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Reconstructionists Tapping One of Their Own to Head Seminary

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The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has, for the first time, hired one of its own graduates as president.

The appointment of Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, 40, to head the Reconstructionist movement’s seminary is seen by many as a sign of maturation of North America’s smallest and youngest Jewish stream.

A congregational rabbi, Ehrenkrantz has been a national leader in the movement, serving as immediate past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

However, unlike many seminary presidents — particularly the current heads of the Conservative, Reform and modern Orthodox seminaries — Ehrenkrantz is not an academic.

As the RRC’s fifth president, Ehrenkrantz — who is to start this summer — assumes the helm at a time of transition in the Reconstructionist movement, which is headquartered in suburban Philadelphia.

The movement’s congregational arm, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, is currently looking for a new executive vice president — the top post has been vacant since November with the departure of Mark Seal and a replacement is not expected to start until the fall.

Reconstructionism, which views Judaism as an “evolving civilization,” was founded in the 1930s by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who was Conservative.

It has grown dramatically in the past 15 years, with 100 congregations now, compared with 52 in 1986.

In addition, the movement has recently produced its own prayer books, launched a summer camp and is in the process of creating a youth group.

The college has also grown, increasing its entering rabbinic student class from 10 to 18 and adding new academic programs.

The first movement to have Bat Mitzvahs and approve rabbinic officiation at same-sex commitment ceremonies, Reconstructionists have long been seen as quirky, politically progressive and on the cutting edge.

But they have also embraced many traditional rituals that the liberal Reform movement — until recently — had rejected.

However, as the Reform movement — which is America’s largest stream of Judaism — has become more open to tradition and has sought to create more intimate, participatory worship experiences, some see fewer practical distinctions between Reform and Reconstructionism.

Ehrenkrantz, who starts this summer, will replace Rabbi David Teutsch, who has led the college since 1993.

Despite his lack of academic experience, officials within the movement say that Ehrenkrantz’s pulpit experience will be just as valuable for the college — whose primary function is training rabbis — as would scholarly credentials.

Ehrenkrantz has served as a congregational rabbi at Montclair, N.J.’s Bnai Keshet — where he is known as “Rabbi Dan” — for 13 years.

Under Ehrenkrantz’s leadership, Bnai Keshet, which has approximately 200 membership units, pioneered a family education program replicated at more than 20 other congregations.

He also oversaw a successful $2 million capital campaign there.

Ehrenkrantz brings “a strong representation of the day to day life of rabbis working in the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

Hirsh described Ehrenkrantz as “an interesting combination of a very precise thinker and serious learner — he takes ongoing learning seriously.”

Ehrenkrantz has “been practicing in the field, which is a big plus,” said Marilyn Price, an RRC board member who sat on the search committee.

Not being a scholar “would be a major issue if weren’t someone of substantial intellect, but Rabbi Ehrenkrantz has shown himself to be a person who is of substance, thoughtful and deeply rooted in the sources of our tradition,” Teutsch said.

Ehrenkrantz acknowledges his limited academic credentials.

“I’m lucky to come into an academic institution filled with talented, capable academic professionals,” he said. “Because I don’t bring academic credentials, I need to make sure the academic credentials elsewhere are maintained at highest levels.”

“The choice of a rabbi who has had over a decade of experience in the congregational rabbinate is a good and courageous choice for an academic institution that is devoted to the training of rabbis,” he said.

As president, Ehrenkrantz said he expects to see the movement and college continue to expand, and hopes to implement a center for Jewish education and center for “Jewish creativity in the arts.”

“Much of the way into Jewish spiritual life can be achieved through a variety of arts,” Ehrenkrantz said.

He said he would also like to see the college focus more attention on Israel-Diaspora relations — particularly the different ways Jewish identities are constructed in Israel and North America — as well as social action.

The college, which trains rabbis and cantors and has a small masters and doctorate program, already has an ethics center and center for gender studies.

Ehrenkrantz grew up in Berkeley, Calif., and the Westchester County suburbs of New York. Although his family belonged primarily to Conservative synagogues, its religious outlook was closer to Reconstructionism, he said.

He also was active in the Habonim Dror Zionist youth movement.

He is married, with two children, ages 8 and 10.

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