Several years ago, Rabbi Lance Sussman, spiritual leader of the Reform synagogue Keneseth Israel, in Elkins Park, Pa., received the grim news that he was going blind. After surgery, eye patches and other treatments, his sight miraculously improved. The experience left him with a profound appreciation for the visual in life.
“We live in an age of images,” Sussman said. “It got me to thinking: If synagogues were to accompany prayers with imagery on a screen, couldn’t it make for a more meaningful worship service?”
Today, visual tefillah is so popular at K.I. that the sanctuary was recently refurbished to include permanent, high-capacity double screens by the bimah. The prayers are projected in the original Hebrew as well as in transliteration, accompanied by colorful illustrations. For example, the congregants see a Marc Chagall image of Moses imbedded in the prayer Mi Kamocha.
The screen also includes page numbers for those congregants who prefer the prayer book. “That saves us about 10 minutes of constantly telling people what page we’re on,” Sussman said.
“I think visual tefillah picks up where stained windows left off,” he added. “It’s basically a hiddur mitzvah,” a way of beautifying the commandment. “The Talmud says: ‘If you’re going to build a sukkah, make it beautiful, since art is a praise of creation.’”
Rabbi Dan Medwin, publishing technology manager of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, is well aware of the possibilities of visual tefillah, and even wrote his rabbi’s thesis about it in 2010. He has created hundreds of visual prayers, which he showcases at various conferences of the Reform movement, notably to religious school principals, summer camp directors, youth leaders and day school rabbis.
“When I go to regional conventions, people tell me things like, ‘We’ve been experimenting with visual services, but we can’t do it well,’ or, ‘We just don’t have the time to put it together,’” Medwin remarked. Now, congregations can order visual services from the CCAR. They come in two versions: “locked,” in which the prayers can’t be altered, or “unlocked,” which allows them to adjust them as they see fit. The unlocked versions cost more.
Congregation Shomrei Torah, a Reform synagogue in Santa Rosa, Calif., is a synagogue that uses CCAR’s visual tefillot, and the congregation’s rabbi, Stephanie Kramer, says that it’s been highly successful. “
Pedagogically, it’s a great learning tool for children learning Hebrew and trying to follow a prayer service,” she said. The board approved spending money to wire permanent projectors onto the ceiling so that the images are projected onto either side of the ark during services, but are not visible when the projectors are turned off. Kramer leads the services wirelessly using her iPad and Apple TV.