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Rabbis Look For Inspiration In Sermons From Time Of 1918 Pandemic Amid High Holidays

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins tomorrow at sundown.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And we heard that the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati has been fielding calls from rabbis across the country. As they plan their sermons this year, they've been calling the archives' executive director Gary Zola.

GARY ZOLA: They would call me up, and they would say, you know, what did the rabbis say a hundred years ago?

CHANG: That's because our current public health crisis echoes the flu pandemic of 1918.

PFEIFFER: That 1918 flu killed hundreds of thousands of people in this country. Schools, churches and temples closed.

ZOLA: We sometimes think what we're experiencing today never happened before.

PFEIFFER: Zola says he sees why these old sermons can help rabbis plan their remarks at this year's high holidays.

ZOLA: If I had to summarize what was sort of a common thread that connects them to us, it is an attempt to search for meaning in this pandemic.

CHANG: That comes through in a November 1918 sermon by Rabbi Ferdinand Hirsch of Children of Israel Congregation in Athens, Ga.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Ferdinand Hirsch) The hand of God has lain heavily upon the world in these past weeks. There is so much to learn these days in the uncertainty of life. Let me plead with you - nay, demand of you - that you make peace with one another. There is so much newness, so much smallness in our makeups. Whatever we do, let's be friends, bury past quarrels. Life is so short and uncertain.

PFEIFFER: Rabbi Sigmund Hecht of B'Nai Brith Congregation of Los Angeles spoke to his flock in December 1918 after a long shutdown in services.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Sigmund Hecht) It seems to me, as I stand in this place in which I have not been permitted to stand for the past nine weeks, I want to assure you that it is with deep gratitude to him on high that I am about to resume the duties of my office.

CHANG: And in November 1918 Rabbi Moise Bergman of Temple Albert in Albuquerque spoke of a familiar balance between economic and humanitarian decisions.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Moise Bergman) It is hard to answer the man who says his business has been hurt by the quarantine, but it will be impossible to answer the one who says, my child has died because of the neglect of the state.

PFEIFFER: That's a sample from 1918 Jewish sermons, some of which were requested by rabbis for reference during this year's high holidays.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEN-MATE'S "NUNDS TOLLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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