Making the most of the virtual High Holiday sermon

‘The Days of Awe’ are anxiety producers for rabbis any year, but COVID takes it to a new level. Rabbis everywhere are faced with an additional High Holiday challenge to give a powerful sermon – not to an in-person audience – but to a camera.  Oy.

Like most speakers, Rabbis feed off the energy in the room. Their bread and butter is connecting with the people who are sitting in the sanctuary.  How can one do this virtually? How can a rabbi help congregants at home feel more connected to the rabbi and his/her words, even though one is virtual? Below are three ways to turn a virtual sermon into a meaningful and compelling experience for congregants.

  1. Speak to individuals. Rabbis may be tempted to try to recreate the synagogue experience by Zoom.  While it may provide a sense of comfort and normalcy for people to see their Rabbi speaking from the familiar pulpit (albeit to an empty room), it is even more important to connect personally to individuals.  Fortunately, Zoom can actually make it easier to do that.  Done right, virtual speaking can feel much more intimate than listening in a full sanctuary. You can make each listener feel as though you are talking just to them.  One reason why is that your virtual listener is so much closer to your face, which has the potential to be quite powerful. Take full advantage of this. Speak directly and personally to the person listening to you. Use emotional language, Tell vivid stories. Use the words “I” and “You.” Look directly into the camera as you speak. Keep your focus on talking to one person.  Each person listening to you will feel as though you were speaking just to them.
  2. Foster togetherness. While virtual sermons in some ways make it easier to talk directly to individuals, it can be harder to create a feeling of community. Particularly this year, the holidays can feel deeply isolating. It is more important than ever to help people feel connected to each other, as they listen to the sermon in their homes. One way to do this virtually is to find a way to make the congregation essential to the sermon. Try to find ways to bring the congregants and the community into the content of sermon. You might even send out an email asking a question that you will focus on in the sermon, solicit  responses and share some of them during the sermon. This helps the sermon feel more like a communal endeavor and a communal experience.
  3. Keep it short (er).. It is much harder for the listener to focus. With a sermon in particular, it is hard not to have people around you joined in the communal act of listening. With virtual speaking, less is more. But how short should the sermon be? While there is no single answer, I recommend keeping it under 15 minutes. You might also let your congregation know at the beginning that this year’s sermon will be shorter – but hopefully just as meaningful.

No doubt, this year’s High Holidays are hard on so many levels. The lack of an in-person sermon is just one of many, many aspects of the high holiday experience that feels strange and different. Yet while virtual sermons are challenging, they can also be deeply powerful, engaging and inspiring, especially right now.  By working to emotionally connect with each listener – while also trying to bring people together as a community – Rabbis can provide a meaningful and much needed gift to their congregants.


About the Author
Sarah Gershman is an executive speech coach and the CEO of Green Room Speakers. Sarah is a professor of communications at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.
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