Extreme Shul Makeover the New Scribes: Congregants Who Write Their Own Prayer Books

One Shabbat in 1997, Beth Smith was sitting in Congregation Beth Shalom, a large Conservative shul in this midwestern city, when she was suddenly struck by how bored she was. A firebrand of a woman in her 80s, active in local and national nonprofit management, Smith grew up Conservative in Omaha. She had “pretty much taken it for granted,” she says, that Jews join synagogues. That’s what her generation did. But she had just read Roger Kamenetz’s “The Jew in the Lotus,” which asserted that the largest group of converts to Buddhism were young Jews unable to find spirituality in Judaism.

That saddened, but didn’t surprise, her. The Judaism she knew “was dull, rote, not engrossing; there wasn’t any lift to it.” She wondered how that would affect the younger generation. Would they abandon the institution that meant so much to her?

Instead of stewing in silence, Smith took action. She approached Alan Cohen, Beth Shalom’s senior rabbi, assembled a group of lay people, and after two years of work and study, they created their own Siddur, or prayer book, for Tefillah 2000, a contemporary Shabbat service filled with music, prayers and poetry. Congregant-written prayer books are not yet commonplace, but a number of them have appeared in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues.

One of the first was a machzor, or High Holiday prayer book, written in 1985 by Allan Sugarman, a lay leader at the Marlboro Jewish Center in Marlboro, N.J. It’s filled with traditional and modern prayers, photographs, drawings, poetry from the Sages and the Holocaust, inspirational writings from congregants, even news items related to Israel and the Jewish community.

New material is added regularly, Sugarman says, to make the book more relevant to congregants’ lives. The fourth edition, due out this fall, mentions the events of 9/11 in the Yom Kippur martyrology.

Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation in Beverly Hills, Calif., created its own prayer book for an alternative service because some members felt that the congregation’s main service had been taken over by bar and bat mitzvahs.

The alternative service “is adult, it’s contemplative, there’s interactive Torah study and we provide childcare,” says Rabbi Laura Geller, who was instrumental in the project.

Not only has it proven popular with those who attend, it has had an impact throughout the synagogue. For example, after the alternative service began calling people to the Torah in groups, the practice moved into the main sanctuary.

On Tefillah 2000 mornings in Kansas City, Beth Shalom is a cacophony of prayer. Music pours out of the social hall, where the Tefillah crowd gathers. The main service, which usually includes a bar or bat mitzvah, is held in the sanctuary. Down the hall in the library, a long-standing minyan davens the traditional Shabbat service in Hebrew. Signs direct worshippers to the various venues.

Congregant Joel Krichever generally prefers the library minyan, although he attends Tefillah 2000 on the weekends it’s held. “I like the music and the experimentation,” he says.

Hanan Hammer also varies his worship. He enjoys the Tefillah 2000 service, where “the spirituality is in the music,” but goes to the main service when he wants a more traditional feel, with a rabbi and cantor leading the congregation. “It takes me back to my roots,” he says.

Once attended by barely a dozen or so worshippers, today’s Tefillah 2000 services usually draw more than 100 people, and overflow crowds on the High Holidays. Families have begun asking for a Tefillah 2000-style service for their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs.

Like Sugarman’s machzor, the Tefillah 2000 siddur is contained in a loose-leaf binder so content changes can be made easily. There’s plenty of English, the Hebrew is transliterated, and the service is regularly interrupted for “teaching moments,” to encourage participation.

The biggest innovation was adding musical instruments such as guitar, cello, violin, banjo and piano. “The ritual committee thought everyone would drop dead,” Smith recalls.

Despite their popularity, the homegrown minyans are not intended to supplant traditional services, according to the siddur writers.

“At no time would it dawn on me to replace the traditional service,” Sugarman says. “At the same time, a rabbi that does not allow a contemporary service into his congregation is not serving” the congregation.

“Our congregation has several constituencies, which is not unusual,” Krichever says. “Some want to come to the sanctuary and have the service they’ve had for 30 years. That’s great and you need to be there for them. But we need to meet each Jew where they are. Tefillah 2000 is for people who want to push the envelope a little.”

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