Reconstructionist Judaism Today

Reconstructionist Judaism matures under new leadership.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the January 18, 2002 edition of The Jewish Week.

A new generation of leaders

On a cold and drizzly January day, Rabbi David Teutsch sits in his windowed corner office at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College [RRC] a satisfied man.

In a class downstairs, first‑year rabbinical students--including one with purple‑dyed hair and a midriff‑baring tank top--are discussing the Orthodox Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz's analysis of the nature of Jewish law and how it intersects with the Reconstructionist approach.

reconstructionist rabbinical collegeThe elegant building that houses the college, on a wooded lot that was once a newspaper mogul's estate in this Philadelphia suburb, is freshly renovated. Added to the library was a climate‑controlled archive space that houses many of the papers of Reconstructionist founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.

Today the seminary's endowment stands at $12 million, nearly six times what it was when Rabbi Teutsch became president of RRC in 1993. Currently 90 students are studying to be rabbis or cantors, up 50 percent over the number when he started, and the board of directors recently approved plans to expand that to 120 students.

It is a good time for him to leave. Rabbi Teutsch has resigned from the presidency to return to what he loves most: studying, writing and teaching. He will be doing those things, as well as heading a revitalized and expanded Center for Jewish Ethics, at RRC.

His newly named successor is Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, who has for 13 years led Congregation Bnai Keshet, in Montclair, N.J. When he moves from Montclair to Wyncote, he'll be bringing with him…  a fresh set of ambitions for the seminary.

The second generation: new confidence and new institutions

Rabbi Ehrenkrantz, 40, is the first graduate of RRC to become its president. That, along with several other key developments, marks this as a watershed moment for the smallest and youngest of American Jewry's religious movements.

"The movement has moved from its teen years to its young adulthood, in some ways," says Rabbi Mordecai Liebling, former director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, and now the education director at the philanthropic foundation Shefa Fund. He continues to teach at RRC. “It’s a maturing organization which has a lot more sense of itself and a lot more stability than it had five or 10 years ago."

"The self‑image of the movement has really improved," says Rabbi Yael Ridberg, who leads West End Synagogue, the only congregation in Manhattan to be affiliated solely with the Reconstructionist movement. "The larger Jewish community's recognition of the movement has improved as well. Very often you see the word Reconstructionist in print many times more than you would have five years ago."

One of the movement's chief challenges is to find a new director for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, which has 100 congregations as members.  The absence of a director has taxed the senior staff, which works out of a modest space housed in strip mall professional offices in a busy street a couple of miles away from RRC. But even so, the movement is expanding its reach. This summer it will open--for the first time in its in its 47‑year‑old history--a camp. It will be based at overnight Camp Henry Horner, near Chicago in Ingleside, Ill. Twenty children, who will be entering grades 5‑7 next fall, are already registered and another 20 are in the process of doing so, said Rabbi Jeff Schein, JRFs director of education. Come June, they hope to have 50 or 60 signed up.

The last of the movement's five‑volume series of prayer books, titled "Kol Haneshama," has just been published. The final volume, "Prayers for a House of Mourning," like the prayer books for the Sabbath and festivals, High Holy Days and others, embodies the movement's egalitarian and humanistically-oriented approach.

They contain a mostly traditional format to the daily prayers, but remove--as in all of Reconstructionist liturgy-- classic Jewish references to a personal messiah, revival of the dead, and to Jews as the chosen people. The prayer books also provide alternative renditions of many key prayers, integrating extensive commentary, contemporary poetry and transliterations.

The publication of the prayer book series, over the last several years, was the first comprehensive updating of Reconstructionist liturgy since Rabbi Kaplan published his Reconstructionist Hagaddah and siddur in the early 1940s.

"This is the movement having the maturity to say that Kaplan and [movement‑building Kaplan disciple Rabbi Ira] Eisenstein don't define the totality of Reconstructionism," said Rabbi Liebling. "The movement has passed successfully on to a second generation of real leaders."…

In the 1950s and 1960s, [Reconstructionism] was dominated by people with a cerebral, humanistic view rebelling against Orthodoxy. In the 1980s, many of the movement's leaders were deeply involved with Jewish Renewal, which is a loosely linked network of people and organizations focused on a religiously experimental and politically active approach to Judaism. While Renewal's ideology casts wide influence over the mainstream denominations, as a movement, [it] remains a marginal force.

What attracts American Jews to Reconstructionism?

Lately, Reconstructionist leaders have been eager to distance their reputation from that of the hippie‑ish Renewal crowd which, to confuse matters further, has organizations based in the same Philadelphia‑area towns as the Reconstructionists do.

As recently as a decade ago, "people confused Reconstructionism and Renewal,” said Rabbi Teutsch. "As we've come to a much more mature position institutionally, ideologically and in terms of practice, we're much more distinctive than we were before."

Today the Reconstructionist movement's 100 congregations claim 50,000 members, numbers dwarfed by the Reform movement, with 960 congregations and 1.5 million members, and the Conservative movement, which claims almost as many.

But the Reconstructionist movement attracts a dedicated constituency. People join its congregations consciously and purposefully. It isn't the "default" choice for Jews wanting to join the nearest synagogue or the one that seems most familiar.

"Reconstructionism is not something that you fall into out of habit," said Melanie Schneider, director of the Metropolitan region of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department, American Jewish Committee says, "The Reconstructionist movement is appealing to people out there who are otherwise unaffiliated, and saying ‘Judaism is a culture of ideas, let's discuss those ideas together.' If Reconstructionism can open doors to Jewish participation to people who would otherwise not find themselves in the Jewish community, that's all to the good."…

What Characterizes the Movement?

Hallmarks of the movement include a deep dedication to democracy, to values‑based decision‑making, to a self‑conscious focus on "process," liturgical creativity and to an embrace of secular values. It considers itself “post‑halachic," giving Jewish law “a vote but not a veto," and feels comfortable borrowing from other religions.

There is daily meditation at the seminary, for instance, but a [more traditional] Jewish prayer service just once a week. Participation is purely voluntary. Three years ago, the seminary instituted a Spiritual Direction program in which students volunteer to be paired with rabbis and psychotherapists, with whom they meet monthly to examine their spiritual journey. The idea for the program, says Rabbi Jacob Staub, RRCs vice president for academic affairs, came from a similar practice in Christian seminaries.

A clear focus of Reconstructionist Judaism is to "live in the hyphen as Jewish ‑Americans," said Rabbi Margot Stein, the congregational arm's communications director.

Reconstructionism was the first movement to approve patrilineal descent (1968), to open its seminary's doors to openly gay and lesbian rabbis (1984), and to approve rabbinic officiation at same‑sex commitment ceremonies (1996).

When Rabbi Ehrenkrantz takes the helm of RRC on July 1, he plans to start taking it in new directions. His overarching goal is to bring the College's resources to a larger audience. One way will be by establishing a Center for the Creative Arts. The arts were central to Rabbi Kaplan's ideology, and they continue to receive more focus in the Reconstructionist movement than in any other.

"For many people, music, drama, storytelling, painting are perhaps the most important gateways to their own inner lives and sense of spirit," said Rabbi Ehrenkrantz, who was a serious student of violin until he entered rabbinical school

He also plans to re‑emphasize tikkun olam, or social action, and establish a center for that purpose. He anticipates that both will be modeled on a current RRC center.

Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies runs as a semi‑autonomous entity, working both inside and outside of RRC. It has its own board and funding, and a small staff based at the college. Its academic director, Lori Hope Lefkowitz, is a professor of Jewish Women's and Gender Studies at RRC, teaching courses and influencing curriculum. Kolot also runs feminist Jewish programs in several cities for people who have nothing to do with the Reconstructionist movement.

If, as they say it is, the Reconstructionist movement represents the values shared by a majority of American Jews better than any other movement, why is it still so tiny?

"Not everybody is prepared to be part of the leading edge of Judaism," says Rabbi Stein. "A lot of people don't care about Judaism that much and don't want to have to think about it. Some people have called us the thinking person's Judaism. There's a whole range of rituals and behavior that are acceptable in Reconstructionist life, and that can be confusing for people. We're a very complex movement."

In the past, "the movement shied away from being in the mainstream in any number of ways," said Rabbi Stein. But now "the time has come for us to find our place at the table."

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.