NEW YORK (JTA) — After years of watching synagogue members die or move away, the Sephardic Jewish Center of Canarsie made the difficult decision to downsize.
The 50-year-old Brooklyn synagogue had been a thriving center for the area’s Sephardim. But after accepting that it could no longer pull together enough money to cover expenses, let alone muster the 10 men necessary for daily prayer, the synagogue disposed of most of its belongings and began holding Shabbat services in a nearby Ashkenazi congregation.
But what was the center to do with its prayer books? It owned several hundred volumes in the Spanish-Portuguese liturgical style — some tattered, some like new and some belonging to older members that may have had significant worth.
“We donated some to a local shul, but we had to get rid of a lot of them and bury them,” Rabbi Myron Rakowitz told JTA. “It was difficult because we didn’t just want to throw them out or claim them unusable. We want other people to use them, to give them purpose when we no longer can.”
What to do with old books is a growing problem for synagogues across the United States. In the last six years, the three major American Jewish denominations all have released new prayer books. More than 1,500 synagogues have purchased the books, in some cases making older versions obsolete.
More than 700 congregations have bought copies of the Reform movement’s new Mishkan T’Filah, and hundreds more are expected to buy. The Conservative movement’s new High Holiday prayer book, the Lev Shalem Mahzor, has sold nearly 260,000 copies to some 500 congregations since its 2010 release. And more than 200,000 copies of the Koren siddur released in 2009 have been purchased by more than 300 Orthodox synagogues.
The problem isn’t going away. The Reform movement is working on a new High Holiday prayer book, or machzor, that it expects to release in 2015.
According to Jewish tradition, prayer books are holy and cannot just be thrown out. Traditionally, they must be placed in a geniza, a repository for holy books awaiting burial. It’s the only religiously acceptable way to dispose of them.
“This problem is just rampant because now is the greatest time for creativity in writing new prayers and liturgy, and it’s going to get worse when the new machzor comes out,” said Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Boston, who is leading a committee working on the new Reform movement prayer book. “But our solution to bury them shouldn’t be looked at negatively. This is an intentional disposal, not a mindless disposal.”
Some synagogues have sought alternatives to the burial option. Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego takes its old books and those of several nearby congregations, and mails them to Jewish Prisoner Services International in Seattle. Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., sent their old prayer books to Hillel chapters throughout the state two years ago when it bought new machzors.
But finding a new home for all the leftover books, some of them decades old, can be difficult.
“Our machzorim we’re looking to get rid of now are usable, but they are from the 1940s version,” said Rabbi Philip Scheim of Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am in Toronto, which is planning to upgrade to the new Lev Shalem machzor this year. “The English translation is incredibly hard for people to get through.”
For most synagogues, if the books don’t eventually find a home, to the ground they go. Some buy pricey lots in a Jewish cemetery; others bury them near their synagogue. Sometimes a gravedigger is hired to do the work.
“It’s really a shame if we have to end up burying our books. They’d be of good use, but we just can’t find anyone to take them in,” said Marjie Cogan of Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, which has been trying unsuccessfully for years to unload 700 old machzors. “It’s a huge problem for us because we don’t have the means to store them."
That’s not true of Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue in Baltimore. The synagogue’s rabbi, Daniel Burg, says there is space to temporarily store 1,200 books that are no longer used by the congregation. Burg hesitates to bury the books because he feels it would be wasteful.
“On the one hand, we don’t want to destroy God’s name or have it fade by the books just sitting there,” Burg said. “But on the other hand, there’s a concept of ba’al tashchit, of not wanting to just waste things. And it’s difficult to just get rid of things that could still have use.”
Rabbi Daniel Freelander, the vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says his movement is confronting the problem of book disposal for at least the third time: first in 1975, when Gates of Prayer replaced the old Union Prayer Book; in 1990, when a new gender-neutral version was released; and again with Mishkan T’Filah.
“No weeks pass by without us being contacted by people looking to get rid of their old Jewish books,” Freelander said. “A good majority of them get donated, but we’ve come to terms that many will get buried, and the ceremony can actually be educational for kids. Those books can’t just sit in your attic forever.”
At Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, the congregation gathers each year before Passover to collectively dispose of unused books. A communal prayer is recited, as is the Mourner’s Kaddish, and there’s a moment of reflection.
“We gather together at the synagogue where members bring tattered prayer books and other sacred books that can no longer be used,” Rabbi Debra Robbins said in an email. “We developed a creative liturgical ceremony for families and members of all ages to participate in together, and we have a special grave site labeled sifre kodesh,” or holy books.
Zecher noted that Jews have been burying books for centuries to make room for new ones, and the practice will continue to grow as the religion continues to evolve.
“It might seem wasteful,” Zecher said, “but like everything we do, it’s with intention.”