Rabbi Avi Weiss Inspires Large Crowd of Rabbis at High Holy Days Conference

Some rabbis left with tears of inspiration in their eyes. Others buzzed with excitement over ideas they took with them for this year’s Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur sermons. More than 165 colleagues from across Southern California gathered August 14 for inspiration and a truly memorable learning experience with acclaimed scholar and teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss, at the annual High Holy Days Conference. The largest annual gathering of rabbis on the West Coast, the conference at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles was sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California/The Jewish Federation. Weiss, the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York, spoke on “The Human Condition: Ten Spiritual Kernels for the Yamim Nora’im.”

“Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur teach that it’s never too late for self improvement or change,” said Weiss, the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a modern and open Orthodox rabbinical school in New York, and Yeshivat Maharat, which trains women to become halachic decisors and spiritual leaders. “‘It’s never too late’ is an adage that’s easier said than done. It’s never too late to dream, to grow, to fix mistakes.”

Weiss shared the moving story of his son, Yitzhak Rafael, who died at four months of age, and of erecting a stone at his grave many years later. He also led the large crowd in singing niggunim – songs without words – and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.” “We blast the shofar, and then what’s heard … is the sound of silence,” Weiss said. “What power! Holiness comes from the simple and silent.”

After Weiss’ first keynote address, participants chose from several sermon workshops presented by Rabbis Joshua Hoffman, Nancy Myers, Ted Riter and Kalman Topp, and Rabbi Dr. Gail Labovitz and Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler. Topics ranged from social media to the Book of Jonah. For the second year, rabbis also participated in a Professional Writers’ Workshop, where Hollywood screenwriters worked with the clergy to structure and polish their holiday sermons.

During lunch, the Hon. David Siegel, Consul General of Israel, Los Angeles, spoke to the large crowd of rabbis about growing up as the son of the first Masorti congregational rabbi in Israel – and how to share the Jewish homeland with congregants today. “More rabbis should be going to Israel, to the Hartman Institute, to engage in this very, very important historical project,” Siegel said.

Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson, who welcomed the large crowd, thanked the rabbis for their great work in building up a rich and vibrant Jewish community in Los Angeles. Rabbi Judith HaLevy, Board of Rabbis President, noted that Weiss’ teachings “have so impacted our lives. We are so hungry for the food you will give us,” she said to the keynote speaker.

In the afternoon, Weiss closed out the inspirational program with a talk on “Holistic Prayer: Weaving Spirituality into Our Lives and the Lives of Our Kehillot.” “The greatest preparation for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is to spiritually prepare ourselves,” he said. “That is what Hodesh Elul (the Jewish month of Elul) is about… Be in the moment, while feeling God’s presence. It’s up to us to create those spiritual moments on the Yamim Noraim.”

Rabbi Zachary Shapiro, of Temple Akiba in Culver City, chaired this year’s conference. Participants praised Weiss’ powerful speaking style, and one rabbi called the day “amazing and spiritually invigorating.” Many noted that the opportunity to reconnect face-to-face with their busy colleagues was one of the highlights of the conference.

While in Los Angeles, Weiss also taught about Spiritual Activism (the topic of his latest book) at the Leaders on Leadership luncheon at the Board of Rabbis/Jewish Federation. He also taught a session for business leaders at a Jewish Federation breakfast event, and met with King David Society members at a dinner at a private home.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, Executive Vice President of the Board of Rabbis/Jewish Federation, thanked High Holy Days Conference participants for their membership and commitment to the Board of Rabbis and the community. “Our mandate is to create nurturing, compassionate communities,” Diamond said. “I am honored to call the Board of Rabbis my community.”