justice. When I do that, it’s very much grounded in the message of the season.
“At Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I don’t want to simply take advantage of the largest crowd I’ll have all year. I want to make sure it makes sense with what’s going on.”
And he doesn’t feel being a Reconstructionist rabbi makes him any different from his counterparts in other denominations.
“Every rabbi is going to be asking himself those same questions,” said Waxman, who’s been at Or Hadash for 13 years. “What I feel is I have to say something meaningful and relevant at this time of year.
“In doing so, I want to make sure to include the values precious to me and my community — support for diversity and respect for individuals. Fundamentally, people attracted to a Reconstructionist synagogue are going to be more open. It’s important to me my sermons reflect those values as well.”
That’s equally important to Rabbi Shraga Sherman of Chabad of the Main Line.
“The Jewish soul is very open on the High Holidays, and there’s an inner desire by every Jewish person to come into the shul and deepen their connection,” Sherman said. “It’s part of the challenge and also very rewarding having an opportunity to deliver a message that will empower people Jewishly.
“My goal is not to lecture them, and my message is not choreographed. It’s based in Torah and, therefore, it is all relevant. That’s the goal, and you want to have staying power. The Torah has been around 3,000 years. It’s a pretty good product.”
The bottom line, though, regardless of denomination, gender or sexual preference for Jews and their rabbis, is essentially the same.
“I can’t speak for other rabbis or other women,” said Rabbi Geri Newburge, associate rabbi at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, who’ll deliver the sermon on Kol Nidre. “There’s a theme to the season, certain messages you want to share.
“Whatever rabbi is giving the message, it’s how to make yourself better. To talk about forgiveness and acceptance and remembering those people who used to be in your lives.
“They’re fairly universal. The sermons I give, some might be informed by the fact I’m Reform, but none by the fact I happen to be a woman.”
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