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Brainstorming Ideas at the Sermon Swap Meet

Judaism: Scores of Southland rabbis prepare themselves for intense High Holy Days duties with annual seminar.

September 07, 1996|JOHN DART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a high-pressure time of year for rabbis--but many in Southern California have a secret weapon to cope with it.

The typical leader of a Jewish synagogue ought now to be finishing work on several brilliant, timely, stirring sermons for delivery during the jampacked High Holy Days services, which begin Friday with Rosh Hashanah eve.

"This is a very tense time for most rabbis," said Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of La Mirada.

"You have to be good," added Rabbi Abner Weiss of Beverly Hills. "You can't mess up" or you blow the chance to inspire thousands of Jews who rarely go to synagogue, except during the 10-day repentance period that ends with Yom Kippur, the holiest day of Judaism's calendar.

In Southern California, though, many rabbis help one another through this period every year with an unpublicized brainstorming session that includes an exchange of printed sermons.

It may be the best-kept secret of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. It is by far its best-attended meeting.

About 80 rabbis--from the Reform and Reconstructionist branches to the Conservative and Orthodox--went to this year's seminar last month at the Stephen S. Wise Temple in the Sepulveda Pass.

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Nearly half--38 rabbis--put one of their old sermons in the pot in return for a packet of sermons from all the other donor-participants.

Lest worshipers think they are listening to recycled sermons from other temples, however, Goldmark said most of the rabbis simply scan the printed sermons for ideas and anecdotes.

And rabbis aren't the only clergy who welcome sermon ideas, anecdotes and examples from pulpit colleagues. Catholic and Protestant clergy can choose among dozens of printed sermon collections and preaching resources.

Father Sean Flanagan of Reseda's St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church said, "I subscribe to four services and refer to a book on homiletics," the art of preaching.

"There is universal stealing among preachers," said Irwin Trotter, a retired professor of preaching at the School of Theology in Claremont. He noted that two prominent United Methodist pastors in San Diego and Santa Monica sell reprints of their sermons to subscribing ministers.

Mainline and evangelical ministers have found "a boatload of resources growing by the day" through computer online services, said Quentin Schultze, professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., citing one example offering "over 7,000 sermons online."

And printed sermon collections abound, even in Jewish circles. The American Rabbi, a quarterly magazine edited by Rabbi Harry Essrig of West Hills, has about 850 subscribers who rely on it for sermon ideas.

"I think what most rabbis do is file them and keep them for reference," said Essrig, who recently served as an interim rabbi at Temple Solael in West Hills.

Thinking about what to say during the important High Holy Days services begins well before September.

"Most of us go on vacation in July, but always hanging over our heads is the knowledge that when we get back we have to write our sermons," said Goldmark, who is president-elect of the Board of Rabbis and executive vice president of Reform rabbis in the Pacific region.

Rabbi Carole L. Meyers of Temple Sinai in Glendale said her efforts begin in the spring.

"From about the middle of April, everything I read and every conversation I have may give me something that could wind up in a High Holy Day sermon," she said. Meyers also exchanges ideas with a couple of rabbis or faxes a sermon draft to friends for comments.

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Like other clergy, Meyers endorses the Board of Rabbis' yearly seminar as a chance to "learn from each other" and lift each other's spirits.

"It's the in-gathering of the flock--rabbis who have not seen one another for a year--and a preparation of the spirit for a new year," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Encino, referring to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year's.

Schulweis has to give only three different sermons during the holiday period because he shares duties with three other rabbis at Valley Beth Shalom.

A rabbi who is the sole spiritual leader at a temple in the Reform branch of Judaism, such as Goldmark at La Mirada's Temple Beth Ohr, will normally write five different sermons to be delivered at two services for Rosh Hashanah and three for Yom Kippur.

However, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues observe New Year's for two days, and each day features two worship services, so rabbis in those traditions must be ready to deliver seven different pulpit messages.

Rabbi Paul Dubin, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis, pointed out that many rabbis attend the brainstorming session for more than sermon ideas.

"Some rabbis come even if they have most of their own sermons done--for the reactions and for companionship," Dubin said.

This year rabbis came from as far as San Luis Obispo, San Bernardino and San Diego, and tapes of the seminar were sent, by request, to rabbis across the country, said Michele Kirsch, the board's administrative assistant.

In addition to the sermon exchange, Schulweis and eight other rabbis each presented for their colleagues 15-minute summaries of one of their planned sermons.

The seminar ended with a session called "The Birth of a Sermon," said Weiss, current president of the Board of Rabbis. It was an experiment, during which the audience was invited to throw a topic at a small group of rabbis, who were asked to improvise sermon elements on the spot.

"Improv at the temple," quipped Weiss. "It was fun."

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