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Is the Conservative Movement’s New Prayer Book a Step Towards its Revitalization?

The newly released Siddur Lev Shalem offers new avenues to an ancient ritual

Leonard Felson
February 19, 2016
(Rabbinical Assembly) Siddur Lev Shalem
Siddur Lev Shalem (Rabbinical Assembly)(Rabbinical Assembly) Siddur Lev Shalem
(Rabbinical Assembly) Siddur Lev Shalem
Siddur Lev Shalem (Rabbinical Assembly)(Rabbinical Assembly) Siddur Lev Shalem

In 2010, the Conservative movement published its newest High Holiday prayer book Mahzor Lev Shalem. The mahzor was so popular among congregants that Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the movement’s executive vice president, knew she had to commission a new siddur for Shabbat and Festivals using the same model, even though the latest edition of the movement’s Sim Shalomprayer book was less than 15 years old.

This month, the mahzor‘s sequel to cover the rest of the year, Siddur Lev Shalem, was released for the 1.3 million self-identified Conservative Jews and estimated 650 Conservative congregations in the United States.

The book is meant to address the so-called “crisis in prayer,” first articulated by theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel in his 1954 book, “Man’s Quest for God.” It gives worshipers “a vocabulary of Jewish concepts and different entry points on how to think about prayer,” said Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, the siddur’s associate editor.

Like the High Holiday prayer book, it accomplishes this task with commentaries, alternative prayers, and background notes, drawing on 500 different sources, including 60 contemporary authors.

“We live in a moment, certainly among non-Orthodox Jews, where there is a lack of familiarity with Jewish texts,” the book’s senior editor Rabbi Edward Feld said. The goal is to remedy that by easing access for readers.

I’m a regular Shabbat davener, and this new prayer book feels so much more substantial than Sim Shalom. Using it is like sitting with a wise guide who offers quick pointers on choreography, helpful notes on why prayers show up when they do, and explanations of abstruse words or phrases that puzzle us moderns. Even if you get nothing out of services, the hundreds of alternative prayers, commentaries, meditations and poems–ancient and modern, everything from Maimonides to Marge Piercy–will provide ah-ha moments. The book’s English transliterations of those Hebrew prayers that are commonly sung should also encourage more congregational participation.

In addition, Feld’s introduction offers a powerful way into the prayer book, underscoring liturgical anchors for both long-time worshipers and strangers to synagogue life. Shorter set-up pieces for the different services also establish a kavanah or spiritual intentionality.

And if you feel like an immigrant to the whole prayer experience, read the back-of-the-book’s glossaries of Hebrew and liturgical terms, rabbinic texts, and historical figures. Like the Orthodox ArtScroll and the Koren Sacks prayer books, the vast amount of material throughout Lev Shalem begs to be studied at home, not just in the sanctuary.

Conservative Jewry, once the largest movement in America, accounts for only 18 percent of the Jewish population today, and even less among Jews under 30. To the extent that more Jews and a growing number of non-Jewish partners walk through synagogue doors, Siddur Lev Shalem marks a sign that the movement is taking steps towards revitalization.

For his part, Feld told me he hopes this new siddur does what one twentysomething told his rabbi the High Holiday mahzor did for him: “I used to think the prayer book was my grandfather’s and now I know it’s mine.”

Leonard Felson has written for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Reader’s Digest, The Jerusalem Report, and other publications.