Sarah Grace Victor, born in Philadelphia to Christian parents from India, is the winner of the second annual Harold I. Saperstein Cornell Student Sermon Contest. The competition, based on the Hebrew Bible, was open to all students on campus. Victor emerged victorious over 30 contestants.
Cornell alumnus and philanthropist Norman Turkish created the competition in memory of Saperstein, a Reform rabbi famed for his ardent sermons on social justice and spiritual leader for half a century at Temple Emanu-El of Lynbrook, N.Y., until retiring in 1980.
A student at the university’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Sarah Grace was awarded a $1,800 check at a kosher dinner on April 29 at Cornell University in Ithaca.
Saperstein’s son, Marc, a former principle of the Leo Baeck College in London, wondered if the era of the great orators of Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Wise can be revived. He recalled a recent debate at Cambridge, England, whether we should stop referring to pulpit remarks as sermons but as dvar Torah.
“I hope,” he said, “that we will be convinced tonight that the sermon has a role to play.”
There are three important elements of a speech or sermon Barry C. Black, chaplain of the United States Senate, told me. The first is delivery, the second is delivery, and the third is delivery.
Sarah Grace Victor, 19, delivered to a standing ovation. In an interview she told me she’s going to Israel this summer to analyze business disability policies of American companies based there.
She focused her topical sermon on a young woman who faced a choice we make every day: Would she stand up for someone else when it personally cost her something? Would she go to the king to plead for the life of a people that faced extermination, knowing that to approach the throne uninvited meant certain death?
Sarah Grace used the story of Esther to establish a clarion cry for “personal action that jeopardizes our comfort, even our lives, personal action that recognizes the influence of a higher power that can direct our steps.”
She cited the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence as examples of individuals who pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to establish a free nation. Nine gave their lives in the Revolutionary War, while 12 lost their homes and property.
Dr. Turkish dedicated this year’s contest in honor of the late Milton Konvitz. Born in Safed to a rabbi, he became a constitutional lawyer, social critic, Cornell law school professor and founding faculty member of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The former ILR dean, David Lipskey, credited Konvitz with coining the phrase “civil liberties.”
The New York vice consul general of Liberia, Kim Greene Konneh, told how Konvitz worked with the chief justice of her country to establish a legal code. “The government of Liberia,” she said, “will always remember the white man with the bow tie who was the first to codify their laws.”
Alfred C. Snider, professor of forensics at the University of Vermont and director of the World Debate Institute, said he’s a great fan of sermons which “replace weapons with words.” He finds sermons “fabulous examples of using communication to make the world a better place.”
He said he studies television evangelists and has picked up their technique. “But I’ve not raised the money they make – partly because I have a conscience.”