Clergy hear low hum of depression throughout the country, says Rabbi David Wolpe, second Jewish chaplain in Chautauqua history


Rabbi David J. Wolpe is disappointed not to be able to be at Chautauqua this summer. “To talk virtually is the blessing of this age, but it is an obstacle to intimacy. But I have faith in God and in the resilience of human beings,” he said.

Wolpe, the Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, will be the chaplain for Week Four at Chautauqua. He is the second rabbi to serve as chaplain in the 146-year history of the Institution. Previously, Wolpe has taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Hunter College and UCLA.

Right now I am preaching to a computer. It is hard to preach to a computer. I speak differently to a computer.

His recorded sermons will be part of the 10:45 a.m. EDT Sunday, July 19, service of worship and sermon, and at the 9:15 a.m. EDT morning devotional services from Monday, July 20. through Friday, July 24, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. 

His sermon titles include “The Life of Jacob,” “Children of the Wilderness,” “The Power of Words,” “Making Loss Matter,” “Lessons for the Pandemic,” and “The Meaning of Goodness.”  

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, Wolpe has been posting a short message for his congregation on Sinai Temple’s website at least three times a week.

“People loved these but they asked, ‘Why aren’t you smiling?’” he said. “I am not smiling because I smile when I look at other people. Right now I am preaching to a computer. It is hard to preach to a computer. I speak differently to a computer. When I recorded the sermons for Chautauqua there were only two other people in the room — the videographer and the sound person. I tell a joke and no one laughs.”

Every clergy person hears the steady hum of low-level depression in society, he said. 

“Anger, snipping, disappointment and general unreasonableness are higher. There is a family court judge in our congregation who says family court has gotten worse than normal,” Wolpe said. “Participants have been locked in their homes in a situation of fear, uncertainty and political strife.”

Wolpe posted an interview on Instagram with former NBA star Stephen Jackson about racism and anti-Semitism that drew a great response. Jackson had posted support for DeSean Jackson of the Philadehia Eagles who had posted anti-Semitic statements on Instagram for which he later apologized. Jackson had also expressed admiration for Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, who had often made anti-Semitic statements.

“I’ve gotten feedback that I was too hard on Jackson (or) that I was too easy, but mostly the feedback has been positive,” Wolpe said. “We are not radically changed by one conversation. We have to enter a dialogue and see what happens. I hope and intend to do more.”

Anti-Semitism is a very difficult problem, he said, and “is more difficult to uproot because it is not acknowledged. Dialogue does not preclude rebuke and it does not imply approval. We have to continue to talk.”

The author of eight books including, most recently, David: The Divided Heart, which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, Wolpe has twice been named one of the “500 Most Influential People in Los Angeles,” as well as the “Most Influential Rabbi in America” by Newsweek and one of the “50 Most Influential Jews in the World” by The Jerusalem Post

This program is made possible by Rabbi Samuel and Lynn Stahl Lectureship for the Understanding of Judaism.

Tags : chaplain previewChildren of the WildernessLessons for the PandemicMaking Loss MatterRabbi David J. WolpereligionThe Life of JacobThe Meaning of GoodnessThe Power of Words

The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.