Reconstructionist Judaism Today

Reconstructionist Judaism matures under new leadership.

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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

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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