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Crunch Time for Rabbinate, as New Year Nears

September 13, 2012 By:
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A student uses a smartphone to help Rabbi Eric Yanoff write his sermon. It's one example of synagogues using hi-tech to engage congregants. Photo by Greg Bezanis

Your rabbi needs your help."

Congregants of Adath Israel in Merion Station received this message in an email -- with a link to a YouTube clip -- sent out about a month before the start of the High Holidays.

In the video, Rabbi Eric Yanoff, seated at his desk, asks his congregants for ideas to incorporate into his Yom Kippur sermon.

Using the tactic known as crowd-sourcing, he wanted to know: What was the best advice you ever received, what motivated you to be part of a congregation and does anyone know a few good jokes? Even the Days of Awe require a little humor.

Yanoff also enlisted teens in the congregation to help out by posing those questions to other members and recording their answers on their smartphones.

Welcome to crunch time for the pulpit rabbi.

Rabbis amass their largest audiences during the High Holidays and many clergy try to set the tone for their congregation's upcoming year. Preparing their sermons is often a laborious and soul-searching process, wheth­er religious leaders are using the latest interactive technology or spending hours alone, wrest­ling with ideas in longhand or banging them out on a computer.

An informal survey of rabbis throughout the Delaware Valley found a host of topics on the horizon, both transcendent and terrestrial. They include: renewing a relationship with God, repentance and the process of change, how to mend a broken soul, the problem of gun violence, the importance of voting and just what would God post on a divine Facebook page?

The Facebook idea comes from Rabbi Barry Blum of Beth-El Ner Tamid, a Conservative synagogue in Broomall.

"So many people are connected to technology," and can relate to such a question, said Blum.

Trying to boil God's essentials down to what can fit on a Facebook page forces individuals to consider "what would God like to see us do? Where do we see God-like things happening?"

Interestingly, of the rabbis who responded to an email query by the Jewish Exponent, none said they planned to focus on Israel, the threat of a nuclear Iran or the dangers of anti-Semitism in Europe.

While some rabbis are seeking to break new ground, others are using their High Holiday talks to get back to basics.

Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, religious leader of the Vilna Congregation, a Chabad-Lubavitch shul in Society Hill, said his choice of topics really wasn't that complicated.

"Rosh Hashanah is a time when we start all over again in creating a new relationship with God," said Schmidt, who is known for combining his love of Chasidic philosophy with his interest in jam music -- he plays in a group called the Baal Shem Tov Band, named for the founder of Chasidism.

Blowing the shofar, he said, is "the most important thing happening in the world that day. I talk about the fact that we are crowning God the king of the universe, and I'm helping people figure out what that means and how we get to a beginning point with that."

Not all religious leaders plan to address such cosmic concepts.

Clearly, the presidential election is dominating discourse these days and is a difficult topic for rabbis to avoid completely. That said, few rabbis said they wanted to get overtly political.

Rabbi Joshua Waxman, of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington, said he does not plan to discuss anything election-related.

"Less because I feel it's divisive -- which, of course, it is -- than because there has been such a non-stop bombardment of election-related news and coverage over the past months, and I wanted the holidays to be a refuge from that," he said.

Instead, he'll be focusing on the concepts of repentance and transformation and what can be learned from the story of the burning bush in Exodus.

But if rabbis aren't tackling the choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney head on, some are raising issues related indirectly to the election.

Yanoff plans to weave together the tidbits he's collecting from his congregants to make a statement about the collective wisdom, creativity and talents of the synagogue community. His emphasis on the wisdom of crowds, he said, speaks to the essence of what it means to live in a democracy.

"I will probably say that that is the underpinning approach of democracy and elections and voting -- there is no one person who has all of the wisdom and therefore no one has the only decision- making voice. That's why we vote," said Yanoff.

Rabbi Neil Cooper, who leads the nearby Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, also a Conservative congregation, plans to focus one of his sermons on the idea that although Jews shouldn't hesitate to mine Jewish sources for guidance on contemporary issues, they should never assume that Judaism takes either a liberal or conversative position.

In short, he plans to remind his congregation that God ­isn't a Democrat or a Republican. "God specifically does not side with one party or the other," the rabbi said, adding that he thinks that religion has come to play too great a role in political discourse. "I am just amazed as I stand back and watch the role that God plays in the American political system."

"I don't think there is anything wrong with people being guided by things in which they believe," he said, but he's skeptical when anyone claims Judaism takes a particular stance on an issue. For example, texts may speak of the importance of protecting the earth, he said, but they don't really offer a solution regarding the pros and cons of fracking for natural gas and whether or not it is harmful to humans or fresh-water sources.

Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin, religious leader of Beth Sholom Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Elkins Park, plans to reference the current partisan atmosphere when he speaks about the need for individuals to sometimes let go of their ideal of perfection in order to pursue realistic compromise.

"The kind of partisanship we have seen has had a damaging impact on our ability to strive forward to create a more perfect union," he said.

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herman, founder of Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia, plans to address Pennsylvania's voter ID law and voice her opposition to it. She'll also discuss themes of wholeness and brokenness and finding ways to move forward in life.

Then, she said, her attention will turn to the issue of gun violence including the July 20 incident at the premier of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo., in which a 24-year-old man opened fire, allegedly killing 12 people.

"This is a general talk about gun violence and my own personal journey to waking up to that issue," said Hermann.

The rabbi said she's hesitant to reveal too much about her sermons. To hear the rest, she said, you'll have to come to services.

Meanwhile, when asked if previous generations of rabbis would have been loathe to cede the content for their sermons -- and with it, perhaps, their moral authority -- to their congregants the way Yanoff seemingly has by asking for their input, the rabbi ponders the notion for a moment.

"I don't know if this is a generational thing; there are old-school thinkers who are 35 and innovative thinkers who have been in the rabbinate for 50 years," he said.

"This is a very participatory approach. I believe that, increasingly, people of all ages want to roll up their sleeves and do their Judaism as opposed to observing other people doing it for them."

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