Since 1948, when my congregation was founded, we've had a tradition of layperson-led Friday night Shabbat services. While some people say that it is a lovely break for our clergy, it's a tradition that means a whole lot more than just a way to give our deserving rabbis and cantor the chance to rest and celebrate Shabbat in the company of family and friends.
Summer services train new leaders, help congregants to strengthen and deepen their connection to liturgy, and in my case, [one Friday evening last summer], gave me the opportunity to understand and appreciate the breadth and depth of the new Reform prayer book, Mishkan T'filah.
At Larchmont Temple, where I am a trustee, a member of the Ritual Committee and our congregation's Schindler Outreach Fellow I also had the great privilege of being on the committee that helped "premiere" our new siddur in a special Service of Dedication this past January.
Having gathered together Reform siddurim from generations past, members of our congregation, ranging from elderly founding members to that Shabbat's b'nei mitzvah, read passages from each book. From a translation from High German in a Reform book from 1907, to the beloved, uniquely American voice of the Union Prayer Book, from the historic echoes Gates of Blue to the evolved, egalitarian Gates of Gray...we followed a path of poetry and prayer that led us directly into our new liturgical home: the Mishkan.
It was a transformative experience and one that resonated with pray-ers of all ages and backgrounds. Our goal as leaders was to demonstrate that Reform prayer has its own unique traditions and qualities, history and evolution: we did not come from nowhere.
Throughout the weeks that followed, our congregantssome grudgingly, some excitedlybegan to get used to life in the Mishkan. Thoughas befits Bnei Yisraelthere was certainly some kvetching involved ("What page are we on?" "Why is this book is so heavy?") with the help of our wonderful rabbis and cantor, Mishkan T'filah's beautiful language, its thoughtful and thought-provoking meditations, and heartfelt music helped many who attend our Shabbat services to connect to prayer on a deeper levelnot only reaching out, but as Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav said, also reaching up, and reaching within.
Leading a Shabbat service with a new siddur as a layperson however is a very different experience than observing experienced, wise and sensitive clergy navigate the congregation through transition and text.
As a board of trustees and as a ritual committee, we made the difficult decision to enforce the use of Mishkan T'filah as our summer Shabbat service text (rather than get our old copies of Gates of Prayer out of storage!) Some veteran service leaders decided to opt out, intimidated by the new format. My friend Lee and I were up for the challenge as co-leaders, but confused about how best to proceed.
"Was the linear service option the best way to go?" we wondered. Then we thought about incorporating festival worship prayers and meditations to create a more informal, creative service that highlighted the beauty and depth and range of the siddur.
I've been a summer service leader since 2002. During that first service, which took place two weeks before my ceremony of conversion, I couldn't have been more scared or inexperienced. And as I kept reminding myself, I wasn't even Jewish! To make matters even more uncomfortable, my then co-leader, a physician, had to take an emergency call in the middle of the Amidah. I stood by, unable to approach the Torah or continue services without him, until he had responded to his patient.
So for me, switching to a new prayer book was not nearly as frightening as it might have been for some people.
The key to creating a successful service was much like the same qualities that make our new siddur so interesting. Once Lee and I invested the time in looking at many different readings, attuning our ears to the different voices we heard in our new liturgy, and considering the mixed desire for familiarity and creativity among the members of our congregation, we found that by incorporating a mix of traditional prayers, Hebrew, modern poetry and song, we had created a service that spoke to this unique momentone that reflected both the constancy of Shabbat and the fragility of transitionfrom clergy to lay-leadership, from the old siddur to the new, and from spring into summer.
I hope that we inspired others in our congregation to embrace their journey into the Mishkan. Whether it is connecting through text or through song, there is much in our new siddur to be read and recited, savored and shared. Like summer itself, it is full of warmth and light and new tastes to be enjoyed.
Ultimately, we felt that our intent as lay leaders was captured in this meditationby poet Delmore Schwartzwhich can be found on page 559:
As I looked, the poplar rose in the shining air Like a slender throat, And there was an exaltation of flowers, The surf of apple tree delicately foaming.
All winter, the trees had been Silent soldiers, a vigil of woods, Their hidden feelings Scrawled and became Scores of black vines, Barbed wire sharp against the ice-white sky. Who could believe then In the green, glittering vividness of full-leafed summer? Who will be able to believe, when winter again begins After the autumn burns down again, and the day is ashen, And all returns to winter and winter's ashes, Wet, white, ice, wooden, dulled and dead, brittle and frozen, Who will believe or feel in mind and heart The reality of the spring and of birth, In the green warm opulence of summer, and the inexhaustible vitality and immortality of the earth?