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Turning a Prayer Book Into a Synagogue’s Communal Scrapbook

In an effort to revitalize services, a New Jersey congregation includes its members’ memories in a new siddur

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)
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In 2012, the White Meadow Temple in Rockaway, New Jersey, was in trouble. Membership had dropped to 150 families, from 500 in the egalitarian Conservative congregation’s heyday in the 1970s. Part of the decline was due to demographic shifts, according to the temple’s student cantor Hillary Chorny: “It was no longer a hub,” she said. “Things were lagging in the community.” But the problem ran deeper, she added, noting in particular that “malaise and boredom” had suffused the synagogue’s Friday night services.

Rabbi Ben Adler suggested asking the congregants what they wanted. “People wanted something new and different,” he wrote in an email. “In talking with Cantor Chorny, I felt it was important that we not simply try new things without first having a conversation about prayer as a community.” A committee met three times over the summer of 2012 and came up with a list of priorities; a new siddur was No. 1. “We discovered that our community felt that prayer was most meaningful when it was connected to life moments,” Adler wrote. The community had been using the 1985 Sim Shalom siddur, which members said felt heavy, had stilted English translations, and required excessive page-turning, Chorny told me on the phone. That’s when she came up with the idea of a making a new prayer book—one that addressed those specific concerns, but also a personal one in which communal memories would be stored.

This “scrapbook siddur” would include archival photographs and memorabilia from the congregation. Community members selected photos and mementos from the MetroWest Jewish Historical Society Archives and their personal collections. Congregant Jeff Stellman volunteered to photograph the materials and submitted 250 to Chorny, who made the final selection; about a third of the images—photos, letters, programs—made the final cut.

“It was a real small-town project,” Chorny said of the scrapbook siddur. “I was the editor, compiler, and graphic designer.” In addition to raising the money (a JTS Myers grant of $4,000) and selecting the images, Chorny put the text together, with the help of Rabbi Martin S. Cohen from the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, New York, who made a gift of his translations and transliterations. The Hebrew text of the prayers is interspersed with Cohen’s transliteration, and translations appear on the opposite page. Scattered throughout the book and made to look like they have been pasted inside are community mementos—photos taken by Stellman of kippot from a 1994 wedding, for instance, or a typed letter from a family thanking the community for their support during shiva, or a checklist of items the congregation was gathering for Soviet immigrant families. And, of course, there are photos of congregants and their families.

“It’s beautiful,” said Rich Chassen, a congregant who also printed the new siddur. “It’s a different approach to a prayer book that I’ve never seen before. Not only is it a prayer book, it’s a history of the congregation.”

It was launched during Friday night services on April 25. The evening began with a cocktail hour (Chorny made sangria). Then the 50 or 60 congregants in attendance said the Shehechiyanu blessing and used their siddur for the first time. “I told them if their eyes were on the books and not on me, I would totally understand,” Chorny recalled.

“It was exciting because we had a lot of people there,” Stellman recalled, “and people were very enthusiastic and couldn’t wait to get started using the book.”

At least 10 people have already ordered copies for their personal use at home.

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White Meadow Temple’s scrapbook siddur is, as far as Chorny knows, the first time a congregation has made its own communal siddur—with these kinds of images and mementos included—for regular use. But others routinely make customized prayer books for special occasions, albeit of a more personal kind. Since 2003, Custom Siddur has been making personalized prayer books; for bar and bat mitzvahs, Passover Seders, and weddings, for instance, Custom Siddur will produce a siddur, Haggadah, or bencher “custom-designed to reflect your family’s style and the joy of the day,” according to the website.

Vivian Singer, president of Custom Siddur, explained that each customer has his or her own special needs: Some want to include guests who are not Jewish. Others want a short service but an elegant book. Sometimes the family wants a photo album interspersed with the text. “I make a prayer book just for your service,” she said on the phone. “I work with your rabbi. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox—I’m even working with Chabad.” Singer, who has been in business full-time since 2005, says she fills at least 100 orders a year. She also gets requests from schools and communities, but copyright issues prevent her from filling those orders; her agreements with the publishers whose texts she uses is contingent on her books being used for “one-off events.”

One person who directs clients to Custom Siddur is Judi Rowland—a Hebrew Union College-ordained cantor and freelance Jewish educator in New York City, whose specialty is working with bar and bat mitzvah students who are not celebrating in a synagogue. “They don’t feel that the synagogue reflects their family but reflects—as it should—the community,” she said. “It reflects the norms of the community, and these people just don’t buy into these norms. They want to do it their way. And it’s very easy to do it their way.”

Rowland’s clients often need their own prayer books, as their ceremonies take place in country clubs and restaurants rather than synagogues. She helps the families make their decisions about what to include in their personalized siddurs. Rowland and Singer then work together on the text, while Singer works with the family on the cover and memorabilia.

Personalizing prayer books is an “under the radar” phenomenon, said Rowland: “There’s certainly a market for it.”

Rowland sees the White Meadow Temple’s scrapbook siddur as part of this larger trend among non-Orthodox Jews. “As today’s Jew becomes more and more liberal and feels less and less that he or she is necessarily commanded to do things, the mitzvot and halahhah are not necessary for their Judaism, but they still feel very connected to Judaism, still want to celebrate certain rituals,” she said, adding that oftentimes they “just don’t want to do it the way the community does because they don’t feel part of the community and they are used to doing everything their own way in their lives.” A scrapbook siddur, she said, would be “a way of making the individuals within the community feel like individuals within a community. I think it’s a wonderful idea for giving voice—or picture—to each individual congregant: We’re not just a boat that you’re passengers on. You matter to us.”

The scrapbook siddur “is a part of the trend of rising popularity of community organizing,” Chorny wrote in an email, as well as an attempt to personalize Jewish ritual. But while she concedes that rituals in synagogues are trending toward the personal, Chorny believes there is a crucial difference between White Meadow Temple’s scrapbook siddur and these other personalized books. “It used to be a big thing that the synagogue had a sukkah. Now everyone shows up to shul for their own personal events, that’s what gets them in the door. There’s a real desire for the service to be personal. But notice that our synagogue didn’t make a project where everyone walks home with their own siddur. So, we’re reacting to this desire in the Jewish community to experience things as personal, but through this process we asked the community members to relate to each other and come up with a product reflective of their shared needs and their shared desires in prayer as opposed to something that is just personal or familial.”

Chorny associates the project with “Relational Judaism”—a concept that started as a book of the same title by Ron Wolfson and is quickly turning into something of a movement. Relational Judaism focuses on the relationships built within a community, rather than any specific programming, as the key to Jewish continuity. Wolfson, who views as role models Chabad and the Evangelical movement, believes that face-time between congregants and their leadership builds a lasting connection, but it is a sense of personal obligation that makes those connections real.

Whether the prayer book is enough to keep the members of White Meadow Temple engaged in Friday night services is unclear. Stellman has not been back to synagogue since the launch, and one Friday night since the siddur premiered, the community failed to make a minyan. The temple is also about to experience a big change: Chorny’s time as a student cantor is up, and she is leaving in June and heading to Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles; Rabbi Adler is also leaving at the end of June. Chorny—who submitted the scrapbook siddur, along with an “exploration of its impact,” as her master’s thesis at the Jewish Theological Seminary—says there’s a “big mystery” over how the book is going to be used now that the two leaders who created it are leaving. “The book is all about continuity, but now they are looking to new leaders,” she said. “I feel like I’m leaving them with a gift, a gift they have given to themselves by revising their history and what they are all about.”

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Turning a Prayer Book Into a Synagogue’s Communal Scrapbook

In an effort to revitalize services, a New Jersey congregation includes its members’ memories in a new siddur