The horror of 9/11 and the sadness of losing his father produced the two hardest Rosh Hashanah sermons Rabbi Gil-Ezer Lerer has had to deliver.
Several Wisconsin rabbis talked frankly in interviews about the challenges of writing and delivering sermons, especially for the High Holidays annually. Gil-Ezer remembers adjusting quickly after 9/11.
The Temple Menorah spiritual leader has written nearly 40 Rosh Hashanah sermons, not counting the one he trashed after terrorists flew hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people. He doesn’t remember what his original message was that year, but like so many other rabbis, he had to quickly turn his attention to helping congregants deal with grief and anger.
“The country was devastated. They looked to us for comfort, and we all worked on the fly,” he said.
His Rosh Hashanah sermon eight years later was even tougher because his father, the revered Rabbi Isaac Lerer who was Temple Menorah’s founding rabbi and with whom Gil-Ezer had shared the pulpit for many years, had died in March.
So that September, “I talked about him and how life can change and that you should appreciate what you have while you have it,” Gil-Ezer said. “It was the most emotional sermon I ever delivered. It was my first High Holidays without my dad. It was tough, but the Almighty gives you strength and somehow I got through it.”
Gil-Ezer recalled that his father let him “get his feet wet,” so the son gave his first sermon as a high school sophomore and his first Rosh Hashanah sermon two years before graduating from rabbinical school.
Gil-Ezer learned from his father not to speak too long. He tells the story of the rebbitzen who sat in the front row of the sanctuary. At a board meeting, the rabbi was asked why she blew him a kiss in the middle of his sermon. The kiss meant, “Keep it short, sweetheart.”
“The holidays are long days in the synagogue and people don’t want to sit there and fidget in their seats,” Gil-Ezer said. “It’s like drilling for oil: If in 18 minutes you don’t strike oil, stop drilling. Get to your point.”
Rabbi Levi Brook at Chabad of Waukesha-Brookfield agrees. “If you talk for more than 20 minutes, you’ve lost the crowd,” said Brook, who says his High Holiday sermons last no more than 12 minutes.
Gil-Ezer’s Rosh Hashanah topics over the years have included assimilation, Jewish identification and Israel, “picking a certain prayer out of the High Holiday prayer book and applying it to modern times. Ancient words still apply in 2018.”
Many rabbis like to include a personal touch in their Rosh Hashanah sermons. “Sometime it’s an experience, perhaps someone I met, or a milestone in my life that is a milestone in everyone’s life,” Gil-Ezer said. “It humanizes the sermon.”
Rabbi Michal Woll of Congregation Shir Hadash, on Milwaukee’s east side, wove her new tallit into a sermon, while the Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon given by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Temple Beth El in Madison last year included his high school Latin teacher who was in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
Biatch takes time after the High Holidays to begin formulating a theme for the following year, “wondering about the needs of my community, things perhaps I didn’t address with my community that year. From that theme, I save material I read and come up with a topic in February or March.
“Last year my overall theme came from a quotation from the Book of Proverbs 25:11 – how do we improve the words that we use? I addressed how we speak to each other.”
Biatch gives his congregation “an appetizer” in months leading up to Rosh Hashanah, announcing the theme of his sermon in the bulletin and periodically in emails.
Biatch hopes his sermons help congregants “see in themselves areas they need to improve.” For instance, he encourages congregants to become advocates for social justice, “to move beyond sandwich preparing and notebook supplying.”
Many rabbis say politics shouldn’t be brought into a congregation. But Biatch discusses issues in the world that concern Jews, basing sermons on Jewish text and values. “I discuss human rights and public policy issues because in the Reform movement, we apply our faith traditions to better the world.”
“Some people prefer I not do that, but the rabbi whose community never disagrees with him is no rabbi,” Biatch said. “Part of the job of rabbis is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I don’t want to insult my congregants, but on the other hand, I want to make them think.”
Three years ago, Biatch spoke on Rosh Hashanah about the police shootings of black youth and movements that came out of those shootings. “I spoke about white privilege and how we disregard our history as Jews if we immerse ourselves in white privilege and not about society,” he said. “I spoke about the American dream, bringing economic success and equality into our society.” He added, “Some thought it was a wonderful sermon, but I heard through the grapevine that some were not comfortable about me talking about it.”
As a first-year rabbinical student, Woll signed a contract for a High Holiday pulpit eight hours before the World Trade Center towers were hit in 2001. “I didn’t have a clue as to what to say,” she recalled.
Woll doesn’t finalize a Rosh Hashanah topic too early “because the world is changing really, really fast. It’s hard to know what will be going on in the world in September.” Woll, who this year “is thinking about love” as a theme, lets her sermons “brew and brew. I don’t put them on paper until days before.”
Woll “has trouble staying away from politics because people are hurting so much and so scared. You can talk about Jewish values when you are talking about politics.”
She said it’s easier to talk politics at Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist synagogue, because “we have a progressive social view and are more politically homogenous.”
Woll, who prefers participatory conversations to sermons during the year, added, “The core message I like to lead with during the High Holidays is about community: being a community and our responsibility to community. I talk about how to make Judaism more meaningful, encouraging people to up the ante a bit. “On the evening of Rosh Hashanah, what I say tends to be more of an invitation for people to become more introspective, to get in the spirit of the High Holidays.”
Some rabbis have their spouse look over the sermons. Woll’s husband, writer Jon Sweeney, “does a great job as a barometer to how a message will be heard, whether people will understand the message.” Gil-Ezer said his wife Debbie “looks over my drafts, analyzes them as to how fast I get into the subject, gives me criticism, and lets me know if I am going in the right direction.”
Shabbat sermons can be off the cuff, “but during the High Holidays, they are scripted out more, a little more intense,” Gil-Ezer said. “I don’t take pen to paper until a few weeks before. I go back and fix it up, I might tear it up and start again. It takes a lot of sweat and soul to come up with something that will interest people. I stay away from politics, but I want to give them some message to go home and think about. Sometimes it’s hard to sleep at night, I stare at the ceiling trying to think of how I can motivate people, to bring more Torah into their lives, more decency into their lives. It takes a lot out of you.”
Brook is “not a big fan of sermons. I don’t believe sermons really have an effect on people’s lives. I try not to be preachy.”
His topics vary, but include “zero politics. You absolutely should never bring politics into a shul because it can alienate a lot of people,” he said.
Brook added, “I don’t think people are coming to shul to hear the rabbi’s opinion on world affairs. They are coming to be uplifted. A rabbi needs to stick to teaching the Torah’s approach to things, to take our rich history and say, ‘OK, how does that impact our daily lives in 2018?’ I am not looking to blow people away.”
Brook tries to make his High Holidays sermons personal. “If I can be inspired by a certain idea, I can inspire others,” he said. “Rabbis are supposed to be like a sign on the highway, to show you the direction.”
Biatch added, “It’s the role of the rabbi to bring comfort at the appropriate time and bring challenge at the appropriate time.”
But always get to the point quickly.
Gil-Ezer tells the story about the non-Jew who attends a service with a Jewish friend. The non-Jew asks, “What is the eternal light?” The Jew answers. Then the non-Jew asks, “What is the Torah?” The Jew responds.
And finally the visitor asks, “Why when the rabbi started to speak did everyone look at their watches?”