Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, Ph.D., is a pioneer. A faculty member and the director of internship and rabbinic mentoring at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jerusalem Campus for nearly 20 years, Lisitsa was the first female rabbi to join one of Israel’s religious councils, the bodies that oversee synagogues, mikveh, kashrut, marriage registration, and burials throughout the country. She co-edited the New Israeli Reform Siddur, Tfillat HaAdam — the Israeli Reform Movement’s first new Siddur in more than four decades — with fellow HUC-JIR faculty member Rabbi Dalia Marx, Ph.D., the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Liturgy and Midrash. And now she’s at it again, this time in an arena that may surprise anyone who isn’t already aware of her love of Spanish and Portuguese language and literature or her experience developing liturgical materials for children. Lisitsa has collaborated with two illustrators and lay leaders to publish Sidurico: Un sidur para niñas y niños, what may be the first liberal Siddur targeted to young children in Spain (a Portuguese translation — Sidurinho: Um Sidur para meninos e meninas, also perhaps the first of its kind — is available). We caught up with her to learn more about her latest venture.
Co-creating the New Israeli Reform Siddur was a massive and historic project. Why did you decide that your next Siddur project would target Spanish and Portuguese-speaking children?
AL: One of the positions I hold is with the European Union for Progressive Judaism. I’m a sponsoring rabbi for the European Beit Din, the Jewish law court for Progressive Jews in in Europe and the United Kingdom. I support our congregations in Spain and Portugal. Very soon after I started this work, it came to my attention that we have very few Siddurim in Spanish and Portuguese that satisfy our modern, liberal needs and bring forward our values — gender sensitivity, inclusivity, and so on — so I decided that I wanted to start the project of creating prayer books for children in those languages.
We were surprised to learn that Sidurico and Sidurinho are among the first of their kind.
AL: I’m pretty sure there are Spanish Siddurim for children in South America, especially by Chabad. I envy Chabad. [She laughs.] We in the Reform movement need to learn from them. We need to produce materials in every language. I want us to be at the forefront of Jewish education in the world. Any Jew, any affiliation — if they’re looking for materials and they click online, I want them to get a Reform perspective, a Reform explanation, Reform prayer.
You want to produce materials for all age groups eventually. Why begin with young children?
AL: I truly believe that you start education early — as early as possible. This is where I want to invest. And I know that if I start with little children, I’ll also get the parents involved. By making a Siddur for the little ones, I’ll involve two major age groups.
The age group you’re targeting with this first Siddur is roughly age four to seven or eight. What’s the key to connecting with them?
AL: I don’t want to infantilize children. At these ages, children want to be like grownups — they want to have something in their hands. Even for the little ones, I didn’t want it to be too childish.
How did you end up collaborating with Asunción Deborah Ríos Rey and Amanda Ahuvah Gipson, the artists who illustrated the Siddur?
AL: One of the congregations I work with in Spain is Bet Januká in the city of Rota in Andalusia. They have a unique congregation. It’s situated within a U.S. Navy base. It serves American and Spanish Jews — military, civilian, teachers, engineers, employees, and people who just live nearby. Deborah and Ahuvah are lay leaders there. I noticed they did beautiful art for their website and the Aron Kodesh. That’s when it clicked for me. I said, ‘Guys, I’m going to prepare a Siddur for the little ones. It’s going to be challenging.’ They were very positive from the first moment.
What makes their illustrations in this Siddur work?
AL: They’re colorful. There’s a strong connection between the content of the prayer and the illustrations, which can help a child to locate a prayer even without being able to read — when you have a blessing for washing your hands, you have an illustration of hands. And we’ve been very particular about showing girls and boys. We don’t want children to develop stereotypes about prayer. That was important for us.
Do you have a favorite?
AL: One of my favorite ones is an illustration for reading the Shema in bed. It’s from the perspective of a child. You don’t see the child. You see legs stretching out in front of the reader, a cat, a dog, and a window at night. A child holding the Siddur can see ‘That’s me in the book.’
What inspires you to do projects like this?
AL: I dream about creating educated, self-sufficient Jews who can run services, educate, research for themselves, and bring their Limmud to their congregations. And I believe that you should start as early as possible. You can even do it with babies. That’s how you instill tradition — an emotional connection is possible before there is an intellectual connection.
You’re an HUC alumna. Is there a connection between this project and your HUC experience?
AL: The most obvious connection is the idea of empowering people. That came from the College. That’s what my teachers did for me, and that’s what I’m trying to do as a teacher, wherever I am — not to take the Bima, but to bring other people to the Bima. One of the greatest joys is when you see a student doing great. It’s so rewarding.