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Reform movement building demo for e-prayer book
by Lee Chottiner
May 26, 2011 | 8279 views | 0 0 comments | 56 56 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As Daniel Medwin received his ordination in 2010 at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the newly minted Reform rabbi knew he wasn’t bound for a pulpit position.

Instead, Medwin took a job with the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the professional organization for the Reform rabbinate, working on a project that might someday change the way Jews pray.

“My focus is on enhancing the prayer experience and on education,” he said. “Most Jews know something about prayer, but they are always interested in learning more. This could be an incredible learning experience.”

How Medwin, and his colleagues at the CCAR, hope to accomplish this feat is to take the siddur, apply it to wireless technology, and make it interactive.

In other words, if you’re ready to pray, there’s an app for that.

If the project is successful, then someday, Jews filing into their sanctuaries for Shabbat and High Holy Day services may pray from iPads and Droids instead of books made from pulpwood.

Medwin, CCAR publishing technology manager — and his colleagues — have already developed a demo of the application, known as I’T’filah, which was shown this past March at the CCAR annual convention in New Orleans.

It works like any downloadable application on your tablet or smart phone, which means the CCAR is not interested in just transferring the liturgy from a paper page to a digital one; they want to transform the prayer experience.

In the demo, readers can hyperlink to translations of words or entire passages from the liturgy; they can open a completely different commentary than the leader may be referring to in the service; they can even link to videos.

That last example is similar to the big screen visual prayer experience used at mega churches, which the Union for Reform Judaism — the synagogue arm of the movement — showcased at its 2007 convention in San Diego.

While e-siddurim, e-machzurim, or applications thereof, may be in Judaism’s future, Rabbi Hara Person, publisher and director of the CCAR Press, cautioned against looking for them any time soon.

After all, she said, transferring a page from a Hebrew-English prayer book to a hand-held screen is not as easy as transferring a block of straight English text, let alone the interactive capability.

“When you go to a siddur, and you have Hebrew and English and commentary and all those elements, it becomes more and more difficult to design an e- book that works ... it’s very complex,” said Person.

The CCAR Press is currently developing a machzur to complement its relatively new Mishkan T’Filah prayerbook for Sabbaths and festivals, though Person said one project doesn’t have higher priority then another.

Despite the hurdles facing iT’filah, the Reform movement appears to be setting the pace for developing electronic, interactive prayer books.

Development of such texts isn’t for everyone. Spokespersons for the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) and Mesorah Publications, both of which publish e-books, say they have no plans to develop e-prayer books. In the case of JPS, its spokesperson said the publishing house is nondenominational and therefore leaves the prayer book market to the individual movements.

Stuart Schnee, an Israel-based book and author publicist who specializes in Orthodox publications, said Orthdoxy is producing e-books in general if not prayer books in particular.

“From all I have heard and read, Artscroll (which is published by Mesorah) is getting into e-books, but not siddurim,” Schnee said. “Feldheim is now working on an e-book strategy. Urim just released an e-book version of the Book of Psalms in English. So no question, Orthodox Jewish publishers are getting into the mix.”

The Conservative movement also is interested in the idea. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the governing arm of the Conservative rabbinate, said the idea for e-prayer book is “on our radar screen,” as she believes it should be for all denominations, but that there are no immediate plans to come out with one.

While some Jews may see e-prayer books as a threat to tradition, Medwin sees development of an electronic siddur as somewhat retro.

“Prayer, as we know it, has constantly been evolving,” he said. “It seems we’ve always had a written siddur in our hands during services, but that development has actually been pretty recent.

It was only after the invention of the printing press when everyone had a text. Before then, only the service leader had one — what Medwin called the “community siddur.”

Earlier in Jewish history, “It was a huge sin to write down prayers,” Medwin said. “it was strictly an oral tradition.” He cited a passage from Tosefta Shabbat: “They who write down bene- dictions commit as grave a sin as those who burn the Torah.”

So he wasn’t overly nostalgic about the printed prayer book.

“When we talk about if we should move to a digital form of prayer book, I think the word ‘should’ is a generational question,” he said. “In fact, the next generation may very well be appalled that their ancestors used pulpwood, and before then animal skins, to create hand-held collections of prayers and commentaries.”

He added, though, that he doesn’t believe the printed prayer book will totally disappear, nor is he suggesting replacing the Torah itself with an electronic device — only that the prayer book, as Jews know it, will continue to evolve.

Schnee, himself an Orthodox Jew, also sees a significant role for e-books and apps in Jewish prayer, but he stopped short of predicting electronic prayer will dethrone to traditional siddurim and machzurim.

“It is no secret that e-books have finally taken off,” he said. “I think many Jewish books will be successful as e-books. Applications have been offering Jewish prayers and birkat hamazon for electronic use for some time now. So it is increasingly common to see people saying their afternoon mincha prayers from an iPhone.

“I think e-books will play a helpful role in everyday Jewish life,” Schnee continued. “But I don’t think they will replace the prayer books used on Shabbat and holidays at synagogue, nor will they ever replace the tear-stained prayer books that people value as family heirlooms.”

Nevertheless, Person said she would be sad to see the traditional prayer book pass from synagogue life, even while predicting that day is coming.

“I personally am an old fogie,” she said. “I have a hard time envisioning a congregational setting in which every- one is praying out of their personal digital device. However, I realize that may be what’s coming and we have to be prepared for that.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at leec@thejewishchronicle.net.)
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