Shabbat services at Temple Rodeph Torah on Friday, March 1, were different from any that had been conducted there before.
For the first time, congregants weren’t asked to open their prayer books. Instead, they were encouraged to look up at two giant television screens suspended from the ceiling to the left and right of the bima.
Prayers, readings, song lyrics, and spiritual images were projected on the screens during the service, one of the Reform synagogue’s monthly “Rock Shabbats.”
The high-tech system, developed by the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, is called Visual T’filah (prayer).
Rabbi Donald Weber, religious leader of the Marlboro temple, said the new audiovisual approach helps overcome an obstacle to unfettered participation in the worship service.
“No longer does each person have to hold a heavy book — which is difficult for some youngsters and senior citizens — and continue to stare down at the pages. Now the entire congregation is free to look at the leaders on the bima, and they still will be able to see the texts and fully participate,” said Weber.
The screens also leave worshipers’ hands free for clapping in time with the melodies, he added. “That makes it a perfect fit for our once-a-month Rock Shabbat services, which have become overwhelmingly popular during the past two years,” he said.
Initial plans call for the synagogue to use the Visual T’filah technology only at these music-dominant services.
“As we learn more about how the system works, I’m sure we’ll find new ways to integrate it into various aspects of our temple life,” said Weber.
The Visual T’filah program was developed under the leadership of Montclair resident Rabbi Steven Fox, CEO of the CCAR, and Rabbi Hara Person, the director of CCAR Press.
Reform rabbis “strive to be on the cutting edge of spiritual life and prayer, which in today’s world means engaging with technology,” said Rabbi Dan Medwin, CCAR’s publishing technology manager. “Mishkan T’filah, the new Reform prayer book introduced in 2007, brought many innovations in approaches to liturgy,” he said. “Visual T’filah is the next natural step in that process.
“We live in a world of visual imagery,” he added. “It is a part of life. In prayer, we try to use imagery to add a level of beauty, engagement, and meaning to our prayer experience.”
Cantor Joanna Alexander led the March 1 service at Rodeph Torah, along with Steve Dropkin, a California-based singer/songwriter.
Alexander said she “immediately noticed the difference in the voices during songs” using the new system. The sea of singing worshipers facing her from the audience was “awesome,” she said.
The next Rock Shabbat service is scheduled for April 12 at 8 p.m. It will feature Eric Komar, who grew up in Monmouth County and attended Howell High School and is now a professional singer/songwriter and musician who has contributed to 10 albums.