Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Different Kind Of Kosher Sermon

by Steve Lipman
Staff Writer
New York Jewish Week

The most-contested presidential election in a generation. The worst stock market performance since the Depression. The always-precarious geopolitical situation in the Middle East. If you’re in shul during this High Holy Days season, you’ll hear your rabbi give sermons on these topics.

You’ll probably hear sermons about a slaughterhouse in rural Iowa, too. As the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur season —the one time a year when rabbis deliver their sermons to packed pews — approaches, a likely sermon topic for many rabbis will be the ongoing controversy over the Agriprocessors plant in Postville and the resultant, growing acceptance of the Hekhsher Tzedek movement, which has cast a critical eye at the kosher food industry. The plant was raided by federal immigration officials in May, and its owners were charged earlier this month with criminal child labor violations.

Created by the Conservative movement two years ago and pitched to rabbis this year as a subject to be raised on the pulpit, Hekhsher Tzedek offers a seal, in addition to the standard Orthodox-endorsed kashrut labels, which attests that the approved product was made in accordance with ethical concern for animals and employees. Hekhsher Tzedek, a relatively new cause in the Jewish community, has apparently struck a responsive chord.

A representative sampling of rabbis contacted by The Jewish Week indicates that they have responded favorably to Hekhsher Tzedek, as well as a wide variety of other topics suggested in recent months by Jewish organizations. “The response [to the Hekhsher Tzedek sermon proposal] has been significant,” said Rabbi Morris Allen, spiritual leader of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., and Hekhsher Tzedek’s project director. “We’ve been contacted by rabbis across the denominational spectrum. Rabbis are planning to speak about it; rabbis have already spoken about it.”

“Almost everyone I heard from is talking about Hekhsher Tzedek” and planning to continue doing so in the coming weeks, said Rabbi Charles Savenor, executive director of the Metropolitan New York Region of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “Some [local Conservative rabbis] are talking in terms of ‘justice.’ Some are talking about how kashrut is relevant in terms of personal responsibility.

The timing is perfect” for the Conservative movement to propose Hekhsher Tzedek as a sermon topic, Rabbi Savenor said.“I definitely will speak about Hekhsher Tzedek,” said Rabbi Laurence Sebert of the Town and Village Synagogue in Manhattan. He was inspired in part by the e-mail notice. “It’s a well-timed excellent suggestion.”

And Rabbi Sebert will discuss Darfur in the context of the wider subject of chesed, or kindness. These topics “fit in with things I had wanted to talk about. It’s certainly true for most of my colleagues,” he said.“It’s not either-or for me,” said Rabbi Sebert, referring to traditional themes or issues du jour. He tries to meld contemporary issues into “the eternal verities” of the Days of Repentance, he says. “If I’m taking about Darfur, I will talk about it in the broader context of teshuvah [return], tefilah [prayer] and tzedakah [charity]. It’s what the time of the year speaks to most clearly.

“Some things are prompted by [events] that happen the week before,” he says. Israel’s fighting in Lebanon during the summer of 2006 inspired many of the rabbi’s sermons. “September 11,” the orchestrated attacks on the U.S. the week before Rosh HaShanah in 2001, “that’s the obvious example,” he said.Discussions of contemporary issues receive a mixed reception from congregants, Rabbi Sebert said. “Some people love it when you talk about politics. Some people roll their eyes and take a nap.”

“The odds would be good” that many Reform rabbis in the New York City area will include Hekhsher Tzedek and Darfur, a topic suggested by American Jewish World Service, among their High Holy Days sermon topics, said Rabbi Eric Stark, director of the Union for Reform Judaism Greater New York Council. “My sense is that many rabbis who may be giving five or six sermons” during the yom tov period “were looking for ideas or suggestions... looking for a political topic. The issues of our day include topics like Darfur and the ethical treatment of animals.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hampton Synagogue said he will include some remarks about Hekhsher Tzedek and Darfur in his yom tov sermons. “There needs to be both glatt kosher [a rigorous standard of kashrut] and glatt yosher [unscrupulous ethical standards],” Rabbi Schneier said of the Hekhsher Tzedek principles. The increasing acceptance of such quasi-political topics by a cross-section of American rabbis indicates both a change in the rabbinate, and the mounting influence of the Internet as a medium for reaching rabbis, observers told The Jewish Week.

Once, synagogues’ spiritual leaders turned mainly to traditional Jewish texts and liturgy for their sermon topics, especially on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Today, it’s often email. As always, rabbis say, they try to seek a balance between the old, standard concerns of repentance and self-examination, and the news. In the next two weeks, they say, they will devote their remarks to subjects, in addition to Hekhsher Tzedek, that come from their heart or from conversations with congregants.

“The economy is as the top” of the list, said Rabbi Potasnik. “Rabbis I have spoken to are very concerned about addressing the economy in some fashion. People are hurting. We are concerned... with what we are going to do to help people rebuild their lives.” Rabbi Potasnik, who serves as spiritual leader of Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights, said he will also deliver a sermon on “The Bucket List,” the to-do priorities of aging people, inspired by last year’s popular film directed by Rob Reiner. “Our generation is getting older,” Rabbi Potasnik said; people facing their own mortality ask themselves, “What spiritual legacy do I want to bequeath to my family?”

And the rabbi plans to speak, in some way, about Darfur, the ongoing genocide in Sudan that has taken some 450,000 lives during the last five years. “We have to keep the community fire going,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Westchester Reform Temple and a member of the American Jewish World Service board of trustees told a group of 70 rabbis who participated in a recent podcast conference call about Darfur.

“Every movement [of Judaism] sends out materials to their rabbis” with suggestions and background on High Holy Days sermonizing. “We bombard rabbis with all sorts of issues,” Rabbi Potasnik said. “It’s a very receptive audience.“I see rabbis today, the younger seminarians, who are much more involved in addressing contemporary problems,” he said.

Such groups as Rabbi Potasnik’s Board of Rabbis, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the Rabbinic Cabinet of United Jewish Communities, Mazon, Hazon and a wide variety of political groups in this country and Israel provide rabbis with both sermon suggestions and educational materials that relate to them.“ Any major national [Jewish] organization seeks to position their cause” by trying to shape rabbis’ sermons, says Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, who became senior spiritual leader at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan this month. “They know they have a captive audience in the midsummer, if not earlier,” of rabbis working on several sermons.

Rabbi Cosgrove said he will concentrate this year on introducing himself and his “vision of congregational life” to members of his synagogue, and will mostly stay clear of current topics like Hekhsher Tzedek.“I integrate [suggestions] which are useful,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a congregational rabbi to be a spokesman for any [other] organization.”

No one needs a reminder to talk about this year’s highly contested presidential election. Since members of the clergy usually avoid direct political endorsements, rabbis will probably address Obama vs. McCain by discussing the importance of voting, or the challenge of maintaining one’s Jewish identity in a society where there is little overt anti-Semitism, Rabbi Potasnik said. “The election brings out, ‘What does it mean to be a Jew in America?’”

“I’m speaking a lot this year about change, because that’s on the mind of Americans” as a theme of both major party candidates for the presidency, said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, spiritual leader of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore and author of the newly published “Pulpit Power: Meaningful Sermons on Religion & Politics ... and Life” (EMEK Publishing) “We Jews speak about change every year” on the High Holy Days.Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Temple Israel in Lawrence, L.I., and Secretary General of the North American Board of Rabbis, said he too will speak about change during Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. He says he notices “a profound focus on spirituality” among congregants this year. “Discussing your relationship with God seems more prevalent than in the past.”

The Conservative movement’s High Holy Days appeal is part of a wider effort to heighten the visibility of Hekhsher Tzedek in American Jewry in coming months. The Hekhsher Tzedek seal will appear on items made by companies that “reflect production benchmarks consistent with Jewish ethical standards,” paying fair wages, ensuring workplace safety, following government environmental rules and treating animals humanely, among other criteria.

Rabbi Allen calls Hekhsher Tzedek “a response to who we are as Jews. The image of kashrut has been tarnished” by reports of religious Jews mistreating animals and abusing employees, many of them undocumented and underage. “Hekhsher Tzedek is in many ways the remedy.”

The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis endorsed Hekhsher Tzedek last month, and, Rabbi Allen says, many Reform rabbis will probably discuss the initiative over yom tov.“The endorsement of the CCAR is a very important statement,” Rabbi Allen said, adding that the Hekhsher Tzedek seal may lead members of the Reform community who ordinarily who do not observe kashrut to start buying more kosher products. The seal “will not be on food that is not kosher. This issue puts the responsibility on the congregants themselves.”

Do rabbis resent outsiders pushing them to speak about current issues on the High Holy Days? “No one has ever expressed to me resentment,” Rabbi Savenor said. “If they resent being asked to speak about something, they don’t speak about it.” “I don’t resent it. It’s very helpful,” Rabbi Sebert said. As a rabbi, he said, listening to others’ opinions, including those offered on the Internet, comes naturally. “I find that exchanging ideas, even over e-mail, stimulates my own thinking. That’s my job.”