Grass-roots’ praying in Britain


LONDON (JTA) – Leaders of the Reform movement in Britain are looking to a new prayer book to help bolster the movement as the main alternative to an increasingly Orthodox British Jewry.

The prayer book, published last month, is being billed as a “grass-roots siddur” because it offers a choice of several services.

Its publication comes as researchers are predicting that the Jewish population in Britain will grow in 2008, reversing a 50-year decline.

The figures presented by researchers at the University of Manchester’s Center for Jewish Studies – and described in the British media as “startling” – are attributed to the high birthrate among the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, community.

Haredi families here on average have 6.9 children, compared to 1.6 children among secular Jewish families, according to Yaakov Wise, a researcher at the center.

It is against this backdrop that the Reform movement claims to be more relevant than ever.

“We see it as our duty to offer an alternative to Jews who no longer feel they belong to the ever more haredi-ized mainstream,” said Rabbi Tony Bayfield, the head of the Movement for Reform Judaism in Britain.

With 43 active congregations and some 40,000 members, the movement is arguably the largest of the three main non-Orthodox denominations in the country. The conservative center-leaning Masorti movement is the smallest of the three after the left-leaning Liberals.

Together the members of the three factions account for some 30 percent of the 180,000 affiliated Jews in the United Kingdom, according to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the main umbrella body of British Jewry.

In its some 160 years in Britain, the Reform movement has experienced periods of stagnation and decline.

The first British Reform synagogue opened in London as early as 1840, but it took more than a century for the movement to form a national umbrella body, the Association of Synagogues in Great-Britain, established in 1942.

While there is a connection between the Reform and Liberal movements, the primary distinction is that the Liberals, like the Reform in the United States, accept patrilineal descent – the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother is considered Jewish if he or she is raised Jewish. The British Reform movement does not accept patrilineal descent.

The Movement for Reform Judaism, a national organization created in 2005, aims to “revitalize Jewish community involvement among British Jews” with particular focus on children, teens and families with one non-halachically Jewish parent.

The movement operates six Jewish day schools – one is private, the rest are state-funded. The main project for the coming years will be the opening in September 2010 of Britain’s first cross-community Jewish secondary school.

“Since 2005 we have taken a people-focused approach” Bayfield said, stressing that the movement’s target audience also includes such groups as unaffiliated 18- to 34-year-olds and Israelis living in the United Kingdom.

Bayfield calls the new siddur a “small step” in the movement’s engagement strategy.

British media, reporting on its publication, focused on the prayer book’s gender-neutral language. For instance, “God of our ancestors” replaces “God of our fathers,” and “every person praise God” is instead of “every man.”

Bayfield, however, says the use of gender-inclusive language is not new, having been incorporated into the movement’s prayer book for festivals published in 1995.

The design and editing process of the prayer book, officially known as Seder Ha-t’fillot, took eight years. It turned out to be less contentious than the one for its North American equivalent published last year following nearly two decades of work.

The heated debates in creating the American Mishkan T’filah centered on such issues as the removal of the second and third paragraphs of the Shema prayer and restoring the prayer for the resurrection of the dead. These debates were absent from the British Reform editing table.

Bayfield explains that the last Reform siddur published here, in 1975, already provided adequate solutions to such sensitive issues – solutions that were adopted or expanded in the new prayer book.

The new prayer book’s main innovation is its structure, which provides congregants the flexibility of an almost daily selection of passages in the less formal parts of the service while keeping the formal sections relatively fixed.

Bayfield calls this “a bold move from an authoritative top-down structure to a more horizontal one.”

“What is wonderful about this prayer book,” he says, “is that it allows the community to play an active part, together with the service leader, in choosing a course of the prayer that will reflect the general mood of the day.”

In fact, the community also played a part in the siddur’s evolution. Two draft versions were tested in nearly all Reform congregations, and the editor and committee members visited the congregations to hear feedback from rabbis and their congregants.

Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, the siddur’s editor, says the biggest controversy concerned the use of transliteration. Supporters argued that adding transliteration to the central prayers would enable members without any knowledge of Hebrew to better participate in the service.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner of the Alyth Garden synagogue said she was surprised that the fiercest opposition to the use of transliteration came from those “who have already successfully confronted the Hebrew texts” and therefore thought everyone should have that ability.

In contrast, she said, rabbis see many congregants unable to navigate the Hebrew and “as a result become passive and detached.”

Ultimately the argument for inclusivity “won the day,” Magonet said, as anecdotal evidence showed that those not fluent in Hebrew believed they could participate more fully because of the transliteration.

Recommended from JTA