Congregation Etz Chaim-Monroe Township Jewish Center is, by its own admission, on “the traditional edge” of Reform Judaism.
Its rules concerning kashrut are strict by the movement’s standards, and its services contain more Hebrew than many Reform synagogues.
It even added “Etz Chaim” (Tree of Life) to its original name some years after its 1979 founding because the congregation felt it should include Hebrew.
It was perhaps not surprising then that the main Reform prayer books, The Gates of Prayer and Mishkan T’filah, were not meeting its needs.
“People noted they didn’t really reflect the minhag [custom] of our shul,” said Rabbi Benjamin Levy. “We’ve been giving out laminated prayers from the outside. Also, the prayer books are not contiguous. You jump from this page to that page. The whole service became sort of a mishmash.”
The congregation decided three years ago to remedy the matter by writing its own prayer book, Siddur Etz Chaim, the prototype for which was unveiled — to positive feedback — during Shabbat services June 5-6. After considering suggestions from congregants, some revisions may be made, said Levy, the primary author of the siddur.
In its foreword, the new siddur states the work “represents a path of alternatives which we hope will lead to an enhancement of our Kavana, our holy focus.”
“Our congregation is really on the traditional edge of the Reform umbrella, so we brought in some of the traditional elements, such as the Misheberach prayer” for the sick, said Levy. “We wanted to incorporate all these identities so we don’t have to keep bringing in outside materials. Plus we have our own unique choreography of the divine as to when we sit and stand and face the ark that is not referenced in the Reform prayer book.”
The book also seeks to provide scholarly insight into the history and meaning of the liturgy. Notes indicate the biblical origins of various prayers. Prayers also directly address God — “Blessed are You” — as opposed to the third person, “Blessed is the Lord.”
Levy calls this a “bold theological statement,” at odds with previous prayer books the synagogue has used.
“By saying, ‘Blessed is the Lord,’ we are addressing God in the third person and as such we are sort of saying God is not really listening to you,” Levy said. “I wanted to return to the dynamic of addressing God in the second person in our prayers. This assumes God listens to our prayers.”
Levy said originally he and a committee set out to prepare the book, but the number of people involved caused the process to bog down. To streamline it, Levy took over as primary author, submitting his work to the committee for comments and suggestions.
The siddur takes into account the congregation’s “sort of strange” take on transliteration, said Levy, which is designed to be “user friendly” to those who don’t understand Hebrew.
“We put the transliteration at the bottom of the page, which really sends a message that, ‘Yeah, we’ll help you out now, but you really have got to learn Hebrew because it’s part of what it means to be a literate Jew,’” said Levy.
Committee chair Robynn Mann said she and another woman had compiled a “one-day siddur” several years ago for their shared adult bat mitzva at Etz Chaim.
“No one was happy with the other siddurs,” said Mann. In addition to being easier to follow and more gender neutral, the new prayer book inserts the word “amen” where other Reform prayer books do not.
Mann said the committee plans to wait several months before publishing the actual book to ensure it is working, and to incorporate feedback from congregants. The committee was considering including art from Hebrew school students or photos from community events.
“We really want to make it special for us,” she said, “a real Etz Chaim prayer book.”
And Levy said while the congregation will continue for now to use the Gates of Repentance prayer book on the High Holy Days, the congregation’s Mahzor will probably also be rewritten eventually to suit Etz Chaim’s needs.