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New prayerbook helps kids ‘wrestle’ with holy images
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New prayerbook helps kids ‘wrestle’ with holy images

When Jewish educator and author Michelle Shapiro Abraham was approached with a request to do a new book, she almost refused. “I was swamped,” she said.

But then she heard the assignment. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the main organization of Reform rabbis in North America, wanted a prayer book for children from kindergarten through second grade.

“How could I say no to that?” she said. “I was so honored and overwhelmed by the opportunity.”

That was just over a year ago. Shapiro Abraham, education director at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, the Reform synagogue led by her husband Rabbi Joel Abraham, took just three months to compile her text. Mishkan T’filah for Children: A Siddur for Families & Schools, illustrated by Katie Lipsitt, was published in June.

The bright, colorful volume presents the prayers for weekdays, Shabbat, and festivals, translated into English by Shapiro Abraham, with some Hebrew and English transliteration, and augmented with poems and passages which she wrote. All of it is shaped so as to honor tradition and still be accessible for very new readers just starting to master some Hebrew.

It is Shapiro Abraham’s sixth — or counting one done with her husband, seventh — book. They have covered various aspects of Jewish life, from getting up in the morning, to going to bed at night. Those others, she said, have produced some “incredibly gratifying” moments — like when she got to listen in as three- and four-year-olds at the JCC of Central New Jersey recited a poem they had learned by heart from her Shabbat Shalom. But this book is on another level.

“It is such a wonderful opportunity — to help children experience meaningful worship,” she said. Her children are 13 and 10, older now than the new readers in her target audience but close enough that as a parent as well as an educator, the effort touched her heart. “Like any parent who belongs to a faith community,” she said, “I wanted my children to have a feeling of personal connection to our religion.”

Shapiro Abraham is a graduate of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Rhea Hirsch School of Education. In addition to her writing and her work at Temple Sholom, she serves as a consultant for a variety of Jewish summer camp grants and projects. Most recently she has served as the Jewish educational consultant on the Foundation for Jewish Camp Specialty Camp Incubator.

‘Engage in the struggle’

With Mishkan T’filah for Children, she said, she wanted the prayers presented in such a way that youngsters with widely different images of God could identify with the words. “One of the cool things about Judaism is that it doesn’t dictate what God is,” she said. She also wanted the result to be appropriate for day or religious schools, and for family prayer, and appealing enough that a child would enjoy using it during regular services.

Writing about the project on the CCAR website, Shapiro said, “The first time I read the familiar Hebrew words and understood their translations, I found myself unable to pray. The God that I believed in wasn’t the all-powerful ‘Male Sky God’ that the rabbis seemed to know — a God who is ‘King of the Universe,’ who is ‘High and Exalted,’ and who we beseech to ‘rule over us in steadfast love and compassion.’ This was not my God.”

She came up with her own solutions, as many people do, sometimes “switching off” her mind so as to let her spirit soar. “Though I teach prayer, and lead prayer, writing a movement prayer book was a very different prospect,” she wrote. “Was there a way to show those varying theologies while still staying true to Reform Movement prayer? What was the balance between keeping the words of our tradition, and encouraging different ideas and concepts to emerge?”

With encouragement from her husband, and inspired by her Temple Sholom students and her own children, Shapiro Abraham forged a solution. She still refers to God as “Ruler of the Universe,” but found places where God “was also the Light, the Peace, or the Artist.” She continued, “I added images of God ‘tucking us in’ and ‘helping us be strong and brave,’ and kept images of God as ‘Creator of Miracles’ and ‘Giver of Life.’ We would praise God for being holy, and also recognize the Holy Spark with in each of us as God as well.”

She said, “It is an incredible gift to have your theology challenged. The process of writing Mishkan T’filah for Children was just that for me — with not only my own voice, but the voices of parents, children, and clergy loud in my mind, questioning each word that I chose. Did this image of God go too far? Should I be more daring and go farther? I teach my students that we are Yisrael — the Ones who Wrestle with God. It is an incredible gift to be invited to engage in the struggle.”

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