Reconstructionists Enjoy Fast Growth, Face Confusion About Movement’s Mission

Forty years after five Reconstructionist Jews had their first organized meting, and 20 years after the first rabbis were ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the movement is at a crossroads.

Reconstructionism – what it is and how it is different from Judaism’s other liberal movements – is often not clear to its own members, as well as to the rest of the Jewish world.

The confusion was the source of many jokes and of the theme for the recent conference of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, the movement’s congregational arm, held at the Dana Point Resort here Nov. 10- 13.

Titled "Spirit, Intellect, Community: The Reconstructionist Search," the conference, which attracted about 300 people, centered on defining the Reconstructionist integration of those three pillars of Jewish life.

It began with roundtable discussions on explaining and understanding the movement.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that "people like sound-bites and easy answers, but Reconstructionism is not about that. It’s about taking your own practice and belief system seriously," said Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, executive vice president of the federation.

Members often come to Reconstructionist congregations with little idea of what Reconstructionism is, said conference participants.

The movement now has 78 affiliates, more that triple the number of member congregations it had in 1980, and many of the congregations have themselves enjoyed explosive growth in membership.

That growth brings with it administrative and some financial problems for Reconstructionist organizations, which are still structured to serve a tiny movement.

It also brings with it philosophical and educational challenges for a movement which has been intimate, by design and by dint of its number of followers, and now must make the transition to the different dynamic inherent in a larger organization.

Most members of Judaism’s youngest movement have backgrounds in other movements, or come from no synagogue affiliation at all, according to the movement’s members.

And those things which heretofore set Reconstructionism apart from Judaism’s other movements – an emphasis on study, openness and creativity in liturgy and ritual, the ordination of women and acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews – have become less defining as many non-Reconstructionist liberal congregations integrate similar approaches.

What is more, new members, like American Jews in every movement, are often Jewishly uneducated, according to Jane Susswein, newly installed president of the federation.

What makes Reconstructionist communities attractive to Jews looking to learn is their focus on study and their openness, said Susswein, a member of Congregation B’nai Keshet, in Montclair, N.J. The communities "are a very comfortable place to learn," she said.

Reconstructionist theology and philosophy, as articulated by founder Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan and his followers, is profoundly different from Judaism’s other movements. In practice, Reconstructionist Jews are often as observant, or even more observant, than Conservative Jews – but for different reasons.

Reconstructionists see Torah not as a divinely inspired or even historically accurate document, but as a collection of myths reflecting the spiritual experience and searching of the Jewish people.

Reconstructionists’ decisions about issues ranging from the kashrut policy of a synagogue to whether same-sex unions may be religiously sanctified are made after studying Jewish sources. The decisions are informed – but not dictated – by the tradition.

Torah "has a vote but not a veto," according to Kaplan’s theology.

That plays out as "eat kosher but think treif," according to Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, spiritual leader of University Synagogue in Irvine, Calif., who led a workshop on spirituality.

It means "be a traditional Jew when it doesn’t conflict with ethics, like on the women’s issue, and to think to the very fullest limits," said Rachlis.

The Reconstructionist movement tries to negotiate a unique path between the individual autonomy at the heart of Reform Judaism and the obedience to Jewish law espoused by Conservative Judaism, if not Conservative Jews.

In Reconstructionism, community has primacy.

Kaplan espoused "belonging" as the vehicle for Jewish participation, rather than behaving or believing. This stands as a stark contrast with traditional Judaism, which focuses first on behavior, or the performance of mitzvot, then belief, and finally, membership, as the measures of Jewish commitment.

According to Rabbi Harold Schulweis, spiritual leader of a Conservative congregation in Encino, Calif., "Because Kaplan was a little weak on believing and emphasized belonging, the richness of Reconstructionist theology has not come across."

Schulweis delivered the conference’s keynote address.

For Reconstructionists, the community is the center, and serves as the locus of decision-making. But American Jews today have been raised in a culture that emphasizes individual rights, not commitment to a group.

"Our biggest challenge is moving people from the American ideal of radical autonomy to the Jewish commitment to belonging to community. Our hardest struggle is around defining the content of commitment to community," said Rabbi David Teutsch, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

According to Liebling of the synagogue federation, "The tension between individual and community is rich and needs to be explored" further within the movement.

Another of Reconstructionism’s characteristics which make it unique among the main movements in American Jewish life is its full integration of homosexuals.

Gay and lesbian Jews are movement and congregational leaders, lay and staff, rabbis and congregants. There were no sessions at the conference devoted to gay and lesbian issues. Sexual orientation is simply not an issue.

A hallmark of the movement is its continued innovation.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College – which this year has 76 students, its largest class – will soon be launching two initiatives.

A new program will train rabbis to work with and in Jewish federations, an expertise which is certain to become increasingly important as the federation world expands its work with synagogue life in its effort to reach more Jews.

The college will also soon be launching a center for Jewish ethics, which will consider and produce materials to help others weigh the Jewish perspective on ethical issues.

The intimate feel of the whole conference was that of a family reunion.

Saturday night’s dinner and entertainment was emceed by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, who has the looks and the energy of a Jewish Bill Murray.

He joked about the fact that there is so much confusion about what Reconstructionism is.

"We are the only movement that begins a national conference with three hours of discussion about explaining who we are.

"And did you hear what the anti-Semites did to the Reconstructionist Jew? They burned a question mark on his lawn."

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