Most blessings begin with a six-word formula, followed by the text that varies. The morning service contains a bunch of these, thanking God for making us free, lifting up the fallen, giving strength to the weary, and more. (There are 15 of these in a row.) The congregation says these together. In Friday's service, the leader decreed that the congregation would chant these in "Hebrish" -- first six words in Hebrew, then chanting the varying part in English.
I previously wrote about the horror that is chanted English prayer. This isn't that. This "Hebrish" practice, I've been told when I've asked, is motivated by a desire for inclusion: people don't know the Hebrew, the reasoning goes, so this makes prayer more accessible. Sounds admirable, right? But it's misguided and, dare I say, harmful. First off, the transliteration is right there in the siddur next to the Hebrew, precisely to make the Hebrew more accessible. But, more fundamentally, this practice serves to keep people down. How are they ever to learn the Hebrew if we never do it? Are we supposed to settle for the current state and never move past it? How would I have become proficient in the Hebrew prayers if, when I was trying to grow, my congregation had kept me on the English?
The Rambam (Maimonides) famously taught that the highest level of tzedakah (charity, loosely) is to help a poor person to get a job, rather than to give him money. Giving him money sustains him for a time; getting him a job helps him break out of the clutches of poverty (we hope). The Reform movement holds this up as a key value, even placing it in the section of the siddur where we study torah in the morning. Why, then, do we refuse to apply that same principle to those who are poor in knowledge? Why is it better to give them the handout of English prayer instead of helping them to pray in Hebrew?
In the past I have remained silent to avoid the appearance of challenging our leaders. I have tried and failed to persuade leaders who do this to reconsider. Friday, when they announced this and started into those prayers, I said to myself quietly "no more" and proceeded to chant the prayers in Hebrew. The long-time member of my congregation sitting next to me said "good for you!" and joined me. We were not disruptive, but I have high hopes that maybe, next time, he'll be sitting next to someone else and he too will say "no more" and forge ahead, and maybe someone sitting next to him will follow. And maybe, eventually, we'll be able to help people break out of the bonds of illiteracy, instead of continuing to keep them down by catering to their current weaknesses. We've just celebrated z'man cheruteinu, the season of our freedom, and it is time to apply that to our people now and not just looking back at Mitzrayim.
If reading the Hebrew text directly is too challenging for some, the transliteration is readily available. Or they could quietly read the English the way I quietly read the Hebrew. (I do that when I'm at services that are above my level, like last week at Village Shul.) But let's stop telling our congregants that they're too uneducated to handle the Hebrew; that only serves to reinforce the idea until they no longer want to try.