Support for Israel is the No. 1 focus for this year's Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur sermons among American rabbis, according to a new survey.
Seventy-two percent of rabbis surveyed said they were talking about the Jewish state, followed by 42% discussing "creating a better future," 37% focusing on forgiveness and 34% urging greater participation in synagogue life.
Almost 140 rabbis responded to the first Rabbinic Leadership Survey, conducted in early September by the Synagogue Transformation and Renewal Foundation (STAR).
Most of the respondents were Reform and Conservative rabbis, and are taking part in one of STAR's synagogue revitalization programs. One-quarter of them were women, and 49% were age 40 or younger.
The survey asked about their High Holiday focus, goals for the year ahead, political and social activism, and concerns about Israel and anti-Semitism.
Knowing what rabbis are thinking is important, said STAR's executive director, Rabbi Hayim Herring, because "rabbis are important in shaping Jewish opinion, and knowing where their thinking is heading is of interest to the community as a whole."
Getting involved in Israel was named by 98% of the rabbis surveyed as something they encourage throughout the year.
Rabbi Stacy Friedman will discuss Israel during her Yom Kippur sermon at Rodef Sholom, a large Reform congregation in San Rafael, California.
Echoing the view of many, she said she believed there was "definitely" more rabbinic focus on Israel this year after the war in Lebanon.
"People want clarity," she said.
Friedman was planning to make Israel her Yom Kippur focus last year, but after that summer's Gaza disengagement, she felt it wasn't necessary. She regrets that now, she said. "It's a shame we only focus on Israel when things are not going well."
Rabbi Robert Eisen of Congregation Anshei Israel, a moderatesized Conservative congregation in Tucson, Arizona, said he usually talked about Israel on the second day of Rosh Hashana, and that this year was no exception. He asked congregants to "stay informed," contribute to Israel appeals, and join his synagogue's congregational trip to Israel next June, the first such trip since Eisen joined the synagogue eight years ago.
"I spoke about the need to support Israel, especially at this time," he said.
The STAR survey also indicated that synagogues are playing a key role in getting Jews to be more politically active outside the congregation.
Either during the holidays or in the coming year, 93% of the rabbis said they would encourage people to vote in US midterm elections and 91% would urge personal involvement in Darfur. In addition, 88% said they asked congregants to contribute to Katrina Hurricane relief, and 68% urged donations to tsunami relief efforts.
"It's the thrust in all the denominations to try and gain a broader view of what a congregation is all about," Herring said. "Social justice and political concerns have become more important across the denominations."
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue in Irvine, California, a large Orange County Reconstructionist congregation, said he focused on Jews' responsibilities to the larger world in his High Holiday sermons and throughout the year.
"Of course we feel most acutely the need to support Jewish causes, but what defines us as Jews is" helping to better the larger world, based on those Jewish values, he said.
University Synagogue "supports 20 or 30 causes at any one time." About one-third are Jewish. The congregation is the largest single donor to the hunger relief organization Mazon, which Rachlis chairs. Last year they raised a lot of money for Katrina relief, he said, and he was encouraging members this year to donate to the United Jewish Communities' Israel Emergency Campaign to help in the aftermath of the war with Hizbullah.
"The idea is, it's not Israel or hunger, but Israel and hunger," he said.
Despite increased attention to general political activism, rabbis still focus most strongly on the need to give to Jewish and Israelirelated charities.
Nearly all of them - 97% - said they urged such charitable giving from the pulpit. Ninety-four percent said their congregation raised money for Israeli charities this past year and 79% said their congregations took part in pro-Israel rallies. Almost 90% of the rabbis said they had increased efforts to get congregants to visit Israel.
One major international issue not addressed forcefully from the pulpit, according to this survey, is the war in Iraq. Three-quarters of rabbis said they had not encouraged members to take action for or against the war, and only 5% were speaking about Iraq during the High Holidays.
Herring suggested this reticence stemmed from rabbis' reluctance to come out against an administration that was so supportive of Israel, even as popular sentiment continued to turn against continued US military involvement.
The survey also asked rabbis to describe their primary role in the congregation. One third - 32% - view themselves as the CEO of the synagogue, and 28% describe their role as "chief religious officer."
Rabbis are very concerned about reaching across religious boundaries. Eighty-eight percent report they regularly meet with rabbis from other Jewish streams, and 63% meet regularly with priests, imams and leaders of other faiths.
In general, rabbis feel good about their relationship with their board and congregation, with more than 80% reporting that their influence on both groups has increased over the past three years, along with their job demands.
Ninety-five percent believe that their main impact on the congregation is acting as "a moral voice on important issues."