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July 28, 2014 | 1st Av 5774

Before Purchasing Mishkan T’filah
How To Get Started and Decide If You Even Want to Buy It…

by Rabbi Kim S. Geringer

The Reform Movement’s decision to publish a new, “official” siddur creates a challenge for every Reform congregation: to accept (and therefore purchase and use) Mishkan T’filah as its own siddur or to continue to use Gates of Prayer (1975); Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays (1994); its own congregationally-produced siddur; or any of the myriad other prayer book options currently available. The choice may feel overwhelming. It involves consideration on many levels: financial, theological, communal, stylistic and historical. Thoughtful congregations will have to ponder such questions as: Can we afford to buy perhaps hundreds of new siddurim at this time? How will we finance such an undertaking? Is the theological diversity inherent in Mishkan T’filah consistent with the values and traditions of our congregation? Can we learn to use—and even love—the new format? How long will it take us to do so? How do we go about making the transition?

Procedural decisions need to be made before any substantive discussion begins. Put simply, who in the congregation will make the decision about a new siddur? Will it be the rabbi(s) alone, the clergy team together, the Ritual or Worship Committee alone or in conjunction with the clergy? Will the synagogue Board be involved in the process; if so, how, and to what extent? Will the congregation at large have a say? Regardless of the exact nature of the decision-making process in any given congregation, the following tachlis (“nuts and bolts”) guidelines are recommended:

Involve the Board
The 1999 publication, Iv'du B'simchah: Worship with Joy, which is now available in a 2007 updated version, is a compilation of many Worship Initiative programs and strongly encourages Board involvement in worship issues: “Providing for and sustaining communal prayer or worship is at the core of every congregation’s responsibilities to its members. Therefore, each congregational Board of Trustees must recognize its leadership role in this sacred task.” The firm support of the Board of Trustees is likely to be critical to the success of any significant worship-related transitions. Towards this end, Iv'du B'simchah: Worship with Joy includes two study sessions for congregational boards: “Why Worship Matters,” and “Getting Unstuck.” These sessions will help clergy and lay leaders identify and articulate their congregation’s possible need for a new siddur.

In many, if not most, congregations, lay leaders, invested as partners by their clergy, share responsibility for the worship life of their community. These study sessions are designed to start your congregation on a partnered process of communal study about, reflection on, and experimentation with worship. The first session is devoted to examining the question, “Why does worship matter?” The second is devoted to "getting unstuck" and begins through an examination of the question, “What’s wrong with worship today?” to help guide a self-reflective appraisal of the current state of a congregation’s worship process and experience. To download these two excerpted study pieces, click here.

Consider These Questions
For congregations who have previously transitioned to a new siddur:

  • When did our congregation last adopt a new siddur?
  • How many of the current members were part of the congregation at that time?
  • What was the process that was used?
  • How successful was the implementation?
  • How long did it take?
  • Were there pitfalls and problems along the way? Where and with whom did they occur?
  • What can we learn from our previous experience introducing a new siddur?
  • In retrospect, what might we have done differently then had we known what we know now?
  • How can we apply those lessons to the current decision?

For congregations who have and have not previously transitioned to a new siddur:

  • If we choose to adopt Mishkan T’filah, do we have the time, energy, long-range vision and commitment to see the transition through to a successful integration?
  • How will we handle resistance, rejection and complaints?
  • Who are the key people in our congregation, amongst the professional staff and lay leadership, who will play a role in the transition? How can we best utilize their particular talents and skills to help with this effort?
  • In our congregation, where and when are the already-existing opportunities for discussion about liturgy? Possible answers: articles in the Temple bulletin; Adult Education, Ritual, Board and other committee meetings; sermons; URJ regional programs (Shabbatons, Biennials, study programs), etc.

Offer Focus Groups
Focus groups in which congregants discuss worship matters can be a rich vehicle for better understanding a community’s particular culture, character, interests and needs. For help in planning and running a focus group on worship-related matters see the URJ publication, Panim el Panim: Face to Face—A Guide for Congregational Conversations about Worship.

And Finally…Worship Is More Than Liturgy
In 2005, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote:

Since the 1999 national Biennial Convention in Orlando, our Movement has been on an exhilarating journey rediscovering the power and purpose of prayer, creating new forms of worship, and realizing all the potential that communal worship has to offer our people. In Orlando we issued a formal call to our member congregations to join us on this path…[We have] created…an extraordinary array of publications, conferences, educational programs, and resources to help professionals and laypeople alike find the information and develop the skills they need to create effective and meaningful synagogue worship and music…In Orlando I proposed that we proclaim a new Reform revolution, rooted in the conviction that Judaism is a tradition of revival, redefinition, and rebellion. I do not wish to mislead you: The revolution that I am calling for is as daunting a challenge as any that this Movement has ever faced. But I am convinced that our Movement possesses the spiritual courage for just such a revolution. Indeed, it is already underway.

As your community ponders the decision regarding a new Movement siddur, we encourage you to think in the broadest possible terms: What are your worship goals for your community? What kind of worship experiences do you want to create? What purpose(s) do you want your communal worship to serve? Who are your congregation’s key stake-holders? How can you create a partnership with significant roles for all concerned parties? The choice of a siddur is a critical, but not the only, decision facing a worshiping community. There are many resources to assist you and to support and strengthen your choice of liturgy. We invite you to familiarize yourself with the wealth of worship-transformation materials that have been created by and are available from the Union for Reform Judaism. Much of this information can be viewed on the Web at www.urj.org/worship. Other material can be obtained from the Department of Worship, Music and Religious Living (212.650.4193 or worship@urj.org).

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