It was time for the Reform movement to develop a new prayer book for children, said Rabbi Paula Feldstein, rabbi/educator at Avodat Shalom and editor of the newly published “Mishkan T’filah for Youth.”
After all, said Rabbi Feldstein, who has worked at the River Edge congregation for the last five years, “Gates of Prayer for Young People” had come out in 1997, and the English readings in the movement’s regular prayer book, “Mishkan T’filah,” “are on a level too adult for children.”
In addition, “there was nothing out there at this point meeting the need for both religious school services and family services, so there was a lot of discussion in the movement” about developing a new book.
Drafted to edit the new publication, Rabbi Feldstein – working with Hara Person, CCAR Press’s publisher and director – pulled together a committee and began work on “Mishkan T’filah for Youth.” The book, for third”“ to fifth”“graders, was fashioned to meet “a whole bunch of goals,” she said.
“It was time to do some updating based on how our education techniques have changed,” she said, noting that to create an easy transition later on, the book was designed to resemble “Mishkan T’filah.” In addition, “it’s more user-friendly for kids and has beautiful illustrations,” containing original drawings by artist Mark Podwal, based on the alef-bet.
Rabbi Feldstein said the new siddur also has many English teaching notes.
“We really wanted that for the kids, and to educate parents,” she said, pointing out that the siddur includes a combined Shabbat evening and morning service for families. It also contains a weekday evening and morning service for schools, along with a Torah service. Rounding it out is a song section as well as readings for special holidays and community events.
“I want kids to be asking questions and engaging in prayer by thinking a lot about God and the possibilities of God and what prayer can be for them,” she said. “In the world we live in, we can’t take for granted that children will learn the words and find them compelling.”
“I love the notes at the bottom,” she continued. “If you’re not engaging with the prayers and your eyes drift down, that’s amazing as well.” Or, she said, the children can study the illustrations, thinking about the lessons they teach. Each child will connect to the prayers differently.
Because the Reform movement has become more “traditional” in recent years, Rabbi Feldstein said that one thing that had made her uncomfortable about previous books was that “the editors took out certain prayers.”
“Synagogues teach different things in a different order,” she said. Since she wants to be able to choose what to use in her classes, “we wanted to put in everything possible. That’s a big issue for me.”
Leading services every week for three different grades, she often was reduced to “using cut and paste” to give each group what it needed. Now, with all the material in one place, she will be able to work with different pieces of the service for each group.
Rabbi Feldstein said the committee also included transliteration in the services designed for families. “Some parents can’t read Hebrew,” she said. In the services designed for the school day, however, there is no transliteration.
“We don’t want the kids using transliteration,” she said. “We want them to learn Hebrew.”
Rabbi Feldstein said that most of the 10 people serving on her committee were rabbi/educators, though some were congregational rabbis. Committee members wrote educational notes for the bottom of the pages and did translations.
“We wanted the language to be accurate to the prayer but user-friendly for kids,” she said, adding that the committee included “any prayers we thought a movement congregation would want to do.”
As the editor, Rabbi Feldstein “pulled everything together, including readings, translations, and English interpretations.” She also did some writing and “figuring out what went where.”
While the siddur is being marketed primarily within the Reform movement, the editor hopes it also will appeal to the Conservative movement, as well as to Jewish summer camps.
Rabbi Feldstein noted that there are plans to create “visual t’filah” to go with the siddur, so that the prayers can be projected on a screen. “You won’t need to have a book in your hands at all,” she said. “A lot of shuls are moving toward visual t’filah. It provides an interesting prayer experience.”