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New, inclusive prayer book marks Jewish New Year for St. Petersburg congregation

ST. PETERSBURG

This Rosh Hashana will bring more than traditional Jewish New Year family gatherings, round, raisin-studded challah and apples dipped in honey to worshipers at Congregation B'nai Israel.

The St. Petersburg synagogue is introducing a new, inclusive prayer book for Rosh Hashana, which begins this evening, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, that starts at sundown Sept. 25.

In Clearwater, worshipers at Congregation Beth Shalom began easing into the new prayer book, Mahzor Lev Shalem, a year ago.

Publication of the contemporary text for Conservative congregations, with its acknowledgement of gay relationships, faltering faith, depression, loneliness and financial difficulties, has been hailed as "an extraordinary event" by the Rabbinical Assembly, the New York-based organization of Conservative rabbis that is behind its creation.

"A game changer" is how Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, a member of the editorial committee, describes it.

To Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B'nai Israel, the new prayer book brings a sensitivity to "issues of the 21st century" with its gender-neutral language and practical approach.

"Yom Kippur is a fast day, yet some of us have medical issues. There is a prayer for those unable to fast," Luski said. "There is a prayer for caregivers. It's a sensitivity we've always had, but here there is a prayer just for that."

And during the Yizkor, or memorial service, on Yom Kippur, "there is a prayer for remembering a hurtful parent," he said.

The prayer book resonates with modern readers, said Rabbi David Weizman of Congregation Beth Shalom. "We are trying to keep it real," he said.

Mahzor Lev Shalem is only the third prayer book for the High Holy Days — 10 days of solemnity that stretch from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur — in the history of Conservative Judaism. The first was published in 1939, the second in 1972.

Though published two years ago, Luski waited to introduce the book to his congregation until it had been reviewed by the synagogue's ritual committee and approved by its board of trustees. Both he and Weizman spoke of being impressed with the scholarship of the new publication, which includes classic and contemporary commentaries and liturgical poetry.

The commentary, which appears in the margins, "really helped me to bring more meaning to the prayer for myself, enrich my experience of it and made it more accessible," Weizman said.

Luski cataloged some of the text's highlights. "A brand new Hebrew font was created for this project. It has an English translation. I think that the translation, which is the major part of this work, reflects the Hebrew very closely and, at the same time, it's prayerful," he said.

Luski also noted that the book's transliterations — the Hebrew words spelled out using the English alphabet — "invite participation" from worshipers who might be weak in the language or unfamiliar with it altogether.

There are also "choreography symbols" that let worshipers know when to rise, sit, bow, or in the case of the Amidah — a silent devotion done standing — when to take three steps forward and three steps back, Luski said. "So, if you are uninformed on the choreography of prayer, it gives you hints," he said.

Inclusion is a recurring theme of the book, which mentions among its memorial prayers for relatives, a partner, seen as an acknowledgement of gay and lesbian relationships.

"I think what this book represents is Conservative Judaism as a big tent and welcoming everybody into the tent and making it as wide as possible so that everybody feels comfortable," Rabbi Edward Feld, the book's senior editor, said in a YouTube video.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said the new prayer book has been "uniformly and enthusiastically received."

But providing enough books for the crowds that pack synagogues on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is a costly endeavor. Weizman's congregation requires about 500 copies. The synagogue started with 50 books last year, supplementing them with excerpts published on the Rabbinical Assembly's website and copies of the old prayer book.

"We got another 120 (this year)," said Weizman, adding that one family bought 100.

Congregation B'nai Israel also is seeking contributions. Members can dedicate one prayer book for $36 or three for $100 in someone's memory or honor.

"I think probably half of the volumes have been dedicated already," Luski said. His synagogue needs about 700 copies.

In the weeks approaching Rosh Hashana, Luski and the synagogue's cantor, Jonathan Schultz, have been familiarizing themselves with the new text. They've also held workshops for the congregation.

"It's a substantial investment in time," Luski said. "It's an investment on many, many levels that ultimately I know will pay off, because I know it will make the experience of the congregation much more pleasant and meaningful."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

New, inclusive prayer book marks Jewish New Year for St. Petersburg congregation 09/15/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 15, 2012 4:31am]
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