Take the rabbis' word for it - it's hard work

By Simon Rocker and Anna Sheinman, September 27, 2011
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Rabbi Neuberger

Rabbi Neuberger

It was just a week before Rosh Hashanah and Rabbi Cliff Cohen, minister to the small Thanet Reform community in Kent, had yet to put pen to paper.

Like most of his clerical colleagues, he was about to go into sermon overdrive, with five to deliver over the High Holy Days. But he was not about to hit the panic button. "I work best under pressure," he said.

It is not only the quantity of sermons at this time of year, but the higher expectations. "There is a greater responsibility," Rabbi

Cohen said. "You are going to see people for whom this may be their only Jewish experience in a year, so you want them to go away feeling the effort was worthwhile."

Giving a sermon remains "the most pressurised part of the job", said Rabbi Barry Marcus of London's Central Synagogue, who calculates that he speaks 160 times during the year on Shabbat, midweek and festivals.

"I'm lucky in that I'm the son, grandson and great-grandson of rabbis, so I had an example of what to do and not to do. My late father said, in order for a sermon to be effective, take a leaf from the world of engineering: if after 10 minutes, you haven't struck oil, stop drilling."

Despite the demands, rabbis appear reluctant simply to raid their back catalogue and recycle what they have written in the past. Rabbi Daniel Levy of the Leeds United Hebrew Congregation said: "Someone did tell me there was a rabbi who had a formula that after so many years, you can tell the same joke; after so many years, the same story; and after even more years, give the same sermon. I don't know the formula, it was something like three, five and seven years."

But it is not an example he is about to follow. "On my computer I've got about 700 sermons I've written for Leeds in the last 12 years," he said. "You may revisit certain subjects but you can't just rehash material. I start with a blank canvas."

Baroness Neuberger, a full-time rabbi again after many years, will be speaking in both the main sanctuary at West London Synagogue and in the overflow service during Yom Kippur, but there will be variations in the sermon in the different venues, even if it is on a similar theme. "I can't give exactly the same sermon twice," she said. "I just can't do it. It has to feel fresh."

And congregants can have long memories. "I have people writing to me about sermons I gave 15 or 20 years ago", said Rabbi Stuart Altshuler of Belsize Square Synagogue in London.

For Rabbi Levy, each minute of sermon requires an hour of work and thought. While some rabbis write it out word for word, others may rely on a few words on a card placed inside their machzor, and deliver their sermon without a text.

But not having a text can be a drawback. "Every now and again someone asks, if they can have a copy of the sermon," said Rabbi Cohen. "And I have to say, I'm afraid you can't, because I don't have it in writing."

Sometimes inspiration may overtake preparation. Rabbi David Lister, of Edgware Synagogue, recalls one Kol Nidre. "About 20 minutes before I was due to speak, an idea came into my head and I completely changed what I was going to say".

Or events may intervene. "The most difficult sermons are when something changes just before the Holy Days, like after 9/11," said Rabbi Jackie Tabick of North-West Surrey Reform Synagogue. "Whether you've written your sermon or not, you just have to ditch everything."

Last updated: 1:44pm, September 28 2011