Reform congregations consider new siddur


For the first time in 30 years, the Reform movement has a new siddur, Mishkan T’filah.

“This prayer book represents the collective diversity of the Reform movement,” Rabbi Peter Knobel, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and chair of the ad hoc siddur editorial committee, said. “We had tremendous input from cantors, lay people and our rabbinic colleagues. It really is the people’s prayer book.”

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Congregation Shaare Emeth agrees with this premise and will become the first congregation in St. Louis to be supporting the new book. This Friday evening at its 7:45 p.m. service it will officially dedicate the prayer book in honor of Rabbi Emeritus Jeffrey Stiffman.

“Thanks to a generous gift from a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, we have ordered 700 copies of Mishkan T’filah and 250 copies of the holidays and weekdays book,” Rabbi Annie Belford said. “These books are special editions created just for us. Each book has a beautiful name plate with Shaare Emeth’s logo and a dedication to Rabbi Stiffman.”

The congregation decided to order the new prayer book after the worship committee commissioned a special task force around four years ago to study how the congregation could best use it. “The values in this book are very closely aligned with our Shaare Emeth values such as the value of inclusivity that is evident in every word of the prayer book,” Belford said. “And every single word is translated.”

Mishkan T’filah is an entirely different format. With the Gates of Prayer, the Reform movement’s previous prayer book, a reader could read from the top of one page to the bottom and continue along until reaching the end of the service. However, with Mishkan T’filah each prayer is given a two-page spread. The Hebrew appears on the right page along with the direct translation in English and the transliteration. On the opposite page there are creative interpretive readings. Plus, following traditional Hebrew books, the prayer book reads right to left.

Knobel says Mishkan T’filah shows the Reform movement’s commitment to Israel, spirituality, social justice, and inclusion of women. He says it also demonstrates a deep commitment to tradition as well as innovation. Of the 900 Reform congregations that belong to the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) 300 have already ordered the new prayer book, selling out the first printing. An additional 500 congregations have ordered examination copies and are considering it.

At Congregation Kol Am, the ritual committee evaluated the new book and made a recommendation to the board to adopt it. “We’ve ordered 100 copies as a starter,” Carol Wolf Solomon, ritual committee member and past president of the congregation, said. “I like that the new book is much more comprehensive and has many more options in terms of how to conduct services. Also I like the fact that it has transliterations for every prayer while the current Gates of Prayer didn’t. We’re a pluralistic congregation and like to be inclusive.”

Kol Am is introducing the new book gradually with Rabbi Severine Haziza-Sokol planning on doing teachings about it.

B’nai Torah ordered the book about three years ago when it was first announced. “At that time we believed that the Reform movement was becoming more traditional,” said Jack Cohen, a Jewish Light board member and congregant at B’nai Torah. “Since we include a significant amount of Hebrew in our services, and sing many Hebrew melodies, we felt that the new prayer book would better serve our congregation. We received the new prayer book recently, and will introduce it to our congregation in February.”

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin at B’nai El Congregation said the board voted to begin the process of officially considering the new book. At the end of January, he will be leading classes designed by the URJ specifically for this purpose. “I like it. It’s a book that’s appropriate to 21st century Reform Judaism,” Plotkin, who is a member of the Liturgy and Practices Committee of the CCAR, said. “It’s written in a gender-neutral language in both English and Hebrew, it’s all transliterated and it has the literalist translation in front of you, along with the creative readings.”

Plotkin, who is also a Jewish Light board member, doesn’t think the slight changes in theology will bother anyone, however he does acknowledge that he may have to convince congregants that the book is still in an authentic Jewish format even though it’s different from the format of other siddurs.

Rabbi Joshua Taub with Temple Emanuel said the congregation is not making plans to purchase the book at this time. “We use the Sinai version of the Union Prayer Book,” he said. “The book we’re currently using is reflective of the book the Reform movement moved away from with Gates of Prayer.” He said the Sinai version is a classically Reform prayer book which fit his congregation.

At Temple Israel, while the worship committee has purchased a few copies of Mishkan T’filah and has used it in a couple of services, they have not decided to adopt it at this time. “We’re compiling services we’ve used over the years and are looking toward using that as our main source of liturgy,” Eli Montague, executive director of the temple, said. “The need for a gender-neutral service as well as some other things were evolving over time and we couldn’t wait. The new book has been in the works for I-don’t-know-how-long and it’s just coming out.” At some services, the congregation doesn’t use a prayer book at all. Instead, it projects the liturgy on a large screen. “It’s a nice way to create a different atmosphere where people concentrate on what’s happening on the pulpit,” Montague said.

Central Reform Congregation (CRC) has a history of never using any movement prayer books. “We’ve always produced our own prayer books using source material from a lot of the liberal prayer books but also from some independent sources,” Rabbi Randy Fleisher said. “The feeling being that we want to connect to prayer through the tradition but also in a way that reflects very specifically the values of our community.”

Fleisher goes a step further in suggesting all the movements would be better served by not publishing prayer books at all. He feels they should put something out on the Internet so that individual communities could access it and create siddurim using materials that have been developed by the committees and rabbis that put together the movement prayer books.

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg at United Hebrew Congregation (UH) said a new prayer book is not on the congregation’s radar right now. “We have a copy and I’ve seen some preliminary copies, but at this point we’re not in a place to make a change,” she said. UH uses Gates of Prayer and while at some point it would like to make a prayer book change, it’s not sure if Mishkan T’filah is right for the congregation. “We want to give it some thought and time,” Rosenberg said. “We want to make sure it’s a thoughtful process.”

Knobel hopes that Mishkan T’filah will be used as a general renewal and revival of worship in the Reform movement. He also hopes it will become the companion of people in their homes for personal reflection and personal study.

Posted Jan. 9, 2008