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  • Writer's pictureDavid Billotti

Curating a Complementary Visual Tefilah Experience

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

Visual Tefilah is an invaluable tool. Some congregations have used it for years and, during the pandemic, it has become much more prevalent in our prayer spaces.

Presenting slides during Zoom or Facebook Live worship for congregants in their homes without prayerbooks allows us to share beloved readings and texts, offering access to our prayers in Hebrew, English, and transliteration. We can add in songs or videos, pictures or prayers and poems unique to our communities as enhancement to the prepared Visual Tefilah slides of the CCAR.

Now that many are returning to their buildings for some form of on-site worship, a number of congregations have dedicated the needed resources to make sure that Visual Tefilah continues. Whether it’s to ensure safety around touching books (while it appears this is safe, many are understandably hesitant), to allow the individuals on-site to see people on-line via zoom, or just that people have come to appreciate the creative flourishes, it has become clear that Visual Tefilah is here to stay.

I have had many questions since the introduction of Visual Tefilah, and while I have shared them with a few colleagues over the years, I was frequently a minority voice. Over time, I have come to appreciate so much of what Visual Tefilah has to offer, and how it is helpful in many ways. But I have renewed questions and concerns.

The congregation I serve in a part-time capacity has been singing Debbie Friedman’s (z”l) setting of Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing, every week since it was written almost without fail. Over many years and services, the congregation sang by heart with feeling and emotion while I did what I felt called to do – look each person in the face, slowly and purposefully as a way to connect and lift everyone. Together, we built the resilience, the strength, and the courage to face our own healing journeys or to support those who are struggling and need our loving care.

Yet, during the recent Holy Days and Shabbatot, I noticed something that perhaps those of you who have been using Visual Tefilah for a long time have already observed: on site, people stared at the words on the screens in the sanctuary even when they knew every word of Mi Shebeirach by heart. I was surprised and saddened to watch every single face staring up at the screen for each drawn-out word. They stared at the screens, whereas before they would look at the bimah, out the windows, at their beloved whose hand they were clutching, or into the faces of the clergy who were connecting with them visually.

Why is this, and what is agitating me about it?

In the sanctuary, they might not want to look away from the lovely visuals we put up. Whether it’s the simple art around the text or just the very large words, it can indeed be compelling to look at. Or perhaps we’ve become insecure; when we didn’t have words, we just went with the rest of the group – trusting we’d be led by the clergy. Now that there are words to look at, we lean on them. Of course, for many it has become a habit to look at screens throughout the day, and Visual Tefilah could fit into that pattern.

I do not believe we should pray without text; not only because it roots us in our tradition, but also because many seeing people use text to learn the Hebrew, to try the transliteration as support, to receive inspiration from translation. And, in the spirit of inclusivity, others who are not as familiar in our worship spaces should have access to all the words in order to feel a part of the experience that too often the “regulars” assume everyone knows. Text is important.

But I do believe that we use a prayerbook differently than a screen; we look into it and then look away. We have it open on our lap, or we put our finger inside to hold our place, and whisper to our neighbor, or let our hearts wander out the window. We use the prayerbook as a guide, not the main attraction.

I’ve considered that this is possibly just about my ego. The songleader in me has led for much of my life without text (who had time for those blue mimeograph machines?!) and has made a career (and am currently writing a book) about being able to support, lead, and cue a group with my face and body. Perhaps that is no longer necessary.

And I certainly believe and encourage our communities to think about less “leader led” worship. We want to empower the congregation to take charge of their own prayer experiences and not just wait for the clergy. So, isn’t the fact that they are no longer looking at me a good thing? Isn’t this the best direction to go?

If the group were leading themselves or relying on each other to lead I might indeed say, bravo! But I fear the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and we have replaced trusting the group, our instinct, our memory, and our voices—and, yes, our leaders—with large screens.

As we continue to learn how to make the most of multi-access worship as well as all the new technical tools we’ve acquired during the pandemic, I strongly encourage us to take a purposeful look at how we are curating the on-site experience. We want to be building relationships in the room, creating an atmosphere of spontaneity and free flowing prayer with appropriate give and take between the leaders and the congregants. I believe this is the future of how we pray.

I do not advocate tearing down the screens. I support Visual Tefilah. But this is the moment for us to find ways that it can complement the sacred shared experience, creating connection without distraction and new meaning without losing the old heart and soul.



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