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September 18, 2014 | 23rd Elul 5774

Introducing Mishkan T'filah: An Educational Excursion Down Memory Lane

by Rabbi Richard Winer

Congregation Beth Emek Pleasanton, CA


What do you do with the boxes of old Union Prayer Book s in the attic? Embrace the opportunity!

We at Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton, California eagerly received our shipment of Mishkan T’filah. Many members of our congregation had participated in opportunities to pilot the new prayer book. We were ready to introduce it but remained sensitive to those who either mourned the retirement of Gates of Prayer or who resisted change in general.

With all the various issues of change in mind, we chose three successive Friday evening services to make our transition to the new prayer book.

Week One
We returned to the old Union Prayer Book . With plenty of notice we asked congregants to come dressed appropriately for a service in the 1940’s. Typically a quite informal congregation, we dressed formally and asked members to behave in a far more formal manner than usual. The music of the service was appropriate to the era, and we followed the custom of a Classical Reform service in the Union Prayer Book . The rabbi did not wear a kippah (or rather yarmulke) and called forward “Mrs. David Phillips” to light our Sabbath (not Shabbat) candles. During the sermon we returned to the present in order to discuss the history of Reform liturgy and how it developed into the Union Prayer Book .

Week Two
This was when it was the most difficult to maintain a straight face as we dragged our polyester out of the closets for a worship experience with Gates of Prayer , 1975. While most of us dressed in the more formal attire we remembered from that period, a few chose to bring out the tie-dye and other 70’s accoutrements. Again, the music was chosen to reflect a 70’s service, instrumentation and all. What made the service most difficult was praying directly from the pages of Gates of Prayer . Rather than printing or buying new books, we had been continuously using the 1975 version of Gates of Prayer . We would update the language as we read, though the text remained the same. Returning to the 1975 language in 2008 was challenging since we had trained ourselves so well to add the matriarchs and degenderize the language. Remembering to read the pages of Gates of Prayer as they were written took great concentration.

The sermon continued the exploration of Reform liturgical evolution and the developments that led to the Gates of Prayer .

Week Three
We returned to the present to culminate our three-week retrospective with the newest Reform offering, Mishkan T’filah. Having just reviewed the older prayer books, we chose passages in Mishkan T’filah that most closely resembled their antecedents in the previous volumes. While some of the music for Week Three was contemporary, we also chose music that reflected older traditions. It is not difficult to make choices in Mishkan T’filah that closely follow a service from Gates of Prayer . This reminded our congregants that it does not need to feel like such a significant change.

In sum, over the course of the three weeks we examined the history of Reform liturgy, we experienced about a century of it, and we successfully introduced Mishkan T’filah. We enjoyed the experience thoroughly and decided to shelve the old Union Prayer Book s together with the Gates of Prayer in order to dust them all off and return to this wonderful, educational experience every few years.

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