Conservative Prayer Book Charting Fresh Course


At a time when many Jews are seeking new ways to express their spirituality, the Conservative movement has published a new siddur for Shabbat and festivals that offers fresh insights into the traditional text, revised Hebrew transliterations and revisions to make it both egalitarian and LGBT friendly.

“What we tried to do is provide multiple entry points to the service for a full range of users,” said Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, associate editor of the siddur, called “Siddur Lev Shalem.”

“Regular shul goers could pray using the traditional liturgy and/or look for new insights and ways of understanding the text through explanatory commentary and authorship,” she said, adding the siddur also offers “inspirational commentary — poetry in dialogue.”

In the words of its siddur’s senior editor, Rabbi Edward Feld: “It puts power back into the hands of the congregant — he or she is able to relate to the service in the way they want to.”

“If you want to know what the tradition is and want to make your own decisions about what it is you want to say and keep, this is the book and movement for you,” he added. “It is a movement that doesn’t pre-censor the tradition but rather tells you what it is and gives you the tools to be able to make decisions about your life.”

The siddur’s publication comes at a key juncture for the Conservative movement, which has struggled to hold onto members and to articulate a relevant message amid sweeping demographic changes in the last generation. It has embarked on a $350,000 effort hiring the rebranding company Good Omen. Margo Gold, international president of the movement’s congregational arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has said that “tradition and change,” the movement’s longtime tagline, no longer reflects its core message.

As part of the rebranding effort, Good Omen is completing an audit of nearly 1,000 Conservative Jews who have been asked their thoughts about the movement and to help develop a new slogan.

In another sign of change, the movement’s rabbinical school, the Jewish Theological Seminary, announced last month that it had completed the sale of a parcel of land on the eastern edge of its Morningside Heights campus, as well as an off-site residence hall. Seminary officials said part of the proceeds from that $96 million transaction will fund the redevelopment of its complex at 3080 Broadway in a way that makes the campus more open to allow for “deeper collaboration with our neighbors, our city, and with individuals and communities around the world.”

The new siddur is modeled after the movement’s successful Mahzor Lev Shalem, the prayer book for the High Holy Days and for which Rabbi Feld also served as senior editor. It was published in 2010 and has sold more than 340,000 copies, according to Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which published both books.

“That mahzor was a game changer for the Conservative movement and for the Jewish community in the way it brought the High Holy Days to life,” she said. “We saw that people need multiple kinds of tools to relate to the page.”

Like the mahzor, the new siddur has a four-column format that brings in the history and scope of Jewish poetry, as well as new commentaries that reflect the current day. The right column is designed to help illuminate the prayer with information about its history and development over the ages. The column on the left offers 21st century insights into the prayer that Rabbi Schonfeld said “helps you feel something, provide spiritual uplift and bring the prayer into the contemporary idiom through poetry and contemporary writing.”

The second column on the right is the traditional liturgy, and Rabbi Schonfeld said that because the movement has “such a vast collection of material and because of its focus on scholarship, we have brought back different versions of prayers.”

“Since the Conservative movement values learning, we wanted to give everybody an opportunity to study and learn new approaches to our ancient wisdom,” she said.

The fourth column is for the transliteration of Hebrew prayers that are recited aloud in most synagogues.

“It is meant to be a 21st-century prayer book that empowers individuals so that the diverse community we have become can find themselves in the prayer book,” Rabbi Schonfeld said.

It took five years to write the new Sabbath and festival siddur and Rabbi Schonfeld said she believes a siddur for daily worship will be compiled in the future using the same format.

Rabbi Feld said he views the new siddur — which has an advance sale of 40,000 copies — as a Jewish anthology because “you can see how medieval Jews related to the liturgy and how Israeli Jews relate; it’s a totally Jewish experience.”

In seeking to reposition the movement, Conservative leaders are mindful of an analysis of a Pew Research Center survey by sociologist Steven M. Cohen that found that between 1990 and 2013 the number of American Jewish adults who self-identify as Conservative and belong to a synagogue dropped from about 1.5 million to 962,000. And the number of those who identify as Conservative but do not belong to a congregation fell from 739,000 to 392,000. At the same time, the number of synagogues affiliated with United Synagogue reportedly dropped from 675 in 2009 to 580.

To reflect its diverse membership, the movement’s new siddur includes traditions from the vast array of Jewish cultures, including North African, Italian, Sephardic, Middle Eastern, as well as Ashkenazi. For instance, the prayer for rain recited on Shemini Atzeret includes a poem Ashkenazim usually recite as well as a Sephardic version.

In the section dealing with the prayers recited when one receives an aliyah, the new siddur includes in the left column the additional words recited by Sephardim, as well as the response of the congregation.

“We did this so that in a mixed community all of the congregants would know what is going on when Sephardi congregants are called to the Torah,” Rabbi Uhrbach explained. “Synagogues such as Temple Israel in Great Neck and Temple Sinai in Los Angeles have large numbers of Sephardic members. Everyone should know the richness of our tradition and know that the service is not written in stone. There have been differences over time and in different communities.”

Rabbi Feld said he hopes Jews “will find material in the siddur that allows them to enter into the tradition without having to give up who they are.”

“If you want to know what Conservative Judaism is, look at this siddur,” he said. “It is respectful and understanding of the traditions and it lives within the 21st century.”