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High Holidays Are An Opportunity For Rabbis To Reach A Bigger Audience


This weekend is the start of the Jewish high holidays. Sunday evening Rosh Hashanah begins - that's the Jewish new year. And nine days later, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is the holiest day of the year for Jewish people. NPR's Tom Gjelten has been talking to rabbis about their plans for the holidays.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Synagogues during the high holidays, like churches at Christmas time, are especially full. So some rabbis see the holidays as a time to reach a bigger audience. Debra Newman Kamin is the rabbi at Am Yisrael, a suburban Chicago synagogue in the conservative tradition.

DEBRA NEWMAN KAMIN: You know, I stand on the podium, and I look out at my whole congregation, multi-generation. Some I don't see during the course of the year. Some I see depending on - but I look out, and there's the sense of we're all here.

GJELTEN: The high holidays every year are a time of reflection. But Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says this year is different.

RICK JACOBS: We're living in a moment where there's just so much hatred and bigotry and divisiveness everywhere we look. And people are coming into the sanctuaries this year because they are so hungry to have this oasis of regeneration and resilience and love and community.

GJELTEN: To meet that need, rabbis may quote Hebrew scripture. Rabbi Binyamin Blau, at the Orthodox Green Road Synagogue in Beachwood, Ohio, cites a story of the prophet Elijah searching for God.

BINYAMIN BLAU: And God tells him, go to a certain location and you're going to hear a great noise. You're going to see a great fire. But it's the soft voice that's really where God is.

GJELTEN: The softness of God's voice, Rabbi Blau says, reminds people how they should conduct themselves. Of course, it's not just talk. This past year brought mass shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad synagogue in Poway, Calif. Rabbi Newman Kamin says she can't avoid the rise in anti-Semitism.

NEWMAN KAMIN: Given what's happened in our country and given this is the first time we'll be gathering on the high holidays after Pittsburgh and after Poway, I feel that I am compelled to address this issue which I - as a young rabbi, I really thought, you know, anti-Semitism was gone from the United States of America.

GJELTEN: But it's not, as Rabbi Blau in Ohio and every other rabbi knows all too well.

BLAU: There's not a synagogue in North America, and perhaps around the globe, that hasn't increased their security. It is the reality of the time we live in, something that wasn't in our budget last year.

GJELTEN: And then there are the especially divisive issues. Rick Jacobs will speak at the Westchester Reform synagogue in Scarsdale, N.Y., where he's now rabbi emeritus. He'll talk about how Jewish values should inform the immigration debate.

JACOBS: And I'm going to ask us to think about the children who we as a country have put in cages and made to sleep on concrete floors, cold and shivering. I'm going to ask us, what kind of faith could allow that to happen?

GJELTEN: Most American Jews do not approve of President Trump's performance, but about a quarter of them did vote for him, something Rabbi Jay Kornsgold will keep in mind when he delivers his high holiday sermons at Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, N.J. - also in the conservative tradition.

JAY KORNSGOLD: You know, on the one hand, you need to talk about the important issues of the day, but on the other hand, you do have people kind of on both sides of the aisle.

GJELTEN: So how does a rabbi handle that challenge?

KORNSGOLD: I do it trying to stay away from necessarily mentioning names, if you get the drift (laughter).


Rabbis from various congregations - reform, conservative and orthodox - anticipating their high holiday sermons.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.