Rabbis throughout Metro Detroit and beyond are getting ready to again inspire their largest audiences as they approach the pulpit with messages of hope, reconciliation and self-refection.
Congregation Shaarey Zedek’s Rabbi Yonatan Dahlen does a lot of reading this time of year. He speaks to lots of people, bounces ideas off his wife, Meredith, and spends more time in silence. It’s all part of his preparation for the High Holidays.
Rabbis throughout Metro Detroit and beyond are getting ready to again inspire their largest audiences as they approach the pulpit with messages of hope, reconciliation and self-refection. Getting those messages ready to deliver to sanctuaries full of congregants — and again this year, also those joining on Zoom — is a creative endeavor each rabbi enters into in a different way.
For Dahlen, sitting in silence gives him the chance to think and digest what he’s read and heard, and to let his mind wander freely. He usually also reads lots of mindfulness books (Chassidut), to prepare, but this year he’s been reading more poetry. “It’s been really good for my thinking process, just to give myself a little bit more freedom and a lack of judgement, to be able to let my mind go wherever it goes,” he says.
He’s exploring sermon ideas around how Judaism wants us to be active, as well as how we are commanded to care and look out for each other, and what that means for the responsibilities we have to ourselves, our families and our communities at large.
“One of the sermon ideas is that Judaism isn’t supposed to be passive,” he says. “I think the heartbeat of Judaism is ritual. Judaism wants us to be active, to get our hands on our ritual, our tradition, our text and really make them our own.”
Meaningful to All
The challenge in writing High Holiday sermons comes from trying to speak to as many generations as possible, says Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny of Temple Israel. It’s a larger congregation than on a regular Shabbat, and she says she wants to make sure her message comes through and is meaningful — that there’s something in her message everyone can identify with and that matters to them.
She does her best thinking when she’s moving and in nature, and so during this season walks miles on the trails and on the sidewalks in her neighborhood. “I love being in nature, I love being in the sunshine watching the birds — it gives me the opportunity to focus,” she says.
Sometimes Kaluzny listens to music, and she frequently talks to people about their experiences and priorities to meet them where they are. “I try to think ‘what could I bring them from Jewish tradition, from my own experience, that could be inspiring, that could be a message that could stay with them or that they could return to in times of happiness, trouble or indecision.’”
Kaluzny is rereading the Torah portion and talking to colleagues all over the country as she seeks to craft a message that responds to what we’ve been through as individuals, a community and a nation. She’s also reading memoirs to get inspiration for what will ultimately become the messages she shares in her sermons.
“I have to brew it in my head first, and once it’s brewed for a little bit, then I can put it on paper,” she says. “I think people are approaching these High Holidays with great anticipation that good things are coming,”
Though some colleagues start writing their sermons months ahead of the holiday, Rabbi Yechiel Morris of Young Israel Southfield says his usually comes together a week or two in advance. His focus on the High Holidays is the same every year, he explains.
“As a rabbi, you’re always looking for a hook of what people are thinking about, but the message is always the same,” he says. “The issues are different, but the goals and messages and values, that’s a constant.”
It’s simultaneously a time to praise members and congratulate them for what they do, to feel proud of their commitments to God, but also to try and push them to strengthen their connection to God, their fellow Jews and their Judaism, he says.
“The big messages are taking stock of who we are as Jews and thinking about what’s important, and not to become complacent no matter where we are in life,” he says, adding that he focuses very little on politics and world affairs during his sermons.
“It’s more about your personal and familial and communal growth as a Jew.”
He’s hoping people leave services reflecting on how to keep growing, adapting and maintaining their commitment — making Judaism a priority in their lives. He also plans to talk about resilience, staying strong, and moving forward.
“My nephew was one of the 45 people who died in Israel this past year during the stampede,” he says. “One of the big themes is thinking about the upcoming year and how life is fragile and making the most of every opportunity.”
At the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit, Rabbi Jeffrey Falick is readying for four big services. He says he starts thinking about his topics for the following year just after the holidays, but has struggled with this year’s message, which he wants to have address the global trauma that has impacted people on so many levels and in so many different ways.
While he used to sit at coffeeshops and write, because of the pandemic, he’s sitting at his dining table preparing his message, he says. He’s selected four different aspects of the human condition to talk about, and plans to explore how our perspectives have changed, and can change, as the result of the pandemic.
“This has been a part of life that has just been whipping us backwards and forwards in every direction, and the whiplash we’ve gotten, we have to learn from,” he says.
“This year, I’m really focusing on being pastoral in my approach because I think that’s what people need. Helping people dig inside, that’s the point of talking about these things from the standpoint of perspective.”
Rabbi Michael Moskowitz’s planning phone calls for High Holiday sermons started earlier this summer. He and his colleagues, both at Temple Shir Shalom and around town, challenge each other and share ideas. He’ll give two sermons over the High Holidays, and he plans to focus on the strength and adaptability that’s part of the Jewish experience.
Moskowitz says he delves into books that he put aside during the year for this purpose, and tries to put together sermons that encourage people to reflect and also empower them to adjust. He reads with an eye toward what he might teach.
“Often, there are books that have struck me that maybe I touched during the year that I put aside and now want to grab hold of,” he says, pointing to books by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and also Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, which he started reading last year.
“I believe the Jewish experience is a success story. Whether we go to ancient times to today, it’s not about a fear of failure; it’s about how do we continue in the most effective way, and how do we make sure that those memories and that history are something we utilize not just to reflect on but to grow ourselves and grow upon as individuals, a community and a people,” he explains. “For me, the imprint is put on us, of responsibility — on our soul.”
Power of Home
This will be Rabbi Daniel Horwitz’s first year at Adat Shalom Synagogue’s pulpit. As part of his preparation for addressing the community, he carves out a few hours twice a week for writing, reading and researching as his busy schedule with small children allows.
He’s considering talking about how the disruption of the pandemic can make room for people to evaluate the “normal” they were living, and how they can seek to enhance their lives and move toward a new, better normal for themselves.
He’s also looking at talking about the power of home. “This was a huge draw to come back to Metro Detroit — what does it mean for you to have home and a loving, supportive community,” explains Horwitz, who recently moved back to Metro Detroit from Florida.
“I want them to be thinking about something, and I want them to be feeling something,” he says of people who take part in the services. “What I want them to feel is that they were seen, and that doesn’t mean they have to dress up fancy — but it’s in a year of people living on screens, one of the hardest things for people in general and in life is to be made to feel invisible.”
He says he wants people to extend the feelings of being seen and potentially the sense of home to others.
“I would want them to think about what role each of them could potentially play to help others feel seen.”