BBYO Build-a-Prayer thing

Crossposted to Jewschool.

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, but that 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 what 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.


14 responses to “BBYO Build-a-Prayer thing

  1. Pingback: BBYO Build-a-Prayer thing | Jewschool

  2. I have a couple of issues that transcend the quality of the liturgy that this on-line toy will produce.

    First, what is BBYO doing in the davening business anyway? I haven’t visited their web site to see how they present themselves, nor that of their parent organization, but I’ve always understood Bnai Brith to be a secular organization, which perhaps needs to be sensitive to the religious sensibilities of its members, but not to fulfill their religious needs. OK, I suppose that if they have a weekend kallah of some sort, that could include offering services, and this would be one way of making them more responsive to the needs of a particular community than would be accessing existing siddurim. But I’m enough of a turf-nik to be moderately annoyed by BBYO stepping into USY, UCSY and NFTY territory.

    Second, I’m not sure if I like the word pluralistic applied to a secular organization like this — but I’m also not sure what word I would like better to describe an organization for Jews of any or no religious persuasion.

    That you tend to associate BBYO with the Conservative movement is probably an accident of geography and/or demography, suggesting an area of geography where they beat USY to the punch, serving the needs of those not self-selecting to NFTY.

    Going back to your post itself, there is an unfortunate tendency in organizations (not just Jewish) to do things because they can, not because they should. These may be good things to do, but not necessarily germane to the organization that is doing them. (I’ve had more to say about this in recent discussions on mission/vision on

    • It is my impression that BBYO has become an organization increasingly comfortable with religious content over time.

      And you’re right that my association of BBYO with Conservative Jews is probably a geographic thing.

  3. Larry, I’m having trouble understanding your argument. How is dividing Jewish community resources up by institutional “turf” a good model for developing a culturally and spiritually vibrant community? Such thinking seems to ignore the potential of social networks to upend hierarchies and the old networks which served them.

    The opportunity afforded by radical pluralism and activated by the Internet for achieving a goal of a more vibrant Jewish culture should be welcomed. That Internet enabled social networks disrupt denominational group identities is a new reality that denominations can only ignore to their peril. It seems to me that non-denominational, trans-denominational, and post-denominational projects are in a better position to leverage the growth of new media for distributing and helping Jews of any identity engage their tradition and the traditions of their peers.

    This is why my criticism of BBYO’s resource is limited to how the content on the site is licensed. The Open Siddur Project has a broader and more ambitious scope than buildaprayer, but more importantly, ownership and sharing of all new and old creative content is enabled by standard free culture licensing. Does BBYO own all the content developed and shared on the site? It isn’t clear who owns the copyright of creative works at buildaprayer and there are consequences for culture when the distribution and dissemination of created works is locked up by copyright for the lifetime of the author plus 70 or so years.

    Having said this, BBYO has developed a resource for its chapter’s elected lay prayer leaders, and I think they should be applauded for that. If the resource proves useful to other folk, then that is a benefit for everyone. When I was elected lay leader at my chapter in Dayton, Ohio, I was responsible for composing or finding prayers for BBYO programs and meetings. A resource like this certainly would have been welcome.

    • WORD!

      Larry, I’m gonna have to side with Aharon on most of this. Especially on the point about insitutional turf. If one group’s constituents start to want something, should they tell them to go away and look for that elsewhere? Or do they evolve to meet the needs of their consistuents?

      • I hope that the open siddur project gets to the point soon that it is set up like this BBYO one. Thinking about it in the context of its purpose- for BBYO leaders- I think it’s great. Their idea of pluralism however, is a strange one. My friend here was on her regional board from BBYO and I started asking her about the denominational makeup of participants and what services are like led me to believe that they aren’t as pluralistic as they advertise.

  4. Three previous efforts to respond (at various stages in the dialogue) vanished in cyberspace for one reason or another — maybe a way the KBH was warning me I wasn’t making myself clear (even to myself). Let’s try again.

    I guess my issue isn’t so much turf as it is mission. Healthy organizations with clear-cut missions do themselves, their members, and their programs a disservice when they undertake programs that are irrelevant to what they exist for. Because a synagogue offers instruction in Hebrew and in Yiddish doesn’t justify their broadening their program to also offer French — and sooner or later their attention to French causes them to lose focus on what they’re really about.

    On the other hand, Berlitz is all about teaching languages — Hebrew, French, Yiddish, Russian — all on mission. Now if I want to learn ice-skating, and I’m a Berlitz customer, should they adapt to my new need? Or should they send me to the ice-skating school?

    Sometimes an organization with a clear mission is rendered obsolete — by success, by demographics, or whatever. When polio was cured, there was no longer a need for the work supported by The March of Dimes. One option was for them to close their doors; but they diagnosed that they had great expertise in raising funds and raising consciousness for disease prevention, treatment, and research. So rather than squander their expertise, they made a clear but complete change from polio to birth defects, an unserved arena for their skills.

    David makes the observation that BBYO has become increasingly comfortable with religious content over time. One of the things that has led to that increased comfort is the changing nature of secularism. BBYO and its parent BB came into being as fraternal secular organizations — essentially as places where Jews could do non-Jewish things with one another. Once society opened up and they could do their non-Jewish things with non-Jews, they didn’t need the Bnai Brith Bowling League any more. Meanwhile, their Jewish mitzvah projects became specialized entities unto themselves, so ADL spun off in its direction, Hillel spun off in its direction, and BB was left all dressed up with no place to go. Even though it may continue to do good work, there are others doing parallel work. So the work may be good but it is filling more of a need for the servers than for the served.

    What the Establishment has found is that the glue that best holds the Jewish community together today is the synagogue. Anti-semitism and social exclusion don’t cut it any more; social welfare and social services don’t cut it any more; even Israel doesn’t cut it the way it did from 1947 to 1974. So one way or another everybody has to get into the religion/Jewish continuity act.

    I went to the BBYO web site to see what it is in business to do: providing positive Jewish experiences to teens. Well, maybe there is a need for an organization that provides positive Jewish experiences to teens on a pan-post-trans-non denominational basis. And this becomes especially true when there is a parent organization that still has enough resources to throw a lot of shit against the wall to see what sticks.

    But of course that goes squarely in the opposite direction from Aharon’s upending of hierarchies and the old networks which served them.

    What the Internet has done has made it possible to bypass the hierarchies and quickly create new service modes and build new free-standing infrastructures without being dependent on The Man. Because remember, The Man operates on the Golden Rule — they who have the gold make the rule. Sure, we’ll buy you a siddur-toy — but it won’t have the Lego pieces to build in any imahot!

    You ask, “If one group’s constituents start to want something, should they tell them to go away and look for that elsewhere? Or do they evolve to meet the needs of their consistuents?”

    And the answer depends on the compatibility of the new want with the old mission, and the continuing validity or lack thereof of the old mission. If the poker club wants to switch to playing bridge, is it still a poker club?

  5. I feel like the point of this project isn’t to make the next great Siddur, which seems like the majority of the criticism of this project is headed. Personally, I think this is a great resource for anyone to create a service for whatever their need might be, whether it be a weekend event, Hillel service, or creating a baseline for a personal Siddur. As you said, it is “a website where Jews of all ages and backgrounds can connect to prayer and Shabbat by building a service” which I think is the most important thing about it. People who have a strong connection will probably not need this tool on any sort of regular basis. Although it is pretty dry, it is a great start and template to use.
    Also, I think it is ridiculous that different groups have their expected grounds on which they perform. It is like saying I can’t change my personality overtime. I have grown out of several stages of my life, like my skater phase, country music phase and so many others. Lieberman switched from Democratic Candidate for VP to Republican in a matter of a few years. Saying that BBYO cannot do this because they have not been a religious organization is typecasting EVERY person in the ENTIRE organization and not allowing them to change.
    Being a Reform Service Leader at my University’s Hillel, I will be sharing this with my co-leaders and hopefully get to use it for a service to allow us to put in thought and personality to a generally over structured service without the pathetic supplements.

    • “The point of this project isn’t to make the next great siddur.”

      Agreed, Matthew. A great sidur will likely never result from an internet application like this.

      But an app like this has the potential to offer many options. What this project offers is the choice of WHAT to include and no choices about HOW to include each prayer. It is a major shortcoming that defeats the word pluralism in this instance of it.

  6. Pingback: How Debbie Friedman get labelled as “traditional” by BBYO? | The Reform Shuckle

  7. Re: “Humming to Oneself”: I picked that one too!

    Yeah, printing that junk was a HORRIBLE experience.

    I’d tried the Open Siddur project before this, but I couldn’t find anything except some siddur from 1920. Where is everything??

  8. Exactly. Where is everything? The answer is pretty tragic: Jewish liturgy that isn’t yet accessible falls into the following categories:

    1) it’s in the Public Domain and hasn’t yet been digitized (as text, not simply images of text)

    2) it’s in the Public Domain, it’s been digitized, but the digitized text is either privately held or available only with restrictive terms of use

    3) it’s under Copyright and hasn’t yet been digitized

    4) it’s under Copyright, it’s been digitized, but the Copyright owner hasn’t licensed it such that it’s available for creative reuse.

    I’m the founder of the Open Siddur Project, and the reason our open source project was founded (besides our goal for helping folks craft their own siddur) was to help get Jewish liturgy shared. Unfortunately, we can’t do that with a snap of our fingers. That’s why our ambitious project is an open source project — we need a lot of contributors to help get undigitized text digitized, and digitized text shared and licensed with free/libre licenses that permit creative reuse. I’m sorry you weren’t able to find what you were looking for at the Open Siddur Project, but we are only as strong as people like you are willing to contribute to the project. There are a number of ways you can contribute. Please see:

  9. Pingback: I live in Virginia. « ❝ᴐᴚʎϚՇɐʟ ɖɚʞ⎃дҾɳʑ❞

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