Imagine having your new book read over the same week, in hundreds of communities, by Jews observing the holiest days in their religious calendar. 

That’s some close reading.

Rabbi Hara Person ’86 is executive editor of MishkanHaNefesh, the year-old, two-volume prayer book used by Reform congregations on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It represents a top-to-bottom rewrite of the High Holiday prayer book, or machzor—the first rewrite since the publication of the Reform movement’s Gates of Repentance in 1978.

Hara Person ’86
“Our people are diverse. We wanted to be inclusive. ” Hara Person ’86. Major: interdisciplinary studies. Photo by Maria Stenzel

“One thing I got out of Amherst was to be a very close reader of texts,” says Person, director of CCAR Press (the publishing arm of the Central Conference of American Rabbis). “In rabbinic school, you do a lot of close reading. And so Amherst has helped me enormously in what I do today.”

Though she also serves as High Holiday rabbi of Congregation B’nai Olam in Fire Island Pines, N.Y., and as adjunct rabbi at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, Person has devoted her career to publishing. 

The development of the new machzor dates to 2008. “We had a mini think tank with rabbis. We’d had them do an internal process in their congregations, with discussion and study,” she says.

Changing demographics and sensibilities drove the project. “Our people are diverse,” she says.  How might a prayer book speak to non-Jewish partners, to Jews who are doubting? “We wanted to be inclusive, and not say there’s only one right way to be sitting here.” 

Prayer books
The machzor features new translations and commentary, a transliterated liturgy and alternatives to traditional texts. The prayer of Avinu Malkeinu (“Our Father, Our King”) is accompanied by an alternative “prayer of protest.” Person explains: “Instead of saying to God, ‘Please be gracious to me and be good to me,’ essentially, it says —not in this language; it’s much prettier—‘Hey, God, I’m pissed off at you.’ We want to allow people to give voice to that emotion.”

The book offers a nongendered alternative to the traditional blessing for those called to the Torah by name, to be inclusive of trans people. “We’re the first mainstream machzor to use it,” Person says.

And it rediscovers medieval piyyutim (liturgical poems), long ago deleted for being too metaphorical but now welcomed back for their beauty. “There’s one that talks about God as a gardener, one that talks about God as a potter.”

More than 300 congregations, prayer groups, college groups and day schools used drafts of Mishkan HaNefesh between 2011 and 2015. The final version incorporates their feedback. At Westchester (N.Y.) Reform Temple, which began using drafts in 2011, Rabbi Jonathan Blake ’95 is impressed with its “literary sensitivity.”

“Our ‘test drive’ was so successful that the congregation immediately elected to adopt Mishkan HaNefesh as our new High Holiday prayer book,” says Rabbi Barry Block ’85 of Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Ark. “Congregants were particularly moved by the Yizkor (Memorial) Service, during which seven congregants who had been bereaved during the previous year came forward to kindle lights.” 

Introducing a new text to a congregation is no easy task, and so the praise means a lot to Person. “I’ve been doing this kind of work for 18 years now,” she says, “and I’ve never put out something before that’s been received so universally well.” 

 About the Author: William Sweet is a news writer at Amherst.