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“We project not only the page numbers and prayer titles, but the Hebrew and English for every prayer and reading, with beautiful pictures that enhance the prayer experience,” she said.
Other synagogues prefer to make their own visual prayer services. For the past six years, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, an 800-member synagogue, has been conducting a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service without prayer books. During each service, called Shabbat B’Yachad, or Shabbat Together, local musicians and talented congregants lead the prayers in a spiritual rock sing-along, and the congregants, glancing at the screen, sing and dance along.
Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, who designs the visual tefillot for Temple Emanuel, says that the worshippers seem much more interested in the service when they aren’t holding books in their hands. “People’s heads are up more, and it feels more like a community,” he said.
For some people, though, it’s been difficult to let go, Cantor Yonah Kliger said. “At the first few sessions of Shabbat B’Yachad, we put the siddurim away, and some of the congregants were actually walking around, trying to find them. But we felt strongly that when the prayers are on a big screen, it allows the congregants to connect to the words and music in a visceral way.”
Woodlands Community Temple, in White Plains, N.Y., conducts a similar Kabbalat Shabbat service every six or eight weeks. In the program, called “A Joyful Noise,” an 11-piece volunteer music ensemble plays the melodies to the prayers as the text is projected onto two large screens overhead. Mindful that some congregants still prefer the prayer book, Rabbi Billy Dreskin accommodates them by including the page number on the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
When visual tefillah was just beginning to catch on, most rabbis assumed that the elder congregants would be resistant; however, the majority of them have welcomed the change. “A lot of them tell me that they like it because the letters are large and illuminated, and it’s easier when you don’t have to hold on to a siddur throughout the service,” Medwin said.
“When your hands are free, you can clap your hands, put an arm around the person next to you, or let a child fall asleep in your lap,” Dreskin said. “Some people might ask, ‘How is it that the People of the Book are letting go of the book?’ But honestly, we’re not letting go of it; we’re just putting it on the screen.”
Rukhl Schaechter is the news editor at the Forverts, where this article first appeared in Yiddish.