Sometimes, to find an answer, you have to ask the right question.
At White Meadow Temple, asking the right question led to the synagogue’s creation of its own in-house, custom siddur — and not just a prayer book, but a scrapbook connecting prayer and memories.
Attendance at Friday night services was dwindling at the Conservative synagogue in Rockaway when Rabbi Benjamin Adler sought fresh ideas.
“It was frustrating that people were discontented with the service,” he said, but when he and other congregation leaders asked what to do, “we only got stale responses, like ‘make it shorter’ or ‘use more English.’” When the idea of experimental services was suggested, the community balked.
Then, Adler and student cantor Hillary Chorny had an epiphany: They were asking the wrong question.
Using a community organizing model, they changed their question to “What’s your prayer story?” and created informal “house meetings” where the question could be put to congregants.
“People started really talking about their best and worst memories of prayer,” Chorny recalled on Feb. 6 in a meeting with a visitor and several of the people involved in coordinating the new siddur.
The number one complaint, it turned out, was the siddur, the 1985 edition of the movement’s Sim Shalom prayerbook.
“It was too heavy, too hard to read, and there was too much flipping around,” said Chorny. “Congregants kept saying they don’t connect to the prayers.”
On the other hand, she said, “People also started telling stories we had never heard. An older woman pulled out a piece of paper. It was Xeroxed from the old shiva books. She said she found tremendous comfort from this prayer after her husband had died. She started to tear up. It was very powerful.”
Others recalled travelling to a rally for Soviet Jewry in the 1980s. “They recalled being on the bus on I-95, seeing other buses all converging. They were praying on the bus, and they saw that people on the other buses were praying. Here they were, on their way to do this mitzva to free Soviet Jews, and they had this powerful moment of praying.”
Clergy and lay leaders realized that prayer that was meaningful to congregants had to do with life moments, both individually and as a community, and how people connected to prayers through their memories.
Going into the house meetings, said Adler, “I had no idea we were going to do a siddur. We didn’t come with any preconceived notions.”
Congregants started bringing in personal memorabilia and photos, documents and bentschers, letters from previous rabbis, even kipot from family events which another congregant photographed. The synagogue received a $4,000 grant from the Ohio-based David and Inez Myers Foundation to create what they believe is the first siddur documenting the intersection of prayer and community memory.
At press time, Chorny was putting the finishing touches on the document, which will launch at kabalat Shabbat on Friday, Feb. 14. Tailored to the synagogue’s customs, it should entail no page-skipping.
Each spread includes the Hebrew prayer with its transliteration and translation, as well as images of the memorabilia relating to the prayer on that page. For L’cha Dodi, which refers to the Sabbath Bride, for example, there’s a photo of kipot from a community wedding. For Psalm 92, a favorite of the temple’s former religious leader, Rabbi Jacob Weitman, there’s an excerpt from the farewell letter he wrote to the congregation opening with the words of that psalm.
Stu Lefkowitz of White Meadow Lake, a committee member and past congregation president, acknowledged that services with the new siddur may not directly engage everyone. Still, he said, “Even if people are bored with the service, combing through the siddur will make them a part of it.”
The group has been actively working on the siddur since June 2012, and they will print 125 copies for the first service.