The rabbi’s tour of the sanctuary at Woodlands Community Temple stresses what isn’t there. “No fixed bima,” Rabbi Billy Dreskin says, pointing to the ark on wheels in the eastern corner of the room, flanked by ceiling-high windows—plain panes, no stained-glass — that open to a woodsy street in Greenburgh.
“No fixed seating.” Instead, there are several rows of folding chairs, which are rearranged for different services and synagogue events.
And, in the pewless space, no sign of prayer books.
Stacks of “Gates of Prayer,” the standard Reform prayer book, lie in a storage closet next to the sanctuary. The books rarely come out of storage — Woodlands Community Temple makes its own prayer book. Several, in fact.
Seven siddurs published by the synagogue in its 34-year history, each a 6-by-9-inch softcover product a few dozen pages long, are stored in a cabinet next to the sanctuary; alongside a rack of tallitot. In Hebrew and English, they offer a combination of basic Shabbat evening and morning prayers, and inspirational readings.
The previous editions, most of them undated, are simply named “Prayers for Shabbat” and are used on a rotating basis, based on a particular week’s theme or a bar/bat mitzvah family’s preference.
“We refer to them by the picture on the book,” or by the color, says Rabbi Dreskin, who has been affiliated with Woodlands, on and off, since starting as a rabbinic intern in 1985. The prayer books are so popular they regularly “disappear” from the cabinet and require reprinting, he says.
Sometime next year, another congregation-made prayer book will appear. A temple committee is in the middle of a three-year writing and editing project. The final desktop product, “L’lmod ul’lamed” (“To Learn and to Teach”), 82 inches by 11 inches and maybe hardbound, will have more tradition, more prayers and more Hebrew — and an English transliteration of every Hebrew reading — than the earlier editions.
The core of the Reform service will remain intact, says Barry Kessler, chairman of the new siddur committee. “We don’t change the liturgy.”
The biggest change will be the addition of extensive historical and theological explanations accompanying each prayer, written by committee members, to be printed in the margins and the bottom of pages — like the rabbinical comments on a page of Talmud.
“It’s a working siddur with commentary,” says Corey Friedlander, co-chair of the ritual committee.
“It’s an educational tool, but it’s also a worship tool,” says Karen Fox, another ritual committee co-chair.
“The goal of the siddur,” says Kessler, who is steering the temple’s production of a new prayer book for the second time, “is to produce something that will enable those who use it to learn from it, to perhaps teach others what they learn, and to make the Shabbat experience more user- friendly.” No rote praying, no unfamiliar language and concepts. “We want the congregation to feel comfortable.
“It will be gender neutral — that’s a given,” he says. The tefilla, for the first time, will refer to the avot u’imahot, the patriarchs and matriarchs, instead of the avot alone. Debbie Friedman’s Misheberach prayer for the infirm will be part of the main text. The Hetzi Kaddish will appear more frequently, as in a traditional siddur, and there will be readings by Abraham Joshua Heschel and modern Hebrew poetry.
The new siddur committee consists of eight members, representing the philosophical spectrum of the congregation, which has capped its size at 400 member families to preserve a feeling of intimacy. Their editorial choices, reviewed by the rabbi, are a consensus decision.
The committee is about one-third through writing the commentaries.
“It’s a huge amount of work,” Rabbi Dreskin says. “The writing is taking forever. Everything needs to be researched.”
While most Reform temples use a prayer book published by the movement, “it is certainly much more widespread for congregations to produce their own siddur,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“To some extent it reflects some unease with the current [standard] siddur,” and a “greater interest in worship issues that exists in the movement now,” Rabbi Yoffie says. And, he adds, “We have the technology that makes it possible for congregations to produce their own liturgy.” A congregation that has already issued seven siddurs “may be somewhat unusual,” Rabbi Yoffie says. “That’s evidence of a rabbi and a cantor and a lay leadership that is deeply committed.”
Why another siddur at Woodlands?
“There was new professional leadership in the synagogue” a few years ago, Friedlander says. “They were ready to put their imprint on the spiritual life of the congregation.”
The changes in the nascent siddur reflect the congregation’s eclectic nature (it has no brotherhood or sisterhood and acts as a single community) and changes in the Reform movement (it has advocated serious prayer and study in recent years), Rabbi Dreskin says.
“We’ve always been where the [Reform] movements has wanted to get to,” he says, adding, “Liturgically, we are following the trend of the Reform movement.”
Congregants’ involvement in putting out each new prayer book is both an effect and cause of the synagogue’s full schedule of adult education classes, in which some 100 persons are enrolled. “Whenever we walk in the building,” Fox says, “there seems to be some learning going on.”
The series of siddurs has inspired attendance at worship services, Rabbi Dreskin says. A growing number of congregants observe kashrut and Shabbat, he says.
The temple’s own siddur “enables them to pray the prayers — they understand it,” Rabbi Jonathan Gordon says. “They are really praying.”
“I know when I pray using our siddur I feel very present with God and our community,” Friedlander says.
No completion date for the new siddur is set.But one thing is sure — in about five years the synagogue will appoint a committee to produce its next prayer book.