The High Holidays are a particularly heavy time of the year: a time for reflection, renewal, forgiveness and repentance for individuals, the Baltimore Jewish community and the Jewish world at large.
For rabbis in the Greater Baltimore area, there is no uniform approach to composing sermons for the High Holidays nor uniform topics to cover. Some plan to cover topical issues such as the refugee crisis — although most plan to stay away from politics — while others plan to address more universal spiritual topics.
The JT spoke with seven area rabbis to hear about their approaches to the High Holidays. Here’s what they had to say.
— Marc Shapiro
Rabbis Dana Saroken and Steven Schwartz
Beth El Congregation
Rabbi Dana Saroken, who joined Beth El in 2007 as the congregation’s first female rabbi, touches on certain topics each year, maintaining soulful and spiritual themes in her Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons.
This year, she’ll be focusing heavily on the Jewish society striving for happiness and the way people engage and value one another in a world that has become divided and polarized, as well as regret. Saroken will incorporate a bevy of techniques in her sermons to have her audience think outside the box.
“I try to address a range of topics over the course of the holidays and to find messages that have broad application and meaning,” Saroken said. “I also use a lot of kavannot (introductions) to the prayers and themes in the service to get people thinking. The main goal of the [High] Holy Days isn’t to move through the Machzor (prayer book) page by page. It’s to have the prayers and the experience of the day move us, so that we emerge from the [High] Holy Days as different people than we were when we began them.”
While spending countless months of coming up with these themes, Saroken hopes her congregants take a step back to think of the bigger picture and push that discussion beyond their everyday lives.
“Where do we need to be awakened? What causes are worthy of our time? And how can we be agents of change amidst the brokenness?” Saroken said.
“The moment that the shofar blasts at Neilah, marking the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we have a clean slate. We rid ourselves of the albatrosses and regrets and pain and brokenness that we as human beings with consciences inevitably carry, and we can go forth into the world and begin anew.”
For the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Saroken and senior rabbi Steven Schwartz will each hold separate services. On the second day, they will join together to cap all three services they hold for adults. There will also be sermons going on around the congregation simultaneously on both days for both teenagers and young children.
Some rabbis opt to bring current events into the fold, discussing subjects that might spark heated debates such as this year’s presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
Although he said he won’t spend too much time dwelling on the matter, Schwartz will touch on the election and the two major party candidates during his Rosh Hashanah evening sermon.
“I think that it is a highly unusual election cycle,” said Schwartz, who has been with Beth El since 1998. “I think people are anxious about it, and I think people are going to vote for a candidate they don’t feel fully invested in.”
— Justin Silberman
Rabbi Steven Fink
Temple Oheb Shalom
Rabbi Steven Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom has the routine for his sermons down pat. Fink, 65, starts compiling ideas for his sermons and drafting them during the summer while making sure not to get too far ahead of himself.
This year, he has settled on a number of societal and cultural themes that many in the Jewish community find pressing.
Starting with Rosh Hashanah, he will address the difference between being alone and lonely in his evening service and then share his vision for America in his morning service.
“I won’t be speaking about the presidential election, but I’ll be speaking about my vision for America,” Fink said. “I’ll be talking about the ideals America aspires to achieve and how we should strive toward those ideals.”
For Yom Kippur, in his evening service, he will dissect how to fix the brokenness that many carry with them throughout their lives. He will spend his morning service examining what traits help make up a Jewish person’s DNA.
Fink’s sermons, which typically run anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes depending on the topic, may deviate from what he’s written if he finds that it is warranted.
In his 17 years at Oheb Shalom, Fink said there is one special humbling prayer not commonly practiced in Reform synagogues that he especially looks forward to.
“One of our most beautiful traditions is that during Yom Kippur afternoon during the Great Aleinu, the rabbis and cantor touch our heads to the floor at during the appropriate time,” Fink said. “When it says we bow our knees, we literally just put our knees on the floor and touch our floors to the head to show our complete humility before God.”
— Justin Silberman
Rabbi Etan Mintz
Congregation B’nai Israel
A Bergen County, N.J., native, Rabbi Etan Mintz, 38, of Modern Orthodox Congregation B’nai Israel in downtown Baltimore saw his move to the area as “an incredible opportunity,” one that has greatly heartened his wife and him for the past four years they’ve been here.
“I’m really taken by the opportunity in particular of developing and revitalizing Jewish life downtown,” Mintz said, delighting over the confluence of tradition he sees in the historic synagogue out of which his congregation is housed with the vibrant revivification the building and surrounding region has been undergoing.
Examples of physical renovation include repainting the building itself and making the space more accessible for older and/or disabled congregants wishing to join in on services. On a spiritual level, Mintz made sure to add, this renewal is one of his own “leading the congregation toward more personal study and reflection in order to have a greater individual religious growth.”
Mintz has been preparing a sermon for Rosh Hashanah that will expand upon “finding meaning and purpose in living every day to its fullest” along with the similar reverence for history and tradition fostered by more topical reflection that marks his excitement at having settled in Baltimore and at B’nai Israel.
It is essential to Mintz that his is a congregation that “focuses on spiritual value” and maintains an “open, warm, nonjudgmental environment.”
Hence, congregants can expect a Yom Kippur service that will be “not only spiritually uplifting but filled with energy and song,” courtesy Mintz’s bringing in a group of vocalists who will accompany their chazzan in order to “have more harmony for the formal service.”
Prefaced by a calming and reflective meditation, Mintz believes this thoughtful melding of a vocal group with the music of the chazzan will allow for “more intensity” of the experience for those present at a service he promises will be “filled with ruach.”
Although Mintz said he will not speak directly about the upcoming presidential election in his sermon, he intends to “touch on issues surrounding it: the importance of civil discourse and trying to make sure the conversation is uplifting,” with a hope that these conversations will be imbued with Jewish values, especially around the High Holidays.
— Mathew Klickstein
Rabbi Yisrael “Sruli” Motzen
Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Congregation
At first blush, Ner Tamid’s Rabbi Yisrael Motzen may surprise some as unconventionally young at the age of 32.
As Motzen laughed heartily, it’s in fact an attribute he refused to reveal when asked during a recent interview with another local media outlet.
But with four children and a master’s in counseling from Johns Hopkins University in conjunction with his bachelor’s in Talmudic Law from prestigious Pikesville yeshiva Ner Israel, the Montreal-born Modern Orthodox rabbi is anything but unprepared for the sacred role he took on four-and-a-half years ago.
Motzen’s infectious, ebullient spirit grants him a refreshing air of a leader primed to guide his congregants toward the new year with an almost palpable cheer.
Armed with his youthful vitality and effervescent ready-to-launch mindset, Motzen confessed that he has yet to consign to paper the thoughts that will be expressed during his High Holiday services.
Though he’s well aware that many rabbis toil tirelessly throughout the summer or perhaps earlier still over their sermons, such is not the style of Motzen who prefers to be fueled by the sense of raw intensity he feels waiting until the last minute. This sensibility also allows his message to be one of supreme timeliness, something that will touch on the most current exigencies of his congregants.
“It’s challenging,” Motzen admits about his admittedly unorthodox approach. “The size of our synagogue just about doubles during the holidays, and there’s a real pressure of having that perfect message for all the people you’ll maybe see only three times a year.”
Although it’s Motzen’s intention to make sure that those attending his services feel welcome and comfortable, his slightly contrarian methodology again reveals itself in his goal of also “pushing people a little out of their comfort zone.”
Indeed, he doesn’t want those joining him to be too at ease, lest they miss out on his overall suggestion of “finding a way to think a little differently during this time of year.” Motzen’s satisfaction will come from their “walking out a little different than they were when they walked in.”
— Mathew Klickstein
Rabbi Sonya Starr
Columbia Jewish Congregation
According to Rabbi Sonya Starr, what makes Reconstructionist Judaism different from other sects “is a belief that there is no one person who is charged with interpreting, teaching or transforming tradition for others.”
“I don’t teach you how to keep kosher. Rather, I tell you my understanding of kashrut, but it is your job as an educated Jew to decide what works best for you,” she said. “I serve more as a facilitator than as an educator.”
For Rosh Hashanah, Columbia Jewish Congregation will be having its first day’s services at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. Age-appropriate programming will be provided for children and teens on Monday morning, whereas Sunday evening will be a more communal service.
Additionally, Tashlich will occur at the Wilde Lake Boat Dock on Sunday evening.
In her sermon, Starr plans to address change — “the fact that we always change, whether it is conscious or not.” According to the rabbi, “This whole month allows us to make that change conscious, to reflect on what we want to achieve and how we can be better. We talk about positive change and repentance, but this is another type of change as well, which is changing from something to something else because the act of change keeps everything fresh and keeps us engaged; the act of changing is beneficial in itself.”
Starr explained that she does not plan on bringing politics into her sermons, citing that it is unethical. However, she said that on Yom Kippur, she would address tikkun olam and some specific contemporary problems, because “we have a moral and ethical responsibility to talk about issues.”
Ultimately, she wants to use traditional Jewish values to support a community in the modern world. “I think what we do is work really hard to make the ancient rituals relevant to people’s contemporary lives. We are better people when you engage in these rituals and if we strive to make Judaism relevant to the contemporary world.”
— Daniel Nozick
Rabbi Craig Axler
For the last four years, Temple Isaiah has hosted, in addition to regular synagogue services, a free afternoon service at Centennial Park in Ellicott City for Rosh Hashanah, followed by Tashlich at the park, which provides a perfect medium for reflection, Rabbi Craig Axler said.
“It is a fantastic, open community celebration. It is free and in a public space, which really provides for people in the community who wouldn’t have a place to go otherwise,” Axler said. “It is a fun, musical, family-friendly experience. I continue to run into people in the community who say that they or someone they know goes. Many of these people have no other connection to the Jewish community, and I am happy to be able to provide that connection point.”
There are two main points that Axler intends to address in his Rosh Hashanah sermons. “The first comes off of the Torah reading of the past Shabbat, talking about lost items and the mitzvah it is to return them,” he said. “It translates as ‘you shall not be indifferent,’ directly, but I prefer ‘you are incapable of indifference.’ When there are significant problems of the day, you are the cause or the problem, but you cannot just stand there on the sidelines.”
Specifically, Axler wishes to address the plight of refugees. “There should be a Jewish response to the plight of refugees,” he explained. “It is our duty toward them based on our history of needing refuge as a people.”
The rabbi’s second main point is about Israel. “I can’t be neutral on the legitimacy and safety of the state of Israel,” said Axler. “We need to call out unfair media bias toward Israel where it exists, and there are ways in the Jewish community that we don’t show our love and support as fully as we could. The current news cycle, every single moment seems to bring up a new life-or-death situation. We can’t be silent when there is tremendous discrimination in our country and community.”
Outside of his congregation, Axler intends to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with a family dinner and a long walk on the second day with his wife, perhaps to do Tashlich together. “My favorite service is always the second day,” he said. “It is a bit smaller service but less formal as well. The people come simply because it is Rosh Hashanah. I just really enjoy the beginning of every new year.” Axler hopes that this year, he will successfully bake a round challah as opposed to the oblong loaves that he has attained in past years. JT
— Daniel Nozick