Rabbis Rewrite Jewish New Year Sermons

Rabbi Laurence Sebert of Town & Village Synagogue had planned to give a Jewish New Year sermon about the need to support Israel.

On Tuesday, he scrapped the talk.

One of his congregants who worked at the World Trade Center was missing after the terrorist attacks. At the fire station next to Sebert's Manhattan synagogue, firefighters were grief-stricken from the loss of hundreds of colleagues.

"I had been working on great sermons," he said Thursday. "None of it seems particularly relevant at this moment."

Around the New York area, rabbis whose congregants lost friends, family and co-workers in the assaults, are tearing up their sermons and writing new ones for the High Holy Days, which start Monday at sundown.

"I'll be trying to help people feel and express their grief and talking about ways we can show our support," Sebert said.

Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana, of Temple Israel in the commuter community of New Rochelle, also planned to talk about helping Israel. Now he'll discuss the new, sad connection that Israel and the United States share.

"This is one of those incidents where you take the sermon that you have written so far and start all over again," he said.

The son-in-law of one of Cahana's congregants was a firefighter who was killed. About six members of the temple worked in the financial district and survived the assault. The temple said a special prayer for survivors at a service Wednesday.

"I don't think there's going to be a family in this region who is not touched in one way or another," Cahana said.

Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein rewrote his sermon to add a message about living a loving, meaningful life after he learned of the strange luck of one of his congregants.

The man worked on the 110th floor of one of the twin towers. On Tuesday, he decided to try a new route to work and was stuck in traffic for two hours. He arrived in time to see a plane crash into his building.

"He received hundreds of calls that day," said Orenstein, of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, N.J. "He then wrote a note on e-mail to all his friends saying the only thing that helped him through was when people reached out to him with love."

A member of the Scarsdale Synagogue/Tremont Temple survived the attacks on the trade center by ignoring instructions to stay in her office after the first plane hit, said Rabbi Stephen Klein. He has written a new sermon about returning to everyday life after experiencing such terror.

"One of the themes of the High Holy Day season is there's a certain fragility and a certain uncertainty in our lives," Klein said. "That was made more real."

The Jewish New Year, called Rosh Hashanah, starts a 10-day period of reflection that ends Sept. 27 with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is customary for Jews to wish each other a "sweet" New Year. Cahana said that would be difficult sentiment to express this holiday season.

"This is going to be a New Year of fear and concern. I pray it will be a year of healing," Cahana said. "In a way, we're all survivors."