When I received access to the pre-publication CCAR trial machzor Mishkan Hanefesh for use at the Lincolnwood Place retirement home where I was scheduled to lead Yom Kippur worship, I also took on the obligation to report my experience. This is my report.
My focus on erev Yom Kippur was on “t’shuvah,” the return to a life of kindness, living generously, and forgiveness of self and of others. I used the liturgy to teach “Musar Judaism.” My sound bites were largely based on the key words of the Godlike attributes: “rachum,” “chanun,” “chesed,” as well as on Kol Nidre with its haunting melody, acknowlegement of sin, and appeal for forgiveness. I used a recording of Richard Tucker chanting Kol Nidre.
It was received well. The residents responded enthusiastically to the service, interacting with questions I posed and reading and singing avidly. They joined in with gusto with its melodies: the High Holy Day nusach, the “v’al kulam,” the “Avinu Malkeinu,” the “Oseh Shalom,” and even the Debbie Friedman “mishaberach.” At the end of the service, practically everybody stayed around to wish me a “good Yom Tov” and to tell me how much they enjoyed the service.
For Yom Kippur morning, my focus was two-fold. My first focus was on the message of the opening prayers “Ma Tovu” (how good it is to be alive and praying with fellow Jews), “Modeh ani” (thankfulness for life’s blessing), and “Nishamah shenatata” (awareness of our finiteness and the need to make our lives count). My second focus was on the message of the Torah and Haftarah readings: “Atem Nitzavim” and “Is this the fast?” They speak of how to make our lives count, particularly through “g’milut hasidim” which I translated roughly as “living generously,” and I embellished this with anecdotes. It was heartwarming to me to see one of the residents, who had to be wheeled in to the service, arise from his wheel chair to answer my call for a volunteer to accept an Aliyah. He stepped up to the Torah table, draped himself in a tallit and recited the b’rachot over the Torah.
Later in the day, I returned to the retirement community for Yizkor and for Ne’lah. These were well attended. Participation in discussion, prayer, and song seemed to be even better, if that was possible, than in the previous services. The residents kept me after the conclusion of the service for over an hour taking turns to shake my hand, to wish me “hatimah tovah,” and to tell me what the service had meant to them.
I need to extend my sincere kudos to all those who are working together to make this new machzor happen. Our colleagues performed a MONUMENTAL task, and I love it! Kol Hakavod to them for their creative achievement! I believe that in generations to come this machzor will take its place with previous prayer books of our Reform movement to define who we are and what we believe at this period of our Jewish experience in America! In my opinion, a copy of this machzor, once published, ought to be in every major public Judaica library and in the hands of every liberal rabbi who leads a congregation in High Holy Day worship!
When I personally read the PDFs of the machzor, I was in sheer awe over the beauty of its content: its spirituality, thought-provoking discussion, stimulating readings, and comprehensive footnotes. All of these were gems. As a rabbi whose main employ has been as a clinical chaplain, I especially loved the innovation of the seven paths of grief found in the Yizkor service: it stimulates reflection; it is potentially interactive; it acts as a catalyst for the grieving worshipper to break his silence and open to fellow worshippers his own personal journey through that valley; and it paves the way towards the support of a caring group beyond Yom Kippur. No other machzor has ever done that. In providing this material, and in doing so in this manner, our new machzor goes well above and beyond the traditional “Yizkor Elohim” silent prayers of which we are all familiar! As a Jewish educator, I was delighted that the new machzor provides so much study material to be investigated individually or as a group beyond Yom Tov worship. It fixes so many little things that have long needed fixing, such as finally restoring “God” to the Jewish trinity in the popular song “Yisrael V’oraita. Kol Hakavod!”
Mishkan HaNefesh makes an important contribution, and I am grateful to CCAR for allowing me the opportunity to use and enjoy this print worthy text. It meant so much to the residents of this retirement home to participate in their new initiative.