BBYO launched their Build a Prayer website yesterday. It purports to be a website where Jews of all ages and backgrounds can connect to prayer and Shabbat by building a service. What follows are my reactions as I try to create a service.
Step 1: Choose a service
I have four choices to start off with. I can either make a “Friday Evening Service,” “Saturday Evening Service,” “Saturday Morning Service,” or “Blessings After Meals.” No weekday services?
Now I have three more choices. I can either make a “Traditional,” “Pluralistic,” or “Custom” service. What?
I can include any combination of Hebrew, English, and transliteration, and I can choose from two different layout styles, both of which include space for commentary, which is great. But now I’m wondering what kind of choices I’m gonna get for commentary.
I’ve opted for a custom Saturday morning service with English, Hebrew, and transliteration. The layout has three columns of text next to each other, one for Hebrew, one for English, and one for transliteration, and there is commentary space running underneath.
Step 2: Choose Prayers
It’s just a list of prayers in order with check boxes. It tells me that if I had picked a “Traditional” service, I would’ve had fewer options for taking things out, and if I had picked a pluralistic service, I’d have more options to take things out. As it is, I’ve chosen a custom service, which I’m told will give me the most options about what to put it in and what to leave out.
The first section of prayers to choose from is “Preparing for the Service.” There are three things I can choose to include in this section: Prayer for Putting on Tallit, Meditating, and “Humming to Oneself.” What? I’m just gonna go for it here and include all three, if only to see what Meditating and Humming to Oneself look like in a BBYO siddur.
The list for the rest of the service is pretty ordinary, though I can choose between a “full” V’ahavta and a short one. Whose short one will it be? I’m gonna choose the short one just to see what’s in it.
And then I get to the Amidah, where there is only one option for everything! Seriously? Since the process of modern liturgical re-writing began, the Amidah has been the most fertile ground for experimentation and they’re not even gonna give me a choice between Avot and Avot V’imahot? This genuinely makes no sense.
Skip a few… And I get to closing songs, where I have four options: Ein Keloheinu, Adon Olam, Yigdal, and Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu (Salaam…). Again, what? This is a youth group project, right? Don’t they have a wider repertoire of songs to offer than these four?
Step 3: Make it Yours
At this point, I get to review each choice I’ve made and add to it. It turns out that the space set aside in the layout for commentary is for me to write whatever I want. I was hoping there would be some classic and modern commentaries I could choose to include bits from, but at this point that was probably wishful thinking. I can also include images wherever I want, as well as include audio or video. What would it even mean to have audio or video in a siddur?
It turns out Meditating and Humming to Oneself are just blank spaces with those titles and I can write whatever I want there. Disappointing.
It’s pretty shitty that I can’t choose from multiple translations. One reason why: “Blessed art thou, Lord of the Universe,” etc.
The Barchu apparently includes the first paragraph of Yotzer Or. But I also chose to include Yotzer Or, so now I have two copies of that paragraph, one right after the other in my service. What?
To my surprise, the short version of the Shma and V’ahavta isn’t even one of the usual Reform truncations. It’s just the Shma line and the first paragraph of the V’ahavta. Not even a L’maan?
This is getting more disappointing by the moment.
Step 4: Review
OK. I reviewed it. Now what?
Step 5: Tag and Save
This is cool and web 3.whatever-y. I can tag my service.
And now I have to register and give them my e-mail address before I can finish? That’s obnoxious.
A Few Concluding Thoughts
Overall, this has been a very slick and easy-to-use but completely thoughtless experience. The idea that a group that purports to be pluralist would offer such narrow liturgical choices to its members if preposterous. In my experience, most BBYO kids I knew were Conservative and the choices offered in this BBYO Build a Prayer thing don’t even reflect the reality of the Conservative movement these days. No matriarchs? Seriously?
BBYO isn’t the only group working on this kind of project. Headed up by current Yeshivat Hadar fellow Aharon Varady, the Open Siddur Project aims to digitize as many siddurim as possible, offering up real choice to those looking to compile a siddur online. I doubt that OSP will ever look as slick as BBYO’s thing, but I imagine the content will be better.
I just tried to print my service out. It doesn’t even spit it out in a nice PDF. It’s a simple html page and I’ll have to mess with line breaks and pagination all by myself. Kind of lame.