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Issue Date:  November 23, 2007

New prayer book for Reform Judaism

NEW YORK -- Worshippers at Reform synagogues across the United States are beginning to hold a new prayer book, or siddur, in their hands during services. Along with a dramatically new design, worshippers will find the words of Pete Seeger, Helen Keller and Langston Hughes.

It’s the first new prayer book in more than 30 years for the country’s 1.5 million Reform Jews, and leaders say the prayer book itself -- and the process that created it -- embody a uniquely Reform approach to Judaism.

“Our prayer book reflects our identity,” said Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “If our identity changes just a little bit, you can revise the prayer book and that suffices. If our identities change considerably, then the prayer book begins to look like a cracked mirror.”

Hold a mirror up to a typical Reform congregation and there will be a wide range of people -- lifelong Jews, non-Jewish spouses in a growing number of interfaith families, former Orthodox and even those who don’t believe in God but value a Jewish community, said Rabbi Elyse Frishman, who edited the new book.

“The awareness was building within our movement that the words of our prayer book were not meeting our needs. We needed to broaden our conversation about God,” said Frishman.

The new book broadens that conversation with significant changes in design and content. Like the movement, it has elements that are traditional (more prayers in Hebrew) as well as contemporary (gender-neutral references to God).

And while congregations are not required to adopt the new book, the first printing of 150,000 has already sold out.

The most revolutionary changes were the layout and design. Unlike the previous prayer book, the book opens right to left, like a Hebrew book. Each two-page spread features a Hebrew prayer on the right, accompanied by an English translation and transliteration, which allows those who don’t speak Hebrew to sound out the prayers.

Discussion began in the 1980s about how to revise the existing “Gates of Prayer” book. Rabbis bore the ultimate responsibility for the new book, but during the editing process, members from more than 300 congregations received three separate drafts of the book and commented on them.

-- Religion News Service

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2007

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