Sussman reviews his legacy

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman will speak on “In Our Time: American Jewish Life at the Beginning of the 21st Century” at Temple Concord, 9 Riverside Dr., Binghamton, on Sunday, October 15, at 2 pm. For more information, see the article "Sussman to speak at TC on Oct. 15." 

Jewish preaching has played an important role in the life and work of Rabbi Lance J. Sussman and that began at an early age. “The fact is that I was inspired by the sermons given by the rabbis of my youth and then started studying sermons in rabbinic school,” he said in an e-mail interview. “Jewish preaching was central to both my master’s and doctoral theses. So, I have always had a heightened awareness of the rabbinic message.”

Sussman has noticed a change in the sermons given by rabbis in recent years. “I and others have observed the decline of the rabbinic sermon: shorter, less content, more entertainment,” he said. “I believe that with enough focus, rabbis can restore part of the importance of the sermon as a vehicle, which connects today’s Jewish community to its past and future. The spoken word can be a powerful tool, even in an age of images and short digital messages.” 
The book also served a personal purpose. “Finally, I wanted a permanent record of my life’s work,” Sussman said. “It’s good to be able to look back and see what you have done, and to present that record to the rising generation of my family.”

“In Our Time” is not the only book of sermons that Sussman has published. During his tenure as spiritual leader of Temple Concord in Binghamton, Keshet Press published “Sharing Sacred Moments,” a collection of his earlier sermons, in 1999. “The new book helps record my pulpit experience in the subsequent years until my retirement in 2022,” he said.

Those years included many changes in both the United States and Israel. “My Philadelphia years [at Congregation Keneseth Israel] began with 9/11 and ended with COVID and its aftermath,” Sussman said. “Politics both in Israel and the U.S. have been tumultuous. The Jewish communities I have served have faced permanent demographic challenges. But despite all that, my basic love of Judaism remains, [as does] a deep desire to see it continue into the next generation. Like every parent and grandparent, I am puzzled by the rising generations, but also have faith that they will find their own Jewish pathway. We have an old, venerable tradition. We can survive the cell phone revolution. I just don’t know what it will look like, but it will be there in some transformed manner.”

When reviewing the sermons he gave at KI, Sussman noticed “the continuity of my message. While circumstances change and headlines include new challenges, I remained anchored in the belief that a thoughtful presentation of Judaism anchored in Jewish scholarship with a touch of humility and humanity is what our people want and need. I am glad the record shows I have been a staunch supporter of Israel, even when I have been critical of some of its actions and policies. We have lots of political challenges here in the States, too, but it does not mean you give up on the country you love!”

Sussman also noted “the clarifying moment” of his personal theology. That happened during the Reform Movement’s 1998 Pittsburgh Platform. That enabled him “to define myself as a theological liberal who is warm to traditional practice and deeply anchored in a critical view of the entire sweep of Jewish history,” he said. 

There were some surprises when he gathered the works for this book. “I was surprised I had so much material,” Sussman said. “I never feel I have done enough, but the record shows I have been busy and engaged. Currently, I am working on several projects, including an anthology of my academic publications, a book on Jews and the American Revolution, and an illustrated history of Reform Judaism. Good thing I retired. I’m too busy to work!”