This is a guest post by HUC 3rd-year rabbinical student Brian Immerman.
I am pleased to announce that Mishkan T’filah, the young Reform Siddur, is now available in Braille format via the Jewish Braille Institute. It is free to those who need it. Please order now, as they are expecting a 4-6 month delivery window. I hope that every Reform Synagogue will have at least one of the eleven-volume copies on hand in case it is needed. While this format is great, this copy is English while the Braille version of Sha’arei T’filah (Gates of Prayer) is Hebrew and English.
There are two reasons for this situation. First, the CCAR Press was unable to secure funding and had not budgeted for the siddur to be Brailled, and this was completed by an independent project of volunteers. Please read more about that story as it is great to see people, Jewish and of other faiths, coming together to help prayer be accessible to all. The second reason that it is not published in Braille, according to some of my sources, is because the format of Mishkan T’filah (four panes on a two page spread) is not easily adapted to the Braille format, which brings me to the issue at hand.
The creators of Mishkan T’filah were innovating and trying to create a more accessible siddur that reflected the changes in the Reform Movement:
“This is a way of having the best of both worlds,” said Rabbi Peter S. Knobel, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the association of Reform rabbis, which is publishing the book. “You have the possibility of doing, if you want, an entire service in Hebrew, as traditional as you can be within the Reform movement. At the same time, you can do something extremely creative.”
However, it does not appear as though the editorial committee was aware of the challenges that these innovations would have on the seeing-impaired community. I have spoken with the new CCAR Press Editor in Chief Rabbi Hara Person about the challenges of creating a Braille version of Mishkan T’filah and she regrets that the choices to fund this project were not made earlier. The current economic situation has made it difficult to find funding. She was pleased to see it was taken up by another party and the CCAR Press has given the Jewish Braille Institute the license to publish as many Braille copies as are requested.
As we continue to innovate, specifically in the Jewish world where we hold the value of community high, how must we proceed? Should we forgo visual changes to a siddur at the risk of losing the small percentage of people who can’t follow along or should we simply try to find ways to include them after we realize that our progress will shut them out?
My initial reaction was the latter, of course we shouldn’t do something that will make Jewish prayer inaccessible to anyone, but then I thought of the positive reactions from so many people who feel they are more included due to the many alternative readings in Mishkan T’filah. I applaud the CCAR for trying to take a giant leap forward, but warn that this is reduced to small steps because they did not acknowledge their own short comings. There will never be a time when everyone will be able to access everything, but especially in the Jewish community we must take extra care to ensure that viable alternatives exist.