Beth Israel rethinks tradition

 Is it okay to slash the Shabbat Morning service? Rabbi Bruce Alpert says yes. As spiritual leader of Beth Israel Synagogue, the independent, Conservative-influenced historic congregation in Wallingford, Rabbi Alpert’s goal is to create services that are more in sync with the realities of his congregation.

On Yom Kippur, Rabbi Alpert introduced a new screen-shareable siddur, created during the pandemic, that shortens the traditional Saturday prayer service to about an hour. “As long as you are saying the required prayers, then you are discharging your obligation to pray,” he notes, adding, “And if, by shortening the service, you can increase the kavana – the intentionality of the prayers, then you certainly can shorten it.”

Rabbi Alpert was able to shorten the siddur by eliminating duplicate prayers already recited and trimming those that express sentiments previously voiced. As a result, the shortened service highlights the remaining prayers in their full vitality. Still, he notes, many people want to hold on to traditions without fully supporting them. “They want the service they don’t attend to be three hours long. You see so many people show up late and leave early,” he says. “Of course, the shortest service of all is the one no one ever goes to.”

The response to the refashioned service has been enthusiastic. Members report feeling more fully engaged with the prayers and some have even added prayers of their own, including a prayer for our country and a prayer for the State of Israel. The new siddur includes several additional innovations, including: Taking creative liberties with some of the liturgical translations. Rabbi Alpert worked to provide words that will most fully engage worshipers with the meaning of the prayer.

Some prayers are translated very literally, others far more interpretively, depending on which he felt would most get people thinking.” Transliterating virtually all the Hebrew in the new prayer book. This opens up the service to people who want to participate, but whose Hebrew skills make participation difficult. Singing most of the service. “As the psalms say, ‘Sing a new song to the Lord.’ We express ourselves most fully when we sing,” Rabbi Alpert says.

"A shorter service and a more engaging siddur will encourage more participation, with a greater sense of meaning," says Rabbi Albert. “After all,” he adds, “a prayer said is better than one not said.” 

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