The approach of the High Holidays means that rabbis and spiritual leaders around the North Shore, the country and the world are preparing for chapels and synagogues packed with congregants and hundreds of other Jews coming to shul for the holiest days of the year.
We spoke with five rabbis on the North Shore to hear what they are preparing for this year.
Rabbi Michael Schwartz
This will be the third year of Rabbi Schwartz’s tenure at Temple Sinai in Marblehead. Throughout his sermons, he aims to talk about things that connect to people where they are, while engaging with the global reality and connecting back to the holiday.
This year, Rabbi Schwartz plans to discuss the future of democracy in Israel. “Particularly,” he says, he will discuss, “the importance of what’s going on [and how it’s] connected to Jewish unity, and what it means to be a unified people.” (Last year for Pesach, Schwartz put out a daily list for the Omer where he explored similar topics of unity at a different moment in the political situation in Israel.)
In addition to discussing the situation in Israel, Schwartz will explore the concept of hineni, which connects to the Rosh Hashanah Torah portion. This year, the theme as it relates to mindfulness and presentness is particularly valuable: “The importance of being mindful in terms of spirituality, in terms of how we relate to other humans by being present, and as a healing idea of mindfulness,” he says.
Schwartz also plans to discuss what it means to be human – on the second day of Rosh Hashanah he will explore artificial intelligence. “How do we double down on being human?” he asks. Over Shemini Atzeret, Schwartz will be reading a dvar Torah from his wife’s grandfather, Rabbi Joshua Haberman of Washington Hebrew Congregation, who was a D.C.-based rabbi for decades and wrote many well-received sermons in his time.
“I don’t want to give it all away!” Schwartz says with a chuckle. “Just enough to get people to attend!”
Rabbi Alison Adler
Rabbi Adler will be speaking at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly for the thirteenth year.
“Foremost on my mind is that in the face of everything happening we need to respond by strengthening our communities, and our Judaism, based on love and justice, community responsibility, compassion, and healing,” she says. “So I plan on talking about that at different levels – our own spiritual practice as individuals, strengthening our growing and thriving community, and what people are looking for now.”
The B’nai Abraham community has, in recent months, played a major role in supporting an Afghan family who fled their country because the father was a target of the Taliban after working with the U.S. military. Adler intends to share reflections on what TBA as a community has learned from this experience.
“We have a new understanding of the teaching that saving one life is like saving an entire universe,” she says. “Through working with this family we have also gotten a deeper understanding of the needs of Afghan refugees, the local housing crisis, and so much more.”
Rabbi Idan Irelander
Rabbi Irelander, founding rabbi of the year-old Congregation Ahavat Olam in North Andover, is centering his High Holiday theme on “recharging our spiritual batteries.” For his five big dvar Torahs this fall, he will offer both tools for personal reflection and, for a broader context of current events, a look at the judicial overhaul in Israel.
“Emet veshalom, truth and peace,” he explains. “We use them together in Jewish teachings and literature to emphasize interconnectedness, but what would you do if you needed to choose one over the other? … This is all introspection to give you spiritual tools for the new year.”
Specifically for Rosh Hashanah, Irelander will be focusing on the concept of HaYom Harat Olam – today the world was created. “It’s about new beginnings,” he says. “If you think about the Western Wall, before the High Holidays, all the notes in its cracks are being removed to make space for new notes and new requests and wishes.” For Irelander, this year is about those “spiritual notes” within us, cleansing ourselves of the past ones to make space for the new.
Though he does intend to speak on the judicial overhaul, Irelander, who grew up in Netanya, Israel, will not take a stand on the political situation in his home country. “I will never bring politics into my pulpit,” he says. “As a rabbi, I will try to suggest something that can be done based on our Jewish tradition, not from a political point of view. I will leave that to my congregants.”
Rabbi Darryl Crystal
Rabbi Darryl Crystal, the interim rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, has a slightly different task than his colleagues. In addition to sharing relevant thoughts and teachings about the chag, he is also taking it on to honor the legacy of Rabbi David Meyer, who retired in June.
“I’ll talk about transition,” he says. “I try to write the sermons in a way that will be meaningful for each congregation. So, particularly [in] the sermon where I want to talk about transition, I’m going to talk a lot about all the wonderful things that have happened in this synagogue … I always acknowledge the legacy – in this case, Rabbi Meyer – of the rabbi that retired. That’s an important thing as interim … I’m affirming the legacy of the previous rabbi.”
In addition to his acknowledgement of Rabbi Meyer’s legacy and support of the congregation in that, Crystal will also address the general themes of the holiday such as “personal renewal” and the “power of repentance.” His third topic will be engaging with contemporary issues. “I imagine that I will touch on the issues of the great divisions in society, both in the United States and in Israel, and how we can work towards understanding that and responding to it,” he says.
Rabbi Richard Perlman
Rabbi Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody has been giving High Holiday sermons on and off for 40 years (he’s been at Ner Tamid since 2016), but says he never ends up giving the sermon that he’s prepared. “What I’m planning on doing and what will happen are two different things,” he says. “Every year since I’ve been on the pulpit … I always start preparing my divrei Torah somewhere in the middle of the summer. I’ll say, ‘oh, I’ll talk about this, I’ll talk about that.’ And miraculously, something happens and changes everything. Usually, that happens the day or the week before. So I don’t really lock anything down until that time.”
Regardless of whatever events take place leading up to the chagim, Perlman always tries to focus some words on learning how to be better to each other. “The bottom line of any message that I try to put together … [is] about how we can have better relationships – not just with G-d,” he says.
Perlman wants his congregants to move beyond wanting to make amends with G-d and saying sorry for the bad things they’ve done this year. “The problem is, we keep leaving the word ‘us’ and ‘we’ out of the message. It’s ‘I, I, I,’ and I try to preach ‘we, we, we.’ I try to make sure that people understand that we live in a world where we all have differences of opinion, and it’s okay.”
Perlman will also be talking about Israel this year, but he intends to steer away from Israeli politics. “What I’ll talk about is the importance of making sure that eretz yisroel is there, is strong, and is taken care of,” he says. “So yes, I will be talking about that, but more than that, I will be talking about us.”