Rabbi David Wolpe is senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and the author of eight books, including David: The Divided Heart. He serves as a judge and moderator of the awards ceremonies for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
As the Hanukkah holiday approaches, we asked Rabbi David Wolpe to shed some light on his challenges as a rabbinic leader during these challenging times.
Rabbi David Wolpe
SRP: How is being a Rabbi for such a large congregation different during the pandemic? What are your biggest challenges?
DW: The biggest challenge we face is coherence without community – how do we keep people feeling close to one another when they cannot meet in person? My counseling and teaching are through a screen. It has advantages (people who sit in the back during high holidays say they saw my face during the sermon for the first time!) but it is a constant trial. Panim el panim, face to face, is not just an ideal, it is a necessity.
SRP: You were very present online even before all of us had no choice in the matter. What advice would you give Rabbis about being a Rabbi online?
DW: The trickiest aspects to being online are: first, do not fall into the pixel-void. If you spend all your time on twitter you will never read a book or study. It should be a piece of how you communicate, a periodically wielded tool, not the entirety of your social being. Second, be who you are. Don’t get involved in side debates you don’t really care about or issues tangential to your mission or your soul. If you do these things, social media can be rewarding and bring you in touch with people whom you would otherwise never know. Twitter, FB and other social media can enrich your life even as it raises your blood pressure!
SRP: How can communities of faith take care of others in the community and stay connected during these times?
DW: When it is possible to gather in person, safely with distancing and masks and care, do so. Don’t pass up chances to see other people. Reach out in the ways remaining to us – through email, zoom, and phone calls. And continually remind people that we have surmounted and greater challenges. Nothing lasts forever. Read Koheleth. That book knew almost all of it 2,000 years ago. Trauma is real, but so is healing.
SRP: What have you been reading these last months?
DW: Well, I’m always reading, and these days perhaps even more. Apart from proper study, I took the pandemic to read War and Peace which I’d read in rabbinical school but not since. I read John Barton’s History of the Bible and C.V. Wedgewood’s trilogy about the English civil wars and the end of Charles I, David Ellenson’s new anthology of American Jewish thought, a gripping book about Caravaggio (Caravaggio’s Cardsharps)part of Gary Kasparov’s series about his great predecessors, Ora Wiskind-Elper’s book about Rabbi Ya’akov of Izbica, and lots and lots of mysteries (mostly foreign, and some of my favorites: Carofiglio, Louise Penny, Michael Connolly, just got the new Nesbo and Tana French, on and on.)
SRP: What did you learn during recent months that you didn't know before?
DW: I did not know how hard and complicated and intricate it was to put on a production as we did with the high holidays, nor how powerful it could be religiously if done with skill and serious intent.