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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

Especially for Worship Leaders:
Thoughts on the Introduction and Integration of
Mishkan T'filah into the Congregation

by Cantor Ellen Dreskin

The discount department store in our area (Sym's) has a great slogan—"Our best customer is an educated consumer." The introduction and integration of Mishkan T’filah (MT) within our sacred communities can be guided by the same principles. The more we divulge, educate, communicate and explain, the easier the transition will be.

Enthusiasm is key. If we treat our new siddur as one that is rife with challenges, confusing, and/or difficult to maneuver, then we are lost. MT gives us the opportunity, as varied Reform communities, to exercise our free will and create wonderful minhagei makom (local customs), while remaining under the umbrella of our Reform Movement. The majority of our adult members did not grow up in the Reform Movement—many did not even grow up as Jews. Some are still not Jews. Some are deeply rooted in Jewish ritual and knowledge. Some have not set foot in a sanctuary since becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Some congregants know Hebrew, some do not. Some enter the liturgy with their hearts, some with their heads. Mishkan T’filah really does have something for everyone.

It's o.k. to acknowledge that all changes, even the most positive ones, involve loss. However, this is an (ad)venture that we enter into together.

And so, some guidelines and suggestions; any recommendations are meant to be adapted , not adopted , as suits the individual community.

In thinking about your first service(s) with Mishkan T’filah
One enormous difference between Gates of Prayer and Mishkan T’filah is that it is almost impossible for clergy using MT to craft meaningful worship without a fair amount of advance meeting time (which will pay huge dividends even though it may not initially seem so). This advance time will lessen as clergy partners acclimate to the siddur, but can certainly be seen as a gift that, hopefully, will enhance lines of communication among all those on the bimah.

Due to the range of choices in MT in terms of the spoken word, great care must be taken to make sure that the spoken and sung prayers flow together in terms of context and mood. The rabbi needs to know what type of melody is being considered for each prayer, and the cantor needs to know which reading will precede those sections of the service that are sung, in order that the readings not be jarring, and the music choices be appropriate ones.

The absence of responsive reading, the presence of transliteration, and the freedom to experiment with choreography also give the service leaders a number of opportunities to achieve balance: Between moments of meditation and moments of challenge, between new and old melodies, between hearing a single voice or the voices of the entire congregation, between a capella singing and the sensitive use of instruments both to assist the congregation and to underscore reading.

This is a great opportunity to break any habits that you have wanted to break, initiate changes that you have longed for, and disengage from “default” mode in some cases. Begin talking about changes that you have been looking to institute anyway, and discover how Mishkan T’filah might assist you in that effort: Perhaps a new melody for a particular prayer, using a footnote as an educational opportunity or enlightening moment during the service, or the creation of a blend of the traditional Hebrew with a creative interpretation. An example: Clergy can chant a particular prayer using traditional Hebrew nusach, alternating lines with the reading of a creative poem (in English) on the facing page. Another example: An instrument played softly “behind” or “underneath” a reading can subliminally reinforce, articulate, or expand the experience of reciting or listening to a certain prayer. Imagine the powerful impact, for instance, of hearing the melody of "Shalom Rav" while reciting or listening to a reading of the prayer, or of listening to a musical rendition of "Hatikvah" accompanying the reading of Ahavah Rabbah or "Or Chadash."

Coming from the other direction, sometimes the best way to introduce change is by being clear about what will not change. Look for ways in which you can use Mishkan T’filah without changing your normal worship menu. All of the Hebrew is there, and many of the English alternatives are there as well. You may be able to use Mishkan T’filah for several weeks without making a single change from your usual way of doing worship if that is what will serve your community best.

In the first few months
Choose a different aspect/portion of Mishkan T’filah to highlight each week. Introduce changes slowly (meaning just one or two per week), but highlight what you are doing: "You may have noticed that....," and "Here is how we will do this/navigate this change/take advantage of this opportunity...." Always explain why what you are doing is a good thing! The message should be: We are all in the same boat, but it is a great and wonderful voyage, despite some uncertainty and—at least in the beginning—some choppy seas.

At a morning service, you may choose to talk about a specific prayer or illuminate a particular aspect of Mishkan T’filah immediately following the blessing, "la-asok b'divrei Torah," using the siddur as your morning study topic.

Musically, it is always a good idea to introduce no more than one or two new melodies at any service. But once you have introduced something, it is important to maintain the change and use it consistently for several weeks, in order that it be given a chance to take root.

"Accessible" music need not mean overly simplistic music. Melodies that are worth singing in prayer are worth taking the time to learn and work at. It's o.k. to choose melodies where only a line or two are immediately sing-able by the congregation. The rest of the prayer will happen over time if you are consistent. One of the best illustrations of this is "Zamru L'Adonai/Psalm 98," the melody of which is in Shabbat Anthology III, published by Transcontinental Music Press. This text did not appear in Gates of Prayer, but it is available to us now in MT, and the melody is soaring. It will take a couple of weeks for the congregation to catch on. Be patient. It is worth the wait.

A guest sh’liach tzibur is a great opportunity to introduce small changes. Both musically and liturgically, our congregants accept and expect a diversion from the normal path when a guest is present. Speak with your guests specifically about changes that they might be comfortable introducing (speaking, chanting/singing) or explaining that you hope to continue after they leave.

Innovation must be given a chance to become minhag hamakom (local custom). Initial discomfort can be acknowledged, but don't give in to the temptation to abandon the innovation right away.

Throughout and beyond
Provide opportunities for congregants (and staff!) to express opinions about the innovations and to suggest alternatives. In some congregations this might happen at board meetings. In other congregations, clergy invite congregants out to the local diner immediately following worship in order to talk about the experience. In some congregations there will be whole-hearted acceptance and embracing of Mishkan T’filah. In others, the integration process will happen more slowly. In any event, keeping lines of communication open and encouraging an attitude of celebration will make the whole process go more smoothly.

B’hatzlachah! (To your success!) Enjoy!

Cantor Dreskin has served as the Director of Programs for Synagogue 3000 and as both, the cantor and educator, at Woodlands Community Temple, White Plains, NY and Fairmount Temple, Cleveland, OH.

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