Oakland rabbis grapple with divisive issues about Israel during High Holiday sermons

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Soon after the last crumbs of Passover were swept away last spring, Rabbi David J. Cooper gathered at his Grand Avenue synagogue with his fellow faith leaders to mull over the coming year’s theme that would be discussed throughout the High Holidays, the holiest time of year on the Jewish calendar. After the foundation was set, Cooper started writing his sermons from home in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the High Holidays at the start of fall. He turned to several Jewish texts, including the story of Elijah, Moses and the burning bush, and a passage from Isaiah 58.

But by later this year – after a summer of bombing and fighting between Israel and Gaza – Cooper, like other Jewish leaders in Oakland, was grappling with how to address the violence and ongoing Middle East tension within his more traditional thoughts about the holidays, which focus on starting new and letting go of the past. “In what way do we–as a congregation, as a synagogue–bring in a different kind of perspective to the conversation?” Cooper said. “How do we do it in a spiritual community? I’m exploring what that means. How do I as a rabbi?”

Most sermons for the High Holidays, or High Holy Days, as this ten-day period in the Jewish calendar is called, include thoughts, analysis and prayers about the state of Israel, its people and its future, along with connections to other news events, rabbinical teachings, Biblical lessons and other abstract musings. But this year there is a more political element that can’t be ignored: Israel at war.

Cooper’s 400-family congregation has advocated a two-state solution in Israel since the synagogue’s inception 30 years ago. “We did not want to be a synagogue where people were afraid to talk about their concerns and criticisms of Israel and its relationship with Palestinians,” Cooper said. That discussion is back on the front burner this year after the Gaza Strip bombing and rocket launching raged on between Israel and Palestine for several weeks in July, leaving Cooper the task of negotiating how to handle the polarizing topic. As he grappled with what to say, he kept returning to his humility as a spiritual leader. “I try to be more humble using my pulpit,” Cooper said. “I cannot say that I have the entire picture.”

Sundown Wednesday marked the beginning of the 10-day period of the High Holy Days, which starts with the celebration of New Year’s, or Rosh Hashana, and ends with Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement. Many usually less observant Jewish residents come out of the woodwork for these special celebrations, packing into synagogue pews for services – often their only appearance at temple for the year.

In conversations before Rosh Hashana last week, rabbis from three Oakland congregations – including Cooper, who leads a renewal synagogue, which means the clergy incorporates music, meditation, mysticism and other traditional practices –talked about what they most hoped to cover in their sermons as negotiations and policy discussions continue in Israel. Rabbis deliver a sermon at each service for the two holidays, starting the night before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and during each morning service. Sometimes they also add more throughout each day of the holidays.

Conflict in the Middle East won’t be overlooked at many synagogues, the rabbis said. But other themes –the four ancient elements, a record-breaking drought, spirituality, social justice–are ideas these rabbis are working into their speeches this year.

Rabbi Gershon Albert, from Oakland’s Beth Jacob Congregation, said he plans to “reiterate from the pulpit what we all think and believe.” The Modern Orthodox congregation as a whole, which has about 200 families, has taken the stance that there should be a strong Jewish state in Israel, he said.

He’ll focus in one sermon, he said, on the metaphor of the shofar, or ram’s horn, that is traditionally blown during the holidays, blasting a repeating combination of notes like a bugle. He will talk about listening to God’s call and reciprocating the call back–as a back-and-forth between a higher power and humanity. Rosh Hashana is “an opportunity for us to refocus on our dreams,” Albert said. He said he will ask members to think of desires in the past year that did not play out – and urge everyone to remember and realize those goals.

Cooper is focusing on themes of “Tikkun Olam” and “Tikkun HaNefesh.” The first translates from Hebrew to “repairing the world,” and the second means “healing of the soul.” Without community service and prayer, Cooper said he will explain to his congregation, “your life would be spiritually shallow.” Cooper, who holds services in a former church that is still rented on Sundays to a group of Ethiopian Christians, said the theme covers the connection between spirituality and community service. He is calling on his congregants to feel a spiritual connectedness and take that feeling to help with a social cause, whether in Oakland and the Bay Area or beyond, in Israel and Palestine.

Rabbi Mark Bloom, at the conservative Congregation Beth Abraham, which sits high on a hill on MacArthur Boulevard adjacent to Interstate 580, has been sprinkling in news events, and touching on Israeli affairs, to connect with his community at the start of the New Year. Last year the synagogue focused on the specific theme of human trafficking, while this year he is incorporating the four ancient elements – earth, air, fire and water.

The air element, he said: God and spirituality. Water and earth: the drought in California, and how Judaism deals with drought. This is not a new issue for the Jewish people considering Israel’s arid, dry climate and the environmental challenges to hydrate the land and its inhabitants. Traditionally, he said, it is believed that fasting can bring rain during a dry spell. In a more religious vein, he said the concentration on prayer is believed to bring rainfall, while a more “modern” view reasons that by using fewer resources, the world is more fit to replenish itself.

For the fire element, he plans to talk about the King Wildfire, which has been raging near Sacramento since mid-September, and connecting that natural damage to the manmade destruction of the Holocaust. Bloom said he would wait until Yom Kippur to touch on heavier topics, such as the Israel-Gaza conflict, because he views the Day of Atonement as a more “inwardly focused holiday.”

Last Thursday marked the start of Jewish New Year 5775. The Jewish calendar follows a lunar cycle and begins counting from what the Torah, the Jewish Old Testament, describes as the beginning of creation. All Jewish holidays start the evening before, so Rosh Hashana festivities began last Wednesday night, with traditional celebrations including plenty of apples and honey for a sweet new year. This Saturday marks the end of the High Holy Days, with a day of fasting on Yom Kippur in order to find absolution for transgressions in the past year.

With Cooper and the other rabbis ready with themes and outlines for their sermons during what is the most popular time of year to observe Judaism, the spiritual leaders are working to keep the community united, and not divided, when broaching the topic of Israel. Cooper said he is wary that both sides of the political spectrum need to watch for racism and prejudices – and to add a dose of compassion. In a newsletter article, “Frustration, Anger, Compassion, and Action: A Time of Polarization,” sent to his congregation last month, he said he tried to “provide a role model of one way of looking at this that embraces everyone.”

Rabbi Cooper said he knows “our congregation is deeply upset about this kind of thing,” referring to more occupations and settlements in Palestine after the hostility in Gaza this summer. He said the congregation is not a political organization, but he encourages members to “operate on their politics” to increase “their sense of connectedness to their world.” At the start of a new year, Cooper is also asking the community to look at the violence and ongoing conflict from a spiritual lens, and to grapple – just as he does – with tough and often polarizing viewpoints.

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2 Comments

  1. Alex D.

    So….basically, they’re just not gonna address the issue of the bombings, displacement, encroachment, and mass killings… they’re just gonna: “…refocus on our dreams…”, and “…ask members to think of desires in the past year that did not play out – and urge everyone to remember and realize those goals..?”

    • Rabbi David J. Cooper

      Just to note, the article’s author seems to have left out my express and marked disagreement with with the Netanyahu government’s policies and tactics in regard to the bombing of Gaza as well as with the continuation and expansion of the occupation. My letter to the Kehilla community was quite clear about this.

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