Change And Continuity In Reconstructionist Movement


As the Reconstructionist movement is considering ordaining intermarried students for the first time at its rabbinical school, its rabbinical association has a new leader. Rabbi Nina Mandel, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in Sunbury, Pa., was announced last week as the new president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. The rabbi, who was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2003, also has a master’s degree in anthropology from New York University and teaches classes in Jewish philosophy and culture, film and women’s studies at Susquehanna University.

The Jewish Week interviewed Rabbi Mandel by email. This is an edited transcript.

Q: You are becoming president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association at a crucial time — when the school in considering accepting rabbis who are intermarried. Will this issue monopolize your time, or the Reconstructionist movement, for the near future?

A: The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) is an international community of practice. We are some 350 affiliated members worldwide. It is the charge of the RRA to help our members navigate the many intricacies of their rabbinates whether in congregations, on campuses, as chaplains, or as agents of social change. What will monopolize my time, as president of the RRA board, is making sure we have the resources and support to address all of the current issues we face.

Certainly one of these issues is intermarriage, but others include nurturing authentic Jewish experience regardless of family or marital status, sustaining meaningful connections to Israel, supporting non-affiliated Jewish community members in creating substantive spiritual and ritual connections, bringing the lens of Jewish ethics to the work of social justice, and helping rabbis establish relevant and rewarding careers both on and off the bima.

You wrote a decade ago, in The Reconstructionist, that your grandmother, “vehemently and articulately opposed to the concept of intermarriage,” thought it “would lead to the abandonment not just of Judaism, but an abandonment of the Jewish people.” What would she think of the step your movement is considering?

Reconstructionist rabbis are, and will always be, engaged and committed Jews who encourage and nurture people to draw from the strength and wisdom of Jewish tradition to enhance their lives; this with the understanding that the pathways to Jewish life are more complex than our ancestors, even my grandmother, z’l, ever could have imagined.

Reconstructionism has remained the lesser-known “fourth branch” of Judaism in the eyes of many American Jews, seemingly eclipsed by the Jewish Renewal movement in recent years. How do you establish the movement’s identity as distinct part of the Jewish community?

Innovate responses to change, rooted in meaningful connections to ancient Jewish and contemporary thought, have been the hallmark of the movement since its inception. Though sometimes perceived as the “lesser-known” branch of Judaism, some of the earliest contributions from Reconstructionist innovators have become standard in Jewish communities today — not just the practice of celebrating a bat mitzvah, but the concept of peoplehood itself.

Why did you choose Reconstructionism as the venue for your own rabbinate?

I chose the Reconstructionist movement as my rabbinical home because of its historic emphasis on Jewish peoplehood and the evolving nature of Jewish thought and practice.