Is Reconstructionism going mainstream?


PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 7 (JTA) – Gathered from around the country, the group noshed on s’mores – marshmallows and chocolate on graham crackers – and bug juice, then sang Hebrew songs, led by a guitar-playing man dressed in shorts and a bright yellow T-shirt.

The revelers were not young campers, but rabbis and synagogue lay leaders. And they were not sitting around a campfire for the opening plenum of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation’s biennial convention, but a staid Philadelphia hotel conference hall.

Reconstructionism – which interprets Judaism as an “evolving civilization” – has long been known as American Judaism’s youngest, smallest and quirkiest movement.

But with many of its practices – such as making services more participatory and inclusive – now being adopted by established Conservative and Reform synagogues hungry for “renewal” and “transformation,” Reconstructionism is going more mainstream.

At the same time, the 100-congregation movement, which has 20,000 member families, is adding the infrastructure of the more established streams:

• Increasingly, Reconstructionist congregations – once predominantly lay-led havurot, or participatory groups, that met in people’s homes or in borrowed space – are hiring rabbis and moving into their own buildings;

• The first Reconstructionist summer camp is scheduled to open in 2002 somewhere on the East Coast. The new camp, which leaders hope will spawn a whole network, was the impetus for the s’mores and bug juice convention opening;

• Reconstructionist teens from around the country will gather in Florida in January to launch the movement’s first youth group;

• In response to growing demand for rabbis, the movement’s seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in suburban Philadelphia, recently increased the size of its incoming rabbinic classes from 10 to 18, while adding a cantorial program and masters in Judaic studies. This month it completed construction of a new library and classrooms; and

• The movement now offers its own complete set of prayerbooks, including a high holiday Machzor published in 1999 and a Passover Haggadah released last spring.

The number of Reconstructionist congregations has jumped from 90 in 1996 and 52 in 1986.

The first Reconstructionist synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, was founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the early 1920s. Kaplan was the first to introduce the Bat Mitzvah and began counting women in a minyan in the late 1920s.

Reconstructionism, which regards Jewish law as something to inform policy rather than to dictate it, was the first movement to ordain openly gay and lesbian Jews and to recognize patrilineal descent, the idea that the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother can be considered Jewish.

Even as they become more institutionalized, Reconstructionist congregations are doing it in a distinctive way, putting their own left-leaning marks on programs such as fund raising and summer camps.

In a meeting at the biennial, before taking on such issues such as what level of kashrut to observe or the role of Hebrew, camp committee members talked about the need to welcome children from lesbian and multiracial Jewish families.

As a growing number of congregations are taking on major expenses like buildings and staff, the movement has responded with a series of workshops on fund raising.

Called “The Torah of Money,” the workshops urge congregations to explore traditional Jewish texts on money, while also encouraging them to try creative fund-raising approaches that allow all members, not just the major donors, to feel ownership in the synagogue.

Many congregants came to Reconstructionism because they were disenchanted with the synagogues they grew up with, finding them too focused on material trappings or giving too much clout – whether ubiquitous plaques or aliyot, blessings before the Torah – to the wealthiest members.

“Our movement has a strong anti-institutional orientation,” Mark Seal, the JRF’s executive vice president, said in a recent issue of the movement’s newsletter.

“There’s a sense of, ŒHow can we even think about intensive fund raising when one of the central motivating factors that led to the creation of our community was a rejection of the culture of fund raising within the broader Jewish community?’ “

Reconstructionist congregations are taking a range of approaches, but most are making 100 percent participation, rather than total dollars raised, the major goal.

• At Havurah Shalom, in Portland, Ore., the capital campaign was completely anonymous.

“We just asked people how much do you think you can give, and we got enough,” said Layton Borkan, a synagogue member who is also leading a new movement-wide social justice initiative. The congregation, which in its founding days held services in a local park, raised $1.1 million from predominantly middle class congregants.

• As its building goes up, Adat Shalom, in Rockville, Md., is debating whether to limit its dealings only to contractors who pay a “living wage.”

• In revamping their flat dues policy, members of Dorshei Tzedek in Newton, Mass., spent over a year discussing Jewish texts on money and class issues. In the end, they opted for a sliding scale approach, but one in which everyone pays a minimum of $100.

“Dealing with money issues is one of the most taboo topics,” Rabbi Toba Spitzer said, adding that all the members felt strongly about “not having people have to humiliate themselves by asking for an abatement.”

The anti-hierarchical approach to fund raising has its difficulties.

“There were times it would’ve been easier just to put up plaques,” said Linda Jum, a member of B’nai Keshet in Montclair, N.J., and a JRF board member.

Her synagogue did not differentiate between different levels of gifts during its fund-raising campaign. It has a wall honoring all donors and is putting labels honoring specific contributors only on books.

Other Reconstructionist congregations are avoiding the hassles and capital campaigns that buildings require, by opting to continue renting or borrowing space from other institutions.

Some say they prefer the interaction with other groups.

David Zinner, a member of Columbia Jewish Congregation in Columbia, Md., said his fellow congregants prefer their current home in an interfaith center to having their own building.

“A lot of synagogues see it as a major triumph when they get their own building,” he said. “For us it might be a failure.”

Not all the fund raising is alternative, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by critics within the movement.

Allan Mendels, a JRF board member from Long Island, expressed concern at the convention that the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College holds an annual $500-per-plate fund raising dinner that not all members can afford.

Rabbi David Teutsch, the college’s president, said the dinner is only one of many Reconstructionist fund-raising efforts and that the college also sponsors less expensive events.

“There have to be lots of different modes of fund raising – some aimed at having everyone participate in the effort, which is something ideologically important to us, and some that reach out to those capable of making major gifts,” he said.

In the most recent issue of the movement newsletter, Philip Weinreich of Irvine, Calif., criticized his congregation for building an edifice he deems “most expensive” and said that “a gradual chill filled the air as the budget grew and along came a stream of requests for money.”

“Now that the movement has become like the other Jewish branches, our search will have to continue to find a non-materialistic truly egalitarian movement where money is not the key,” he wrote.

But most Reconstructionist Jews at the convention had not lost their enthusiasm for the movement.

“I think we’re finding our way to be an institution that will not forget its grass-roots beginnings,” B’nai Keshet’s Jum said. “The more mainstream we become the better off for us.

“I believe there are many Reconstructionists out there,” she said. “They just haven’t realized it.”

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