Mishegas, Politics, Religion

BBYO Build-a-Prayer thing

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle.
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.

13 thoughts on “BBYO Build-a-Prayer thing

  1. I do think it represents a major improvement over anything offered by BBYO or really anywhere, all things considered (including that the site is in Beta). I would have really appreciated a resource like this when I was elected the prayer leader for my BBYO chapter back in Dayton, Ohio. I think an interesting question is what does BBYO investing in such a resource mean for how that pluralist and fraternal youth org now understands its mission. To me it seems like BBYO is considering religious resources a much more important component of the Jewish cultural/ethnic identity than they once had.

  2. As a former BBYO council shaliach who (1) originally ran for the position after a convention in which “Hakuna Matata” appeared in place of the shacharit sh’ma (seriously) and (2) used to spend a LOT of time at Kinko’s copying, cutting and pasting things from siddurim to create service handouts, I think this is absolutely great.
    Sure, they could do even better. It would be great to have the option of adding matriarchs or choosing between zombies, golems and naturalism at the end of the Avot/Imahot (you know: “m’chayei ha’meitim,” “m’chayei ha’kol” or “m’chayei kol-chai”). But this is a very cool resource and kids can always supplement it with things from other sources, just as they’ve been doing for decades.

  3. Siviyo, it’s not about crapping on things for the sake of carpping on them. What I blog about here and to a greater extent at my personal blog, The Reform Shuckle, is liturgy. Though I have an interest in Judaism and technology, I’m looking at this mostly from a pluralist or progressive liturgical perspective. From that perspective, this effort, despite its wonderful intentions, falls short in my eyes.

  4. David and others –
    Thanks for your feedback. It is our hope to make Build A Prayer into a valuable tool for the entire Jewish community. We released this site in beta so that we can learn from our users. Your responses are very much appreciated and we will use them to make the site better.
    In terms of the comment about not being able to save and print a service as a PDF, we need some help on this one! We couldn’t find a solution that could properly format the Hebrew and therefore had to keep it in HTML. We would much prefer some better layout tools along with PDF functionality. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know!
    Thanks again for your feedback!

  5. It’s a great start. Would be great if BBYO make it open source, allowing others to not only use it, but create versions where the recommended choices where different.
    Mine would not have the Tikva (blech) as liturgy, and there would be a way to upload images. It would follow Recon practice on chosen-ness.
    Another thing I liked, is you could name your little DIY service ‘The Demon Worship Shabbes’ or any other such name. Fun! It’s hard to write these words, but…. Thank you BBYO.

  6. I haven’t fully looked at the site yet, but as a BBYO alum I agree that this is a huge step for the organization, who in my experience often fell short of providing enriching Jewish experiences.
    In regard to Siviyo’s comment I agree. David, I think your Critiques are important and valuable as Matt as obviously recognized, but considering that this has never really been done before instead of framing your language as everything that is wrong with this program how about positive suggestions for improvement. I am with you as far as being disappointing and/or setting the bar high for new liturgical practices, but that won’t happen if you simply tear apart what is existing in your writing. If anything, in my opinion, not providing suggestions or positive feedback, discredits your comments in general.

  7. Ari, my main suggestion is implicit in my critique, but I’ll state it more clearly here.
    Pluralism is not about catering to the frumest common denominator in a community. If this is going to be a real pluralist, it’s going to need to give a number of differently worded options, both in translation and Hebrew. As it stands, the only choices to be made with regard to the prayers are about which ones to include, rather than HOW to include them, which is a major shortcoming.

  8. Kudos to BBYO for launching this project. Along with the Open Sidur Project, I think that we’re looking at the wave of the Jewish future when it comes to prayer. The accessibility of ritual practice and the opportunity to customize it has been around for a while. These tefilah (prayer) tools, even in Beta (or should we say Aleph Beta) form, show the way for prayer. A suggestion for BBYO–keep the tool open for all, regardless of age, membership or affiliation (or lack thereof). Suggestion for movements which publish their own prayer book: think about licensing the content and enabling people to have a movement template which they can customize. That way you can generate revenue and still create a platform for congregations to adapt what interests them. These are very promising moves for the Jewish community!

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