Two years ago, Temple Beth Sholom had a fire that forced us to rebuild. Along with the destruction of our building, our prayer books, including our Gates of Repentance, were deemed unfit and we buried them in genizah, under the foundation of our new chapel.
This tragedy afforded us a very unique opportunity; without any committees or lengthy conversations with the congregation, we chose to immediately purchase Mishkan HaNefesh. The congregation was not totally unfamiliar with Mishkan HaNefesh as we piloted the Yom Kippur Afternoon Service the year before. The Afternoon Service was unique, so it did not give us the full flavor of what Mishkan HaNefesh had to offer.
I spent the three months leading up to the High Holy Days sharing personal articles about transitioning to our new machzor, along with articles from colleagues. My hope was to build anticipation and excitement within the congregation.
Our congregation’s practice is for every person to purchase and bring their personal copy of the machzor for the High Holy Days. We have some available, but ideally we hope our congregants will invest in their own copy. Many pre-purchased the book and we provided personalized bookplates. We had a number of copies for congregants to borrow and on Rosh HaShanah, all of the books had a card inside. I invited the congregation once again to purchase their own copy. I asked them to fill out the card that evening, give it to a greeter, and then take the book home. The next week, we had the Yom Kippur edition and personalized book plates waiting for all those who purchased them on Rosh HaShanah and the days between. The response was greater than we expected and we had boxes of books waiting for pick up on Yom Kippur. The personalized plates allowed us to then confirm which books were ours and which belonged to congregants.
On Erev Rosh HaShanah, I used the sermon as an opportunity for us to explore our High Holy Days liturgy, its history and in it’s present form. I encouraged the congregation to make the prayer experience their personal experience. “Explore the text, get lost in the readings, don’t worry, we will call out the page numbers and let you know where we are when you’re ready to rejoin the communal prayer. There are no italics, therefore, if you want to read along, then please, read along!” This meant I needed to be aware of my pacing and not only have the congregation follow me, but allow me to follow the congregation.
My goal was to not be the leader of the service, but a participant along with them—to be a guide as we trekked through our High Holy Days experience together. “Guest readers” were not included in the service in order to maintain the flow. Instead, people were invited to participate in the Torah and Haftarah service. And my Cantor, David Reinwald and Cantor Shannon McGrady Bane took us on a completely different journey with Jonah on Yom Kippur Afternoon. They chanted the book of Jonah in English!
The experience of these first High Holy Days with Mishkan HaNefesh was greater than I expected! The congregation was grateful for the opportunity to pray at their pace and to be active participants. I appreciated hearing all the voices from the congregation throughout all the services. The prep work leading up to the services was greater as I needed to maintain the momentum of the service and not go on automatic pilot. The exploration of the text was well worth it and enhanced my personal preparations.
If you can, take the plunge into Mishkan HaNefesh. It will be worth the investment of money, time, and the heart.
Rabbi Heidi Cohen serves Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, California.