A Prayerbook to Welcome Everyone

By Jo Ellen Green Kaiser

November 20, 2009


When I began working on the first complete gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jewish prayerbook, I never imagined that it would speak to my own straight interfaith family.

I belong to Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a progressive, participatory synagogue in the Reform tradition founded to serve the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews of San Francisco. I joined, frankly, because I’m a liturgy wonk. I loved the participatory services and the creativity of the prayers and rituals at Sha’ar Zahav (it didn’t hurt that the shul has an award-winning Hebrew school). When congregants decided it was time to turn their beloved self-created xeroxed prayerbook into something more substantial for the larger LGBT community, I was happy to sign on.

I, and the couple of other straight people on the siddur committee, assumed that Sha’ar Zahav congregants would want to emphasize their sexual and gender difference. I figured that this was a project about being loud and proud. It was and is. Siddur Sha’ar Zahav is the only prayerbook I know that is covered in purple cloth. That’s flaunting it!

Siddur Sha'ar Zahav coverWhat I didn’t quite grasp, however, was that people who have suffered all their lives from discrimination–those who have been excluded from their parents’ synagogues, who have been told they cannot hold their partners’ hands during yizkor, who identify as men but cannot don tefillin or identify as women but cannot wear a dress to Rosh Hashanah services–did not want to put up the same barriers they had experienced. They wanted a prayerbook that would welcome everyone, no matter how they had arrived at the doors of our house of prayer.

As a result, the guiding principle of Siddur Sha’ar Zahav turned out to be inclusivity. Most prayerbooks are created by a committee of rabbis. This prayerbook was created by a committee of lay people, supervised by Rabbi Camille Shira Angel. More than 100 people, out of a membership of 222, laid their hands on this prayerbook, contributing prayers and art, shaping sections, testing out services.

The key to creating a welcoming prayerbook was to create a process that welcomed input. The prayerbook editorial committee was composed of eight lay leaders who were each responsible for one section of the book. Each leader, or “rosh” (head), reviewed the “beta” version of the prayerbook the congregation was already using and solicited input on what could be improved and what was missing. Each rosh then assembled a draft of a new section. That draft was first reviewed by the other roshim, then presented in a town hall, revised by the rosh, re-reviewed by the roshim and then went to a second editorial review committee comprising some outside rabbis and long-term congregants chosen specifically to represent the community.

This thorough process resulted in the addition of many elements no one had anticipated. First, although the “beta” prayerbooks only included Friday evening, Saturday morning and Torah services, the roshim decided to include weekday and festival prayers as well. The weekday prayers were added so that any member could hold a shiva/memorial service in their own home, with or without clergy support. The festival prayers were added in part so that we could affirm that holidays like Pride Shabbat, Transgender Day of Remembrance and Recovery Shabbat were just as important to our congregation as once-secular Jewish holidays like Hanukkah (celebrating a battle) or Purim (celebrating Jewish assimilation into Persian culture).

Inclusivity also guided the roshim’s decision to transliterate every single Hebrew word and to include a literal translation of every Hebrew prayer. The aim was to ensure that those unfamiliar with Hebrew could chant along and could also learn what the words they are chanting mean. “Drashot,” or interpretations, were included in the margins to explain difficult passages, or why “daveners,” those who pray, make customary ritual gestures at certain points during the service. Many of our congregants left Judaism at a young age and have only recently returned; others have chosen Judaism. Some, like my husband, are not Jewish. We wanted to ensure that all of these people would feel welcomed.

However, the roshim soon found that a fully inclusive, fully egalitarian traditional liturgy was not enough to meet all of our prayer needs. The congregation had wanted the prayer services to draw upon traditional liturgy, so as to include those who grew up in Conservadox homes. That liturgy, however, was shaped more than 500 years ago and leaves out many elements of modern life. The usual solution is to simply add “alternative English prayers” to the usual prayer services. But that still constrains one to the themes of the old prayers.

Instead of using the traditional liturgy to guide the creation of alternatives, Sha’ar Zahav asked what would happen if congregants generated their own prayers and blessings. Liturgy writing workshops were created, at which members were told they could write prayers and blessings for any aspect of their lives. As inspiration, congregants were given prayers used daily in Orthodox communities, such as the prayer on seeing a rainbow, or the blessing for leaving on a trip, but were not constrained to any topic.

The results were astonishing and inspiring. People wrote blessings for the first time they ever kissed and for making love. They wrote blessings for coming out, and for being single, about the start of a relationship and the end of one. To complement the traditional blessings on sons and daughters, they wrote blessings on adopting children and on deciding not to have children, on being a donor father and a surrogate mother. New blessings include healing from both physical illness and mental illness, on taking an HIV test and being a caregiver. These many blessings were so powerful that the roshim gave them a special section, “Brachot/Blessings,” and placed it at the very front of the prayerbook.

Liturgists also turned their attention to the end of life, in a section that I ultimately found the most powerful personally. My husband, David, is not Jewish. As I grow older, I have begun to wonder about the end of our lives. If I go first, will David know how to give me a proper Jewish burial? If he goes first, how will I bury him? Will I, can I, say kaddish for someone who is my husband but is not Jewish? The members of my congregation had similar questions, and put them into prayer.

For the Loss of a Relative or Friend who isn’t Jewish includes these lines:

Your memory will be–for me–a blessing, that I have known you, and walked with you, however briefly in this world.

Another prayer was also relevant for me, applying to anyone who long ago left the fold:

For One Who Did Not Want Ritual Mourning

How do I mark a loss that leaves no ritual trace? You imagined for yourself no mourners crowding together over the earth becoming your body, no weeping against the rising murmur of grief that holds everyone, no rending of cloth, no resisting and difficult assent to God’s perfect judgment.

My body struggles to keep from standing up in your memory, my tongue to keep from blessing your name in those strange syllables. In no moment and in every moment, the rising and weeping and struggling move nonetheless through my veins, fever dreams my spirit cannot forget.

When I read these prayers, I suddenly realized that this prayerbook I had spent so much time on was not just a gift to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. It was a gift to me. Here was a prayerbook open to my family, a book that did not judge me or my husband for our intermarriage, a book that instead called both of us to the real task of worship, the task of seeing God in each person, and through the world.


About Jo Ellen Green Kaiser

Jo Ellen Green Kaiser is the editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, online at www.zeek.net. She served as the project manager and a member of the editorial committee for Siddur Sha'ar Zahav. The prayerbook is available for purchase at www.siddurshaarzahav.org; more information about the Congregation can be found at www.shaarzahav.org.