Categories
CCAR Press Prayer Technology

Creating the World of Visual T’filah

It was Friday morning, the day after Yom Kippur. Even though we were exclusively worshiping on Zoom throughout the High Holy Days, I felt a sense of peace and contentment, and a strong connection to the Temple Sholom family. All of our services were held using Visual T’filah. Without machzorim in hand, we were able to truly pray as a community with our electronic devices. I was very tired after all the preparation leading up to the Holy Days and after leading so many different types of services, but Shabbat comes every week, ready or not. I could have reused a previous Visual T’filah Shabbat service I had put together, but I had a strong desire to create a new service. And then it dawned on me that crafting a Visual T’filah service is a form of praying for me, in and of itself. 

I start with a set of Mishkan T’filah Visual T’filah slides from CCAR Press, which have all the prayers from the prayer book. I focus on the service as a whole and explore the feeling I want the day’s prayers to convey. What is going on in the world around us? What inspiration can I glean from the Torah portion? Should the service be upbeat and celebratory, or more contemplative and calming?  What do we, as a community, need this particular Shabbat? 

Next, I focus on one prayer at a time. What is this particular prayer saying to me today? I look through my collection of photographs and art to find the image that best portrays that feeling. I also search through my collection of music to find just the right melody to enhance the feeling of the prayer as it speaks to me. As I work on each prayer slide, finding the best way to arrange the text around the picture, the words of the prayer permeate my soul. I am praying as I create each slide. 

For example, the Mi Chamochah has many different melodies. Many of them are joyous. Others are more contemplative. The celebratory melodies reflect the excitement of the Israelites finally making it to the other shore and rejoicing in their newfound freedom. I see the more contemplative melodies reflecting amazement and awe. “Wow. Did we really make it? Are we really safe now?” I choose a particular melody based on the emotion the congregation might most benefit from that Shabbat. 

Then I attach a visual. I often use visuals containing water for Mi Chamochah. It doesn’t have to be the Red Sea; it can be a river or an ocean. The visual helps me—and the congregation—feel as if we were there with the Israelites on their journey. As I put each prayer slide together, playing the music to make sure it goes with the visual, I find myself praying the Mi Chamochah as I compose the slides. I feel completely immersed in the message of the prayer and experience connection to God through those words.

Some of the images I use are photos. Others are graphics. Sometimes I choose more abstract images to allow for each person’s imagination to explore the words of the reading or prayer.

Shabbat is about creation. In the Kiddush we read, Zikaron l’maaseih v’reishit —“A reminder of the work of Creation.” Made in the image of God, each Shabbat I create a prayer world, for myself, and for the congregation.


Rabbi Michele B. Medwin, DMin serves Temple Sholom in Monticello, New York. Her Mi Shebeirach Prayer for Chronic Illness appears in Mishkan R’fuah: Where Healing Resides, published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer

How Can We Build a Life of Meaning? Reflections on S’lichot

The S’lichot prayers are traditionally recited on the Saturday night before Rosh HaShanah to help prepare us for the soul-searching and transformation that we hope to do during the High Holy Days. S’lichot is thus the opening scene of our efforts each Jewish year to build a life of meaning, a life of consequence. 

We want to break through the routines to which we have become accustomed. As we entered adulthood, we developed certain habits that served us well at the time. Some of these are still valuable practices that serve important functions for one reason or another, but many others are useless, pointless, or even counterproductive. Sometimes we develop workarounds that achieve what needs to be done in the moment but not necessarily in the best way. There is a story about a person who takes their car to a mechanic because the brakes aren’t working. When they come back the next day, the mechanic tells them “I couldn’t fix your brakes, but I made your horn louder.” Isn’t that what we have often done when facing challenges in our lives? We did the best we could, patching things over in order to carry on.

Real change is hard. In fact, it’s well-nigh impossible unless there is some sort of burning internal or external motivation. If the doctor were to say to us, “You have one year to live,” then we might go home and, after pouring ourselves a stiff drink, actually decide to change everything, living in a completely different way than we had been up to that point. There are other dramatic moments in life that can compel us to spontaneously reject everything that we have always done and move in a completely different direction.

Yet I don’t think that S’lichot is trying to push us to impetuously change our lives 180 degrees in one evening. So don’t trade in your Ford Explorer for a Porsche. Don’t buy a plane ticket to India in order to spend the rest of your life in an ashram. Don’t book your seat next to Elon Musk to fly off to Mars. Rather, I would argue that what Judaism is asking us to do on S’lichot evening is to evaluate and reevaluate our lives in order to try to realize our full potential for lasting fulfillment.

Several years ago, I was the editor of a CCAR Press volume titled A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path. Our goal was to get people thinking about what Reform Judaism could mean in terms of how we find meaning in our lives. Though published before the pandemic started, the chapters remain timely and relevant. As we enter a reflective mode during this S’lichot season, I hope this book can inspire us to create positive change, both in our communities and in ourselves.

We are reminded by the words in the prayer book that we are granted the gift of life, a gift of uncertain duration but of certain laborious effort. However much we protest or negotiate, this short time is all we get. For many, fate overwhelms, truncates, or destroys their journey. To the best of our knowledge, this is the one life that we have, and we have a sacred obligation to make the most of it. And so, let us pray that this new year 5782 may be a year of wisdom acquired and shared, a year of virtue and the strengthening of our characters, a year of mitzvot and the meaningful practice of ritual, and a year of community and the sharing of our commitment to making the world a better place. May God’s presence in our lives this new year strengthen our souls and renew our spirits.


Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, PhD, serves Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley in Sun City, Arizona. He is the editor of A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path, published by CCAR Press.

Categories
CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer Technology

Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: Why Make an App from a Book?

These days, books go far beyond print volumes—they can be converted into many digital formats. Perhaps the most straightforward digital form of a book is an ebook; CCAR Press has over a decade of experience creating a variety of ebooks, from basic reflowable text to enhanced, interactive, multimedia versions. However, there are often compelling reasons to put in the extra time and resources to transform a book into a standalone app.

Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press in 2019, was a perfect candidate for this transformation. Rabbi Debra Robbins’s book guides readers through a meaningful practice that she created, introducing daily meditation and reflection into their lives.

With our busy lives, a meditative practice is always a challenging new routine—we often need a bit more help to begin and maintain such a practice. Our new app, Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart, includes a variety of features designed to help in this process. When you first open the app, you are presented clearly with the basic steps and flow of the process, with a user interface that strives to emulate the meditative tone of the practice. Rather than asking the reader to figure out which is the current daily Reflection for Focus, the app knows the date, performs some calculations based on when Shabbat occurs, and automatically delivers the intended reading for the day.

There are also other features of the app that simply could not be a part of a print book. One of the most enriching is the inclusion of a variety of beautiful musical settings to verses in Psalm 27, some of which are original to this project. One can listen to the same music for a week, diving deeply into the complex layers of each piece, or listen to a new song each day. Similarly, each new day reveals a meditative image, often photos taken by the author or her students, in vibrant color. The app also includes a mediation timer, with the option to choose visual and audio cues, as well as a daily reminder to engage in the practice, both of which are extremely helpful features that could never have been a part of a print work.

This is perhaps the most beautiful app that CCAR Press has created to date. While many of our previous apps are nicely designed and function well, they focus on delivering a large amount of content in an easy-to-access way. The Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app was designed specifically to convey an emotion, a sense of peace and calm, commensurate with the intentions behind the practice. It is our hope that the content of this incredible work, along with the carefully crafted experience of using the app—with all of its helpful features—will allow individuals and groups to enter this High Holy Day season with an open heart and a more meaningful experience.

Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart can be downloaded from the Apple and Google app stores. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 is available as a print book and ebook, with a free companion study guide.


Rabbi Dan Medwin is Director of Digital Media at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Categories
CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer

Pervasive Peace: A Musical Prayer for Erev Rosh HaShanah

Here we go again. It’s just a few weeks from the High Holy Days, and hopes of worshiping in a post-COVID world of congregational togetherness are quickly being dashed. Communities that planned to hold communal, indoor, and possibly maskless prayer services are reassessing. Whatever happens on the individual congregational level, it will be another year outside the bounds of what we once thought as normal for holy day worship.

We have been dreaming of our spiritual reunion with each other for the upcoming holy days; that blessing appears to be postponed. Perhaps, all the more, we should pray for blessings beyond our wildest dreams. We know these are unprecedented times. Most of us could not have imagined the losses and suffering that the pandemic would bring. For those of us who have lost friends or family to COVID—for those who lost income, livelihood, personal connections, mental health, stability—it can only be described as a nightmare.

This Rosh HaShanah, let us renew our hopes in large and beautiful dreams of peace, the kind of peace that means wholeness, health, renewal, vitality, and resilience.

To share that prayer together on Erev Rosh HaShanah 5782, Rebecca Schwartz, cantorial soloist at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, created a new musical setting for my short prayer “Pervasive Peace.” The prayer reads as follows:

Pervasive Peace

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ, אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ וְאִמּוֹתֵֽינוּ
שֶׁהַשָּׁנָה הַבָּאָה תָּבִיא שָׁלוֹם מֻחְלָט וְשָׁלֵם
,עַל כָּל יוֹשְׁבֵי תֵבֵל
.מֵעֵֽבֶר לְכָל חֲלֹמוֹת הָאֱנוֹשׁוּת

Y’hi ratzon mil’fanecha, Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu,

Shehashanah habaah tavi shalom muchlat v’shaleim

Al kol yosh’vei teiveil,

Mei-eiver l’chol chalomot haenoshut.

May it be Your will, God of our fathers and mothers,

That the year ahead bring a pervasive and complete peace

On all the inhabitants of the earth,

Beyond all the dreams of humanity.

The prayer uses a classic formulation—Y’hi ratzon mil’fanecha…, May it be Your will…—imploring God for specific blessings. This formula is typically used in the Rosh HaShanah seder alongside dipping apples in honey, connecting the sweet ritual to the chain of traditional prayers for the New Year.

“Pervasive Peace” was written before COVID, but it took on a deeper meaning of peace as healing medicine last year as the Jewish community experienced our first pandemic High Holy Days in lockdown. It has, yet again, taken on a longing for renewal as we move toward our second High Holy Days under returning public health restrictions.

Rebecca’s music captures both the hope and the longing that the words are intended to convey. We envision cantors using the prayer to open and set the tone for Erev Rosh Hashanah. Hear Rebecca sing the music in this video. An MP3 file is available for download. The sheet music can be purchased on oySongs.

Singing “Pervasive Peace” might also be paired with reading an associated prayer written last year called “Wildly Unimaginable Blessings”:

Wildly Unimaginable Blessings

Let us dream
Wildly unimaginable blessings…
Blessings so unexpected,
Blessings so beyond our hopes for this world,
Blessings so unbelievable in this era,
That their very existence
Uplifts our vision of creation,
Our relationships to each other,
And our yearning for life itself.
Let us dream
Wildly unimaginable blessings…
A complete healing of mind, body, and spirit,
A complete healing for all,
The end of suffering and strife,
The end of plague and disease,
When kindness flows from the river of love,
When goodness flows from the river of grace,
Awakened in the spirit of all beings,
When God’s light,
Radiating holiness
Is seen by everyone.
Let us pray—
With all our hearts—
For wildly unimaginable blessings…
So that God will hear the call
To open the gates of the Garden,
Seeing that we haven’t waited,
That we’ve already begun to repair the world,
In testimony to our faith in life,
Our faith in each other,
And our faith in the Holy One,
Blessed be God’s Name.


“Pervasive Peace” lyrics © 2019 by Alden Solovy, music © 2021 by Schwalkin Music (ASCAP).

“Wildly Unimaginable Blessings” © 2020 by Alden Solovy.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press. Read more of his writing at tobendlight.com.

Rebecca Schwartz is Cantorial Soloist and Music Director at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA. She is a professional singer, guitarist, and award-winning songwriter. Hear more of her music at rebeccasongs.com.

Categories
CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer Rituals Technology

CCAR Press Author Interview: Rabbi Debra J. Robbins, on ‘Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27’ and the New Companion App

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, shares her thoughts on the process of writing Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year (published in 2019 by CCAR Press) and creating a companion app (just released for Apple and Android).

What inspired you to write Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27?
I did not set out to write a book about Psalm 27. The book emerged over several years from my own practices. I first began reading the psalm daily in Elul, then I began writing about it daily, and then I added time to sit and sing. I kept reading it all the way to Simchat Torah. Eventually, I shared some of my reflections and they resonated with people; I realized my personal practice could be embraced by others. Thanks to those who encouraged me, it became a book.


What was the most challenging part of working on Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27?
There were three things that were challenging in creating Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27. First, it was really hard to work on a book while also working full time at a congregation! Second, because I didn’t set out to write this as a book, figuring out how to organize all the reflections into something coherent and comprehensive was a big challenge. Finally, I think the most difficult aspect of working on this book (or I imagine any book) was feeling confident enough to be vulnerable—to put my words, my ideas, my heart in print for others to see.


Was there something new that you learned while writing the book? Did any of your own practices change?
I have always found that unpacking/studying Torah was meaningful in a small group or with a partner. I discovered, however, that I could also have some powerful insights about my life and the psalm by giving myself time to sit alone with the text and reflect on it, both in writing and in silence.


Do you have advice for readers on how to strengthen their own reflection practices?
For me, ritual really helps build a practice. It can feel awkward at first to sing along to a recording with no one else in the room. It can be hard to keep writing or sitting for a full five minutes. It’s easy to resist taking the time to be forgiving, to remember an insight, or to give thanks. But as it is with good ritual, once we get in a routine, it can become a habit, and then hopefully easier (in some ways), opening up possibilities for great insight and commitment.


How do you recommend that readers use Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27?  
The book itself contains suggestions for how to use it, and there is also a study guide available with source sheets. New this year, and something so exciting, is a smartphone app that will help readers use Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 even more easily. It has writing prompts and photos for each day, a built-in timer and daily tracker, and individuals can read or listen to the psalm and each of the reflections. It also has amazing music.

Why was the app created?

We created the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app in response to requests from many people who have used the book, laypeople and clergy alike, since it was published. People wanted to be able to easily stay on track and have the music readily available. The live sessions we shared showed that they liked having someone lead them in the blessing, hearing the psalm read in different voices, and listening to the Reflection for Focus instead of reading it. I’m grateful to everyone who shared their feedback and encouraged us to develop this twenty-first-century digital tool for spiritual practice.

What makes the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app unique?

The app is so special because it has not only the words from my book, but it also includes the voices of talented musicians and cantors who have written music to accompany Psalm 27 and the photographs of friends and family members whose eyes have captured the beauty of Psalm 27 out in the world. The app also has a lot of really cool functions that reflect the values of the book. One example: you can choose between doing the writing segment electronically or, better yet, you can write by hand on paper and then store a photo of your writing. You can choose a preferred sound for your meditation timer, and you can easily give yourself a prompt at the end of the practice so your experience will more easily stay with you all day.

Who helped with the app’s creation?

Rabbi Dan Medwin, CCAR Director of Digital Media, was the mastermind of the app. His combined skills as a rabbi and a technology expert allowed the development team to create something that is truly spiritually engaging in a realm where that is often a significant challenge. We were also fortunate to have some teenage campers test the app this summer, and thank goodness they did. They not only had some great innovations to add but caught a lot of bugs! Thanks are due as well to a generous donor who gave us the resources to make this possible.

How can people best use the app?

I hope people will use the app in a variety of ways. It can be a complement to the book or it can be used on its own. It is super flexible. If someone wants to listen to the various musical settings, that is easily done. If they want to hear the blessing only in English, they can do that too. Or, if someone prefers to listen to either a male or female voice read the psalm in Hebrew or English that’s possible as well. What I hope most is that people will use the app to do the real work of this season, open their hearts, and then be moved to continue that spiritual work into the new year.

To further enhance your practice, check out the free downloadable study guide and the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app, now available for Android and iPhone!


Rabbi Debra J. Robbins serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, from CCAR Press.

Categories
Holiday Poetry Prayer

Three Weeks of Sorrow, Seven Weeks of Consolation

Sorrow and joy meet on Rosh Chodesh Av. Rosh Chodesh—the first of each new Hebrew month—is a minor festival of rejoicing. We take note of the cycle of the moon, the grandeur of creation, and the gifts of God by signing Hallel Mizri, the Egyptian Hallel. At its core are Psalms 113 through 118.

There’s a jarring contrast between the joyous and often raucous singing of these psalms with the general mood of the period. Tishah B’Av, our national religious day of mourning, commemorates the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem. It’s a day of tragedy so profound in the eyes of the rabbis of the Mishnah that they went to great lengths to attach other disasters to this date.

In Masechet Taanit 4:6, we read: “On the Ninth of Av it was decreed upon our ancestors that they would all die [in the wilderness] and not enter the land; and the Temple was destroyed the first time [by the Babylonians], and the second time [by the Romans]; and Beitar was captured; and the city [of Jerusalem] was plowed, as a sign that it would never be rebuilt.”

The tradition of linking catastrophe to Tishah B’Av continued in later periods. Some say that the Jews were expelled from England on Tishah B’Av in 1290 CE, that the deadline in 1492 on which Jews in Spain needed to leave or convert was Tishah B’Av, and that the First World War began on Tishah B’Av.[1] Perhaps most startling: The Hebrew date that Treblinka began operations as a death camp was Tishah B’Av.[2]

The Talmud decrees: “Not only does one fast on the Ninth of Av, but from when the month of Av begins, one decreases acts of rejoicing.”

Even before Av begins, some Jews observe a three-week period of mourning, called “The Three Weeks,” from 17 Tammuz until Tishah B’Av. The Mishnah relates that on 17 Tammuz five catastrophes also befell the Jewish people, and the day is observed by some as a minor fast.

Right in the middle of the three weeks, Rosh Chodesh is observed, as always, with song and praises. “Hallel in a Minor Key”—an alternative Hallel that I created with music by Sue Radner Horowitz—was written for moments like these, when joy and sorrow meet.

This liturgy began with a question last winter: How can we sing God’s praises fully as we move into the second year of COVID-induced, socially distanced Passover seders? In the writing, the question expanded: How do we sing God’s praises after a profound personal loss? How do we praise God when our spiritual calendar places joy and sorrow side-by-side? How do we find a voice of rejoicing when our hearts are in mourning?

My personal experience with this contrast still informs my writing. My wife Ami, z”l, died of traumatic brain injury just before Passover. The religious expectation of our calendar was brutal. After two days of shivah, we were expected to shift into the spiritual joy of Pesach, celebrating our liberation from bondage, singing Hallel as part of the Passover Seder and then again at services. Although it was twelve years ago, that experience of contrast was a core motivator for creating this liturgy (read more about the creation of “Hallel in a Minor Key” on RavBlog).

After Tishah B’Av, the rabbis have given us seven weeks of healing, seven weeks in which special haftarot of consolation are chanted. Here are several prayers for the season:

  • 17 Tammuz: “The Temple
  • Rosh Chodesh Av: “Hallel in a Minor Key” (A PDF published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, including the sheet music, can be downloaded here.)
  • Tishah B’Av: “In Sorrow” from This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day (CCAR Press, 2017)
  • Seven weeks of consolation: “Tears, Too Close: A Prayer of Consolation” from This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer (CCAR Press, 2021)

It is said that God permitted the destruction of the Second Temple because of sinat chinam, the baseless hatred of one Jew against another. Throughout this season, let us pray for the well-being of all of the people of Israel, and everyone, everywhere. “Let Tranquility Reign,” from This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, includes a line from Psalm 122: “For the sake of my comrades and companions I shall say: ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of the House of Adonai our God I will seek your good.”


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. His books include This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press.


[1] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/946703/jewish/What-Happened-on-the-Ninth-of-Av.htm

[2] https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/7-tragedies-that-befell-the-jewish-people-on-tisha-beav-598199

Categories
Books News Prayer

B’chol L’vavcha: Renewing a Classic

Rarely does one have the opportunity to create a new edition of a book many in our movement have grown up with: B’chol L’vavcha: With All Your Heart: A Commentary on the Prayer Book, the beloved magnum opus of Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, z’’l, who was a rabbi, teacher, and friend to many Reform rabbis, cantors, and congregants alike. His warm, clear, and accessible writing provided introductions to and meditations on the major prayers of the previous Reform siddur, Gates of Prayer, for adults, teens, and children—equally useful in adult education, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, and religious school.

And it still does. However, the third edition of B’chol L’vavcha, just released by CCAR Press, adds new layers of learning and teaching to the familiar book. Many female and queer rabbis and teachers have found their way onto the pages as commentators; the book itself is the product of the labors of one Reform cantor, Sarah Grabiner, and two Reform rabbis, Hilly Haber and myself. Many contemporary poems and prayers have been added to bring diversity, new depths, new meanings, and new Torah to the familiar liturgy. Newly added sections—Kiddush and Havdalah—reflect today’s reality in which we, as Reform Jews, do not pray only in our synagogues, but just as often in our homes, particularly during the past pandemic year. However, perhaps the most basic but also the most remarkable change is the shift from the language and layout of Gates of Prayer to the words and aesthetics of Mishkan T’filah, making the third edition the perfect companion for any teaching on prayer, including iyunei t’filah.

Let me give you two examples:

Accompanying the Sh’ma, you will find this prayerful version by Rabbi Emily Langowitz:

Sh’ma Listen.

Yisrael God-struggler.

Adonai Was-Is-WillBe

Eloheinu Is our God

Adonai Was-Is-WillBe

Echad Is One.

Listen, God-struggler. Was-Is-WillBe is a reflection of my own divinity. Was-Is-WillBe, the One who moves the universe, the One who knows that being can never be static, the One in whose image I am made, bears witness to my own unity.

I give thanks to that Spirit of life who allows for the continued revelation of self.

I marvel at the wonder of sexuality unfolding.

I lift up the truth of all the ways I have loved, do love, will love.

.בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָהּ, אַחְדוּת הָעוֹלָם, שֹֹֹֹּּּּוֹמַעַת הָאֱמֶת

B’ruchah at Yah, achdut ha-olam, shomaat ha-emet.

Blessed are You, Oneness of the world, who hears my Truth.[1]

And the book closes with a moving reflection by Rabbi Andrea Weiss, PhD, Provost at HUC-JIR:

Lech L’cha

Go forth on a journey.

Go by yourself.

Standing at a crossroad

You venture from the known to the unknown.

Some journeys must be made alone.

Go to yourself:

Spiral inward and unwrap your past

And your potential.

Remember that the soul which you have made

Is unique and holy.

Go for yourself:

Smell the fragrance

Which spread across the land

As you roam and wander.

Refresh yourself

Under the tree which grows by a spring

At the side of the road.

Make your name great and

Make your life a blessing.[2]

Go and have a look at this book, so that it can accompany you and your people on your journeys!


Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, is the Editor at CCAR Press.


[1] Previously published in Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells , edited by Rabbi Denise Eger (New York: CCAR Press, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Emily Langowitz.

[2] Previously published in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: CCAR Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008). Copyright © 2008 by Andrea Weiss.

Categories
Holiday Passover Pesach Poetry Prayer

Hallel in a Minor Key

We face another year of pandemic Passover. Most congregations are still shuttered, and Pesach worship will be remote and online. Seders will be small or socially distanced, a far cry from our usual crowded, joyous gatherings. Nevertheless, we will still sing Hallel, our liturgy of praises, as part of the Haggadah.

Hallel (praise), Psalms 113 to 118, is sung or recited in the synagogue on all festivals (including intermediate days), as well as on Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a new month), on all eight days of Chanukah, and, in recent years, on Yom HaAtzma-ut (Israel’s Independence Day). Hallel is also recited on the eve of Pesach during the seder.1 

On these sacred days of communal rejoicing, we are asked to set aside our sorrows to praise God. But how do we sing God’s praises during a time of catastrophe or pandemic? How do we sing God’s praises after a profound personal loss?

Depending on personal practice—what one chooses to include in the seder, how often one goes to services, whether an individual participates in two seder nights, and how many days are observed—Hallel can be recited as many as ten times during the festival period.

This raised a hard question for me as a liturgist. How can we sing God’s praises fully as we move into the second year of COVID-induced, socially distanced Passover seders? Could I find a liturgical response? Personally, I know how difficult this can be. My wife passed away the Shabbat before Passover twelve years ago, and the shivah ended abruptly after only two days.

I began by rereading all my prayers written about COVID and came across a line in a piece called “These Vows: A COVID Kol Nidre.” A line from it reads: “How I wish to sing in the key of Lamentations.” From there, the idea for “Hallel in a Minor Key” was born.

As I started writing, it became important to me to create a liturgy that was robust enough to stand as a full alternative Hallel, reflecting praise in the midst of heartbreak and sorrow. To me, this meant two things. First, I wanted to make sure that each psalm in the classic Hallel was represented by at least one Hebrew line in this liturgy. Second, I wanted to include the sections for waving the lulav in this liturgy, to ensure that it could be used on Sukkot by those with that practice.

Still, something was missing—music specific to this liturgy. Song is a vital part of the public recitation of Hallel, and it serves to create a personal connection with prayer. So, I adapted the opening poem into lyrics—carrying the same name as the entire liturgy—and began searching for someone to compose the music. I listened to a lot of Jewish music online, starting with my small circle of musician friends. When I heard Sue Radner Horowitz’s Pitchu Li, my search for a musician was over.

“Hallel in a Minor Key” begins in minor, but mid-chorus, with words of hope, it switches to a major key. In discussing the music, we both felt it was important to follow the tradition of ending even the most difficult texts with notes of hopefulness. Indeed, the shift reflects our prayer that sorrows can be the doorway to greater love, peace, and—eventually—to growth, healing, and joy.

We also talked about drawing on Eichah trope—used to chant Lamentations on Tishah B’Av, as well as the haftarah on that day—as a musical influence. This idea follows the tradition of bringing Eichah trope into other texts as a sort of musical punctuation. Many will recall its use in M’gillat Esther on Purim. Eichah trope is also traditionally used during the chanting of Deuteronomy 1:12, as well as in selected lines from the associated haftarah for Parashat D’varim, Isaiah 1:1–27. Sue wove hints of “the trope of Lamentations” into the chorus melody of “Hallel in a Minor Key.”

A PDF of the liturgy, including sheet music, can be downloaded here. You can hear a recording of the music here. Sue’s rendition of Pitchu Li, written prior to this liturgy, is also included as part of “Hallel in a Minor Key.” That music can be found on her album Eleven Doors Open.

This is our gift to the Jewish world for all the many blessings you have bestowed upon us. We offer it with a blessing. We encourage you to add music or additional readings that would add meaning to your worship. If you use the liturgy in your worship, we’d love to hear from you. You may reach Alden at asolovy545@gmail.com and Sue at srrhorowitz@gmail.com.

Portions of “Hallel in a Minor Key” were first presented during a Ritualwell online event, “Refuah Shleimah: A Healing Ritual Marking a Year of Pandemic.” Portions were also shared in a workshop session at the 2021 CCAR Convention, held online.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. His books include This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press.


1 Rabbi Richard Sarason PhD, Divrei Mishkan T’Filah: Delving into the Siddur (CCAR Press, 2018), 190.

Categories
News Prayer Social Justice

Prayer for a Nation in Crisis

As Reform rabbis, we unequivocally oppose today’s tragic insurrection and attack on the U.S. Capitol and on American democracy. We pray for peace in our nation’s capital, for the safety of all, and for an end to the treacherous and divisive demagoguery that threatens our precious democracy and is a rejection of our foundational American values.

We’re grateful to Rabbi Barry Block for penning this prayer for a nation in crisis.

Gracious God,
We come before You as supplicants today,
Seeking comfort and hope,
As terror reigns at our nation’s Capitol,
Spreading fears of violence throughout our land.
We beseech You on this terrifying day:
Spread your shelter of peace
Over the United States of America,
Upon all who dwell within its borders.
Embolden every American
To defend democracy,
To uphold our Constitution,
To protect the First Amendment right to assemble in protest,
And to eschew violence and mayhem.
Sustain us in faith
That the “better angels of our nature”[i] will be victorious,
That democracy will triumph,
That peace will prevail.
Bless the Capitol Police,
And all who are entrusted with restoring peace in Washington
And throughout this land.
Grant wisdom to
The President,
The Vice-President,
And to every Senator and Member of Congress.
Be with the President-Elect and Vice President-Elect,
Charged with unifying
This divided country
In the days and weeks ahead.
We Jews have always been
“Prisoners of hope.”[ii]
Restore us to hope today.
Grant us trust,
Even on a terrible day,
That we may look forward to a new day dawning,
Speedily and soon.
Amen.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A member of the CCAR Board, he is the editor of  The Mussar Torah Commentary, CCAR Press, 2020.


[i] President Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861.

[ii] Zechariah 9:12.

Categories
High Holy Days Prayer spirituality

Our Avodah (Work) during the Coronavirus Pandemic

The CCAR Committee for Worship and Practice had dedicated its work for 2019–2020 to the question: What are the spiritual practices and needs of Reform Jews—both non-ordained and ordained? We began meeting and working last fall and winter—and then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

And so, after taking a short break to adjust to an altered reality, we dedicated two of our meetings to the questions: What is the meaning of our avodah in the year of the pandemic? and What is our avodah especially during the High Holy Day season this year? 

We learned that what we as rabbis are asked to do is similar to the work of translation: We need to go back to our core theologies, spiritual practices, communal commitments, and ethical callings—and then we have to “translate” those into a new language of Zoom, Facetime, Vimeo, and Google Meet. As Reform rabbis, we are intimately familiar with the practice of translation. It is one of the first skills we practice in rabbinical school, and it forms the basis of our work after ordination: translating the wisdom of our tradition, originating in languages and cultural frameworks vastly different from our own, into an idiom that our communities can understand and appreciate. In this way, we help Torah to adapt itself to every generation.  

As we begin to prepare for the High Holy Days this year, with many of us learning an entirely new language, we found it helpful to be guided by questions—questions we want to share with you, our colleagues, along with some preliminary answers (far from being exhaustive!): 

Core Theologies, Spiritual Practices, Communal Commitments, and Ethical Callings: What Remains the Same?

  • We as clergy still model spirituality and spiritual practices.
  • Pre-existing relationships matter. It is much easier to maintain pre-existing relationships, than create new ones.
  • While some people enjoy active participation, others still simply join to watch.

Name What Hurts: Which Changes May Be Painful?

  • There is an immense pressure on clergy to learn many new skills, especially technical ones, in a short time. 
  • Virtual communities in a time of social distancing collapse the boundaries between our private and our synagogue lives.
  • Virtual communities sometimes encourage passivity, we “show” rather than “share.” 

Lean into the New: Which Changes Might Be Inspiring and Insightful?

  • The visual components of prayer become center piece. 
  • One-on-one prayer, counseling, and meetings allow for a new intimacy. 
  • Virtual communities allow us to demonstrate our vulnerability and imperfection, and this promotes connection. 

Comfort: What Can We Learn from the New Centrality of Our (Jewish) Homes? 

  • Private, personal, and home rituals and prayers gain new importance in the lives of Reform Jews. 
  • Showing our homes on screen also gives us an opportunity to share the sacredness of our own homes—this can be a form of hidur mitzvah.  
  • Leading our services from home allows for a more improvised and spontaneous experience of prayer. 

Familiarity: What Can We Learn from the New Centrality of Jewish Time? 

  • Jewish time has taken on a renewed meaning. The cycle of the holidays, the Omer, and above all Shabbat, help us differentiate between days that seem otherwise indistinguishable

While it might not have been a big surprise, it is still worthy for us to reiterate: our work is sacred work, and it has always been “mediated”—that means, it has always been communicated through books, phones, videos, touch, smiles, words, livestreams, and melodies. Our core theologies, spiritual practices, communal commitments, and ethical callings remain the same also in the time of the coronavirus.

However, during a time of prolonged distancing and a potentially altered reality to return to, we are asked to do the work of “translation”: to ask, once again, how we can make sure that our Torah may enrich, comfort, and engage our people. This is the work we do.