A People Without Books

by Isaac Shalev

Recently I have been working with the World Zionist Organization to develop an Israel education and advocacy conference. The recent Gaza crisis requires us to think creatively and analytically in order to absorb the implications of the new events. Student activists and professional educators and advocates need time and space to learn and reflect, and need new tools to speak with others about these momentous events. It is both unsurprising and appropriate that the talented team the WZO assembled spent significant time developing brand new material to teach to and from this moment.

The conference, to be held over a weekend, also offers spiritual and prayer options for Shabbat services. One might expect that this would be easy to pull together. After all, Many of the attendees are communal professionals, veterans of youth groups, campers, and synagogue members. Yet finding volunteers to lead services was a challenge, and finding appropriate prayer books was an even greater challenge! The venue had Artscroll prayer books on hand, but nothing more suitable to an egalitarian or liberal service.

Surely, I thought, some printable resource must exist on the internet that contains the Conservative liturgy for Kabbalat Shabbat, along with an English translation. Yet after days of searching Google and Facebook, the findings were meager. Mechon Hadar has a lovely 1-page service, but it was all in Hebrew. BBYO’s BuildAPrayer.org had a well-featured site that allowed for building customized services, complete with Hebrew, English, and transliteration. Unfortunately, it was missing critical portions, like the second chapter of the Shma, and most of the Amida, making it unsuitable for Conservative or Orthodox services.

The absence of this basic resource is striking. After so many millions invested in Jewish education and continuity, how can we be missing something as simple as a downloadable siddur? Not that other basic resources are more available. Want a translation of the Torah by a liberal denomination or scholar? The JPS 1917 translation is most readily available. If you have good Google [skills], you can probably unearth the 1994 translation. Modern translations like those by Robert Alter and Everett Fox are simply not available.

The problem is not that we aren’t generating these resources, it’s that we’re not distributing them. In the last fifteen years, we’ve seen new prayer books from all the major movements – the Conservative Sim Shalom, Reform Mishkan T’filah, and the Orthodox Koren Sacks Siddur. Yet none are available as an ebook, and only the Reform book, the Mishkan T’filah, is available as an app, and only for Apple products.

With every other book publisher in the world scrambling for new revenue streams and new audiences through digital publications, why are our prayer book publishers languishing? And given the regular need for prayer books at conferences, weekend retreats, and various other one-off gatherings, why must we keep reinventing the wheel? Conference planners I’ve spoken to have all bemoaned the need to ship heavy prayer books at great expense to conference sites, or to scramble to connect with a local synagogue that could loan a few books to the conference. Why aren’t Jewish publishers offering a compact, thoughtfully laid-out services booklet that is easy to print-on-demand, for a reasonable price? As people of the book for two millennia, it’s time for us to join the revolution, and bring our books online, on to phones, and into the on-demand world.

Some would argue that this doesn’t go far enough. The Open Siddur Project has been advocating for making Jewish texts available in machine-readable formats to anybody, through licensing that allows authors and content creators to remix and reuse those works. The material can remain copyrighted, and original creators can even charge fees for use of their source material. None of this is a terribly new idea. But too many publishers see themselves as stewards of the material, trying to control how it is re-used or repurposed. Their vision of our canon of sacred writings is that of a museum – to be seen, but not touched. But if we want to continue to inspire new generations, we need to embrace open, shared tools.

In the world of startups the truism goes that it’s not about great ideas, it’s about great execution. There were many search engines, many social networks, many clever cell phones, but only one became Google, Facebook, the iPhone. Execution counts. As a Jewish community, we need to balance our investment in new ideas with an investment in execution of proven, powerful ideas, like shared infrastructure, shared tools, and open access.

Isaac Shalev is the founder of Sage70, Inc., a strategic consultancy serving growing organization. Isaac can be reached as Isaac@sage70.com