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A First in American Jewish Life: Unified Prayer Book Issued for U.S. Jewish Military and Va Personne

For the first time in American Jewish life, Orthodox, Reform and Conservative rabbis have prepared a unified prayer book for Jewish members of the U.S. armed forces and patients in Veterans Administration hospitals.

The historic announcement was made this week by Rabbi Barry Greene of Short Hills, N.J., chairman of the JWB Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy, under whose aegis the common prayer book was prepared.

“There has been a JWB prayer book for Jewish personnel of the U.S. armed forces for many years,” Greene said. “But this prayer book has had two services, one traditional, the other liberal. Last issued in 1958, this edition is in short supply.

“The Religious Education Advisory Group (Jewish) of the Armed Forces Chaplain Board asked the Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy of JWB to form an editorial committee that would create a prayer book for Jewish personnel in keeping with the needs of a new generation of Americans.

“The Chaplaincy Commission leaders felt that one service acceptable to all Jewish personnel would be our goal. We selected three distinguished scholars — Rabbis Leonard Kravitz, Gilbert Klaperman and Max Routtenberg — representing the Reform, Orthodox and Conservative rabbinate, respectively, and asked them to concentrate their efforts on developing a unified prayer book.

“This was not an easy task. The Hebrew text was taken from the prayer book prepared by the late rabbi, Dr. David de Sola Pool. The English text was taken largely from the Shaarey Tefila (‘Gates of Prayer’) prayer book.”

TWO YEARS IN THE MAKING

The new unified prayer book was two years in the making. The three editors were able to resolve their theological differences so that the prayer book reflects unity, Greene said.

“What were some of the problems the editors faced?” Routtenberg, the Conservative member of the editorial committee, was asked during an interview.

“Resolving theological differences,” he answered, “such as on the questions of resurrection, sacrifice, anthropomorphism and angelology. The compromise we reached was that we would respect the traditional Hebrew text but we would feel free to use a modern and poetic translation.”

NOT DESIGNED FOR CIVILIAN USE

Rabbi Herschel Schacter, Orthodox scholar and former chairman of JWB’s Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy, said “I want to emphasize that the prayer book is designed exclusively for use by U.S. Jewish military personnel and those in the V.A. As far as civilian Jewish life is concerned, it is not a break-through, since each religious group has its own prayer book.”

Schacter added, “The Hebrew text of the new prayer book is, of course, traditional. The English is not an exact translation but a free rendition of the Hebrew.” Routtenberg noted that the new prayer book is enriched with many more personal prayers than the existing prayer book contains.

“Examples of these personal prayers are for the about-to-be married couple and the Bar and Bat Mitzvah and those that reflect the reality of Israel,” he said.

Greene, who is also chairman of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR-Reform) delegation to the JWB Chaplaincy Commission, added, “Except for references to God, the new prayer book is non-sexist.”

JWB president Esther Leah Ritz said that “The Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy of JWB has always fascinated me. Here are Orthodox, Reform and Conservative rabbis working together for the Jewish well-being of our personnel in the U.S. military and hospitalized V.A. patients. The publication of this new, unified prayer book, a most significant achievement, is the latest in JWB/CJC’s endeavors along this line.”

The preface to the new prayer book notes that “This prayer book is not intended for the general use of the civilian population. Its shortened and compact form has been designed specifically for military congregations. Jewish service personnel are encouraged to possess a more complete prayer book for their personal devotions and study.”

WILL BE READY FOR DISTRIBUTION NEXT MONTH

The Armed Forces Chaplain Board of the U.S. Department of Defense coordinated all the technical aspects of production of the unified prayer book and underwrote its printing.

Rabbi David Lapp, director of the JWB Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy, said that the new prayer book will be ready for distribution through military channels within the next three to four weeks.

The Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy of JWB is the sole Jewish eccesiastical endorsing agency which accredits qualified rabbis for service as chaplains and approves Jewish military personnel for service as lay leaders.

The JWB Commission is made up of representatives of the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox), the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform), and the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative).

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