The Shabbat of Memorial Day weekend later this month will mark a first in American Jewish life: Three New York City congregations representing the three major U.S. Jewish movements will daven from the same prayer book.
Produced by the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) Jewish Chaplains Council specifically for the military, the siddur that the trio of shuls will use for those services made its debut at the Jewish Community Centers of North America (JCC Association) biennial in late March. Distribution of the books to U.S. military bases worldwide began in April.
JWB’s last military prayer book was issued after World War II. Although it was updated in the 1980s, many chaplains found the old military prayer book lacking. To the Orthodox, there were too many omissions; gender-specific language, meanwhile, bothered more liberal chaplains.
“It was a small pocket edition, but it really wasn’t adequate to hold a full range of worship services,” Rabbi Harold Robinson, director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council and a rear admiral in the Navy Reserves, said. “It had a great utility for the soldiers, but the chaplains found it inadequate and brought their own.”
“A lot of the traditional liturgy just wasn’t there,” he said.
“You could do a service, but it wasn’t going to be a complete service, which was fine in the field,” explained Robinson, but not on established bases that hold services on a regular basis for service members and their families.
The result was a mishmash of prayer books at military installations. As chaplains of varying denominations came and went, service members found themselves adjusting to a new siddur.
“You can look in the chaplain closet at Ramstein [Air Base in Germany] and find a history of the chaplains who had served there,” Robinson said. “An airman who is serving in Ramstein never gets to emotionally, spiritually, own a prayer book. … Everywhere he goes, he’s experiencing a new prayer book. If you’re in the military, you’re not Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. You’re just Jewish, and a chaplain comes in and changes your whole world every two years, or you change bases every few years.”
For service members, there was no continuity. In 2006, JWB set out to fix that.
A program of the JCC Association, the JWB receives funding from the three movements’ rabbinical groups: the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly; the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis; and the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, which all gave JWB “copyright of exception” to lift whatever it wanted from the movements’ prayer books in creating the
military siddur, Robinson said.
Working with movement representatives, Rabbi Barry Baron, then JWB deputy director, prepared a draft that was vetted by the three rabbinic associations. “Everybody made changes,” Robinson said.
He concedes that not everyone was happy with the final siddur. “If you read it alone, you think, ‘My movement has gotten short shrift,’ but when everyone got together in one room, you realized that everyone had made adaptations,” said Robinson.
The first printing of 11,000 books cost $45,000; JWB is raising funds for a second printing.
Rabbi Bonnie Koppel, an Army Reserve colonel, is thrilled with the book. “I really love it, even the feel of it, the size, the weight, the layout,” she said of the 600-plus-page, 4-by-6-inch book, whose cover features camouflage colors from the various military branches.
“I think it’s meaningful” to service members “to have something in their hands that they know is theirs, that it was created just for them,” said Koppel, the pulpit rabbi at Temple Chai in Phoenix.
The siddur also includes readings specific to the military such as the Prayer for Loved Ones at Home.
Additionally, it contains a message from the commander-in-chief. “As members of the United States Armed Forces, you demonstrate profound selflessness in your service to our country. And as Jewish Americans in uniform, you carry forward a long, proud tradition of patriotism and sacrifice in the Jewish American community,” wrote President Barack Obama.
Koppel distributed copies of the siddur when she was in Kuwait for Passover. “The reaction was delight,” she said.
While the copyright permissions allow the book to be distributed solely within the military, the Memorial Day weekend Shabbat is an exception, coinciding with Fleet Week, which brings thousands of members of the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard to New York City. The Reform Central Synagogue will use the book for Friday evening services; the Conservative Park Avenue Synagogue will use it on Saturday morning; and the Orthodox Kehilath Jeshurun will use it on Saturday afternoon.
Historians say they don’t know of another instance in which congregations of three different movements used the same prayer book for civilian services.
“It is indeed very impressive that three synagogues are simultaneously using the siddur in a nonmilitary context. I am not familiar with any previous occasion when this was done outside of the military itself,” Brandeis University professor Dr. Jonathan
Sarna, one of the foremost experts on American Judaism, said.
With the three New York City shuls within walking distance of one another, Robinson said one can “worship out of this book three different ways, at three different times and all on the same Shabbat. … It’s trés cool, mucho cool.”