Morning prayer service (Shacharit) in Fair Lawn takes place at the back of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn on 09/10/20.

Crafting a thought-provoking and inspiring sermon for the Jewish high holidays can be an arduous exercise that produces as much awe and trepidation as the sacred holidays themselves.  

But a pandemic, raging wildfires and political turmoil offer plenty of fodder for New Jersey rabbis seeking relevant themes.   

“Normally there might be a greater onus on the rabbi to remind people of how much we all have to daven for,” said Rabbi Daniel Fridman of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, using the Yiddish term for praying. “I would think now that is self-evident.” 

Faith: NJ Jews will adapt high holidays to the COVID crisis with TV shows and shofar house calls

The high holiday sermon is a highlight of the typically hourslong prayer service, when rabbis preach to their biggest audiences of the year. 

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins Friday night and will be followed 10 days later by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The sacred day traditionally brings the largest crowds of the year to synagogues around the world, as worshipers and their families gather to pray, repent and seek peace and good health for the world. 

But this year, amid a pandemic, there will be few crowds in temple sanctuaries.  

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Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, taped services for the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in July. The shofar, held by Rabbi Simerly, made of a rams horn, is blown during the Jewish High Holy Days.  (Photo: AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK)

Many Conservative and Reform temples have moved their services online, which means that rabbis must deliver their sermons in an empty sanctuary to a camera. Orthodox congregations are holding multiple, smaller prayer quorums, so rabbis have to deliver the same message many times over.

Rabbis of all denominations said they are truncating remarks this year to help streamline services, some cutting their usual roughly half-hour speech in half. 

That brings added pressure — and less time — to uplift worshipers who are lonely, depressed and just plain disgusted by the state of the world.

Like other rabbis around North Jersey, Andrew Markowitz of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn plans to address the many important lessons that can be gleaned from the pandemic. “We don’t have control of the world. God does,” he notes.

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People have gained a newfound understanding of life’s fragility, an appreciation of what they have and the recognition that even a simple phone call to a lonely neighbor can have great impact, he said.

“When crisis occurs, it should cause us to reflect personally and communally on how we can come out of this stronger, and become better people as a result of our shared experience,” Markowitz said. 

For many months, there was no communal prayer, because of the coronavirus shutdown. He hopes that has made people appreciate it more. “The fact that we can pray together on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is very emotional for me,” he said.

Rabbi Beni Wajnberg of Temple Beth Rishon (Photo: Temple Beth Rishon)

Rabbi Meeka Simerly of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne will address the myriad of ways that people have chosen to grapple with the stressful situations that have arisen this year. “They can approach a challenge using humor, or they can hoard toilet paper,” she said. 

Thanks to the coronavirus, the lifesaving power of a religious practice prominent in Judaism — washing hands — is now clear to all, added Rabbi Beni Wajnberg of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff.

“We knew that already,” he said, referring to the numerous Jewish rituals that require hand washing, “but now we have really learned it. Because there can’t be individual health without collective health. We are all interconnected and interdependent. We rely on each others’ actions.”

Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Tenafly’s Temple Sinai of Bergen County plans to speak about racism and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. “I would call it a confessional,” he said. “On some level, everyone is racist because the culture we live in is racist. … What kind of teshuva, or repentance, do we all need to do when it comes to our own biases?”

At Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, Rabbi Michael Satz will advise his congregants that the pandemic has shown that “we are not in control of the world. An invisible thing like a virus can change our entire lives.

“As Jews, as humans, we have been through catastrophe before. For most of us today, the quarantine is just an inconvenience,” he said. “For those of us privileged to just be inconvenienced, we need to recognize other people’s pain, to be with them in their pain, and it is our obligation to help bring healing.”   

Deena Yellin covers religion for For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected] Twitter: @deenayellin 

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