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Reform synagogues set to turn a new page
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Reform synagogues set to turn a new page

Movement’s latest Holy Days prayer book emphasizes inclusivity

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Greg Litcofsky and Cantor Joshua Finkel at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston worked together for months to craft their High Holy Day service using the new mahzor, Mishkan HaNefesh.
Rabbi Greg Litcofsky and Cantor Joshua Finkel at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston worked together for months to craft their High Holy Day service using the new mahzor, Mishkan HaNefesh.

Seven New Jersey synagogues will welcome the High Holy Days with a new Reform prayer book its authors say is meant to be more inclusive of women and the LGBT community, more contemporary in its language, and more attuned to the “anxieties and deep questions” with which its users approach Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

The new mahzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, is a successor to Gates of Repentance, first published in 1978, and serves as a companion to the movement’s everyday prayer book, Mishkan Tefila, published in 2007. Some 300 out of just under 900 Reform congregations have adopted it so far.

The New Jersey synagogues using the new mahzor include Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston, Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, Temple Sinai in Summit, Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes,   Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah,   and Temple Beth-El in Jersey City.

Published by the CCAR Press, the project took seven years to complete, and included four years of piloting and revisions based on the feedback of 300 congregations.

Divided into two volumes, one for Rosh Hashana and one for Yom Kippur, the mahzor is designed to be inclusive. It includes prayers to recite for those who are not fasting on Yom Kippur or cannot stand up with the congregation.

Prayers that previously referred  to “bride and groom” now use more inclusive language, like “couples under the huppa.”

There are also readings for those who doubt the existence of or are angry with God.

Alternative texts accompany almost every traditional text, along with translations and transliterations.

Some spreads invite creativity. For Yizkor, the memorial service for loved ones, the words “May God remember” are followed not by sentences or paragraphs to be recited but by suggestive words and phrases referring to various relationships: “I hope, I remember, my sister, my wife, I cherish, I am sorry, I grieve, my companion,” etc. The prompts are meant to help mourners “find their own way through the experience of memory and loss even as the leader serves as a caring guide,” according to the CCAR website.

The added writings, dubbed “counter-texts” by Rabbi Stuart Gershon of Temple Sinai in Summit, are culled from the work of (mostly) 20th-century rabbis, poets, scientists, humanists, scholars, and others, but also include commissioned works and some traditional writings.

While some alternatives are more loosely connected to the traditional text than others, the structure provides a dramatic departure from Gates of Repentance, which offered a service in which everyone recited most of the text in unison.

“We wanted to create a mahzor that acknowledges who we are today as a Jewish community,” said Rabbi Hara Person, who served as executive editor and publisher. She worked with a team of four editors and three advisers. “We wanted to enable people from different backgrounds to be able to connect to the different themes of the High Holy Days. People with a rich background will find meaty, interesting philosophical commentary that will provide food for their souls. For a beginner, explanatory material will give context and an introduction.”

She added, “There are pieces in the book that also address the reality that people in our congregations come from different kinds of families. There are readings that specifically welcome LGBTQ families.”

Some rabbis have taken issue with the level of protest and doubt included in some of the readings, but they acknowledge that they do not have to include those readings in the services they craft. As Person said, “The mahzor is a tool and does not make the experience. So much is decided by the rabbi and the cantor — the music they choose, the timing, which pieces they pick and do not pick.”

Rabbi Donald Weber of Temple Rodeph Torah has been moved by many of the readings. “I’ve been struck, even speechless, at how beautiful and how challenging they are,” he told NJJN. He loves the addition of moments for meditation, and thinks a silent meditation during Yizkor, with the cantor softly singing Yesh Kochavim (“There are stars whose light reaches the earth only after they themselves have disintegrated….”), will be intense.

In rehearsal, he said, “I teared up. But then, I’m easy to cry.”

He said preparing for the High Holy Days has been “fun” but culling the readings has been difficult. “There’s more stuff in here than we could use in the entire 10 days of the High Holy Days,” he said.

He sees a certain irony in the mahzor: “Reform Jews are always known for shortening the liturgy. Now we’ve added hundreds of pages of new material.”

Rabbi Greg Litcofsky at Temple Emanu-El was involved in the early days of the creation of the mahzor, as part of a team that began to gather the readings, and his congregation was among those that piloted Mishkan HaNefesh.

He loves the juxtaposition of grand liturgical moments with quiet introspective ones, which he thinks help create “a sense of grandeur but also intimacy.” Litcofsky particularly likes a Yom Kippur reading for people unable to fast. They often “feel terrible guilt,” he said.

Gershon at Temple Sinai called the previous mahzor “obsolete,” with its “references to the Vietnam War and race riots in American cities.” Like most rabbis, he said he spent “months” working through the new mahzor. “It forced all of us clergy to rethink the fundamentals of the High Holy Day service, to reimagine and put everything up for questioning. What are we doing and why are we doing it?” he said.

He has embraced the new mahzor as more in tune with congregations in 2015 whose members are “more accustomed to solitude and meditation” than they were in 1978. “The service is reconfigured to give people alone time. I think that will be one of the most striking changes in the service,” he said.

While Gershon called the new mahzor “an amazing labor of love,” he was uncomfortable with a few of the readings that focus on doubt. “Some of them are not deserving of being in a mahzor,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with some doubt, but these are so strong I found them a little jarring.”

Still, he acknowledged, those readings “will be a revelation” to those who are struggling with faith.

Rethinking the mahzor and the service also inspired Gershon to rethink his sermons. He has decided to bring them in line with his 21st-century congregation, cutting them from “12 or 15 minutes” down to eight minutes. “It’s good self-discipline to figure out how to be more effective and say it faster, shorter, tighter, sharper,” he said.

The mahzor’s editors were Rabbis Edwin Goldberg, Janet Marder, Sheldon Marder, and Leon Morris. Editorial team advisers were Rabbi Elaine Zecher, Cantor Evan Kent, and Rabbi Peter Berg.

Its title, roughly translated as “sanctuary of the soul,” also refers to the portable sanctuary, or mishkan, that the ancient Israelites carried with them during their desert wanderings.

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