Reform movement prayerbook celebrates century of existence

They sit frayed and dog-eared in dusty boxes in synagogue attics and basements around the nation, barely a memory for an entire generation of young Reform Jews.

The Union Prayerbook, first published a century ago, has perhaps more than any other American Jewish liturgical work defined — for many — the essence of Reform Judaism.

"The Union Prayerbook was the first successful attempt by Jews in America to create a joint liturgical statement of Jewish identity that transcended congregational boundaries," said Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at New York's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The prayerbook "stated the essence of liberal Judaism," Hoffman said.

Rising to the heights of eloquence, the prayerbook had a register and cadence that rivaled the best examples of Protestant liturgy, offering a progressive view of God and the world with passages like this one:

"Grant us peace, Thy most precious gift, O Thou eternal source of peace, and enable Israel to be a messenger of peace unto the peoples of the earth."

For Rabbi Joseph Gitin, who was ordained in 1932, the Union Prayerbook captured a sense of holiness.

"It had beautiful prayers, and we loved it," said Gitin, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose. "It was very poetic."

But Gitin added that the Union Prayerbook had another quality in its favor: brevity. Services in the book were noticeably shorter than those found in its successor, which is titled Gates of Prayer.

"Even God would like a short prayer," said Gitin, who retired from the pulpit 20 years ago.

Before the Reform movement issued the Union Prayerbook, whose official title is "The Union Prayerbook for Jewish Worship, Seder Tifilos Yisroel, 1894-1895," rabbis chose from among the 20 or so Reform-spirited prayerbooks then in print.

Recalling that time before the Union Prayerbook was adopted, David H. Wice, rabbi emeritus of Philadelphia's Congregation Rodeph Shalom, said, "It was chaos."

Published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the prayerbook sustained two major revisions and many reprints during its first 80 years in print — changes that mirrored American Reform Jewry's shifting theological and sociological views and updated archaic usages. For example, new editions substituted the word "reader" for the more arcane "minister."

But sales reached a virtual standstill in the 1970s.

"It stopped talking to people, or people stopped talking to it," said Samuel Broude, rabbi emeritus of Oakland's Temple Sinai.

Broude's synagogue, in fact, quit using the old prayerbook several years before the new one was published. To fill the gap, his congregants began creating services of their own.

In 1975, the Reform movement retired the old book and instituted "The New Union Prayerbook/The Gates of Prayer," an 800-page collection of services that incorporated alterations in the Reform religious outlook. While some of the services in Gates of Prayer are traditional, at least one of them does not mention God.

"Some objected violently because it didn't use `Thees' and `Thous,'" says Wice, who maintains that "I had a hard time getting too familiar with the divine; the laymen had more trouble."

But Gates of Prayer editor Rabbi Chaim Stern explained: "The `thees' and `thous' were abandoned on the principle that there was no such usage in Hebrew."

Regardless of its retirement, the old Union Prayerbook will always represent an important piece of Jewish history — a merger of Jewish tradition and the new American milieu.

"It was modeled after upper-class English religion as they saw it when [19th-century Jews] came here, an affirmation of high European, Western culture," said Hoffman.

The prayerbook's authors "had to fight a battle for…being modern," he says. "They had to say, `We have a right to use English and pray in the vernacular.'"

By the 1890s, German Jews emphasized what is now called classical Reform to distinguish themselves from Eastern European Jews, Hoffman said.

The prayerbook unified American Reform Jews across the continent, who could expect to find the familiar blue or black volume in synagogue pews wherever they traveled or moved.

In fact, New York's Temple Emanu-El and the Chicago Sinai Congregation continue to use the old prayerbook, while Philadelphia's Rodeph Shalom features it in an annual nostalgia service.

Older Reform Jews every so often still long for their familiar companion, which lies permanently packed away.

"Occasionally, individuals…ex-press a sense of nostalgia and a sense of loss ," Broude said.