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July 24, 2014 | 26th Tamuz 5774

How Mishkan T'filah Became Our Siddur

Diana Herman, Temple Emanu-El-Edison, NJ


Our congregation, Temple Emanu-El of Edison, New Jersey, participated in the pilot testing of Mishkan T’filah (MT) in 2002. The transition was not a difficult one; our congregation has always been open to trying new things, and in spoken use, we had already adapted both Gates of Prayer and Gates of Repentance to gender- neutral language by saying “Eternal” instead of “Lord,” “Sovereign” instead of “King,” “humanity” instead of “mankind”. Our recitation of the Amidah had long included the imahot as well. While the printed word remained constant, most of us had rearranged our thinking to eliminate the masculine bias of traditional prayer.

 

I found the draft of what would become Mishkan T’filah to be beautiful and spiritual as, I believe, many of our worshipers did. It afforded options to prayer so that if one of the selections on a given two-page spread did not resonate for me, surely another one did. The choices available prompted me to feel free to worship truly “as the spirit moved me,” and from its very first use I really enjoyed that freedom. So many of the readings touched my heart and enriched and expanded my worship experience.

 

Several months later, when a new rabbi came to our congregation, he asked the temple board to consider the purchase of enough draft copies of MT to make it, rather than Gates of Prayer, our siddur. The board and the congregation embraced the proposal enthusiastically, and many congregants purchased copies memorializing or honoring friends and family. Of course, the relatively inexpensive price ($8 per copy) made the purchase easy. For the small sum of $80, families could buy 10 copies, and many did. Before long, we had enough copies to begin using the book on Friday nights. (Our Shabbat morning minyan uses a service developed by our Ritual Committee.)

 

Without any fanfare, the book was put in the pews, and it immediately became our siddur…no learning curve, no transition, no difficulties. Having already used the book in the piloting project, it was familiar to “the regulars,” and it soon became an old, and for many, a beloved friend. Once everyone in the pews understood that after the chatimah (Baruch atah Adonai…) was recited it was time to turn the page, there was no longer any mystery to using the book. The service flowed smoothly with verbal directions (when needed) from the service leaders just as when using any other prayer book. We are a diverse congregation, and the diversity found in MT reaches out to all.

 

I would like to add a personal word of gratitude concerning transliteration, about which there has been much discussion and controversy. When I joined my congregation over thirty years ago, I was Hebrew illiterate. Thankfully, in the pews a laminated card was provided with prayers and music transliterated. That card enabled me to fully participate in services without knowing even a single word of Hebrew. MT affords the same benefit today to those who do not know Hebrew, only they do not have to pick up a card and find the selection; it’s right there on the page for them, and they can participate right along with everyone else. What a blessing! Far from finding transliteration to be a deterrent to my learning Hebrew, it became for me a compelling reason to study the language. I wanted to know and understand the beautiful words I was speaking and singing. Based on my experience, I wrote an impassioned letter to the CCAR Liturgy Committee requesting that transliteration be an integral part of the new siddur. Fortunately, it is.

 

As a lay leader, I occasionally have the opportunity to lead services. I find MT gives me an enormous breadth of material from which to prepare a worship service. The variety of material and the beauty of the language make it easy to plan a service that I hope reaches out to those in the pews. Based on feedback I have received, I have a sense that the prayers and the music have moved the congregation spiritually.

 

Why has our experience been so easy and so successful? Perhaps because we never had any expectations except for success. We delved into the book immediately, just as you leap into the ocean, not fighting the waves but riding them. If you’re told that this book may be difficult to use, you will probably find it difficult to use. If you’re told that you are about to begin using a beautiful new book that will enhance your worship experience, it’s likely that your worship experience will be enhanced. We are on the threshold of a new era of Reform Jewish worship. How we are led across that threshold will determine what our experience will be.

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Diana Herman, president of the Union's 2004-2006 New Jersey West Hudson Valley Coucil regional board, is also a member of the Joint Commission on Worship, Music and Religious Living. She can be reached at dsh1128@comcast.net.

 

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