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For Reconstructionists, Growth Proves to Be a Two-edged Sword

November 20, 2006
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When Dorshei Tzedek, a small Reconstructionist congregation in West Newton, Mass., began an explosive growth spurt in 1997, some of its members were concerned. The addition of more than 100 families had nearly tripled the congregation’s size in just a few years, and some worried that it was losing its intimate character.

“It was an anxiety-ridden issue for a long time, but that’s partly because we didn’t understand it,” said Nancy Gertz, whose two-year term as president ended in July. “There were people who felt if we get any bigger, they’re going to be scared to lose the sense of familiarity they have with everybody in the congregation, lose a sense of intimate connection with the rabbi, their peers.”

The establishment of a growth committee and a strategic planning effort have put some of those fears to rest, and led to a more thoughtful growth process, Gertz said.

While some synagogues would kill for that kind of growth spurt, Reconstructionists, who prize a highly participatory form of worship and whose congregations tend to be smaller than those of other movements, see growth as something to be carefully managed so as not to compromise what’s essential to the movement.

“We’re thinking about growth in lots of different ways,” said Carl Sheingold, executive vice president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the movement’s congregational arm.

Sheingold said the movement’s development is important and there’s greater recognition now of the need to get larger, but not at the expense of what he calls a “critical feature” of Reconstructionism: the willingness to experiment and serve as a kind of laboratory for American Jewish life.

“There may be limits to growth we want to think about,” Sheingold said. It’s “not just a question of running headlong into numbers, but at the same time wanting to grow the movement.”

Studies show that roughly 2 percent of American Jews identify as Reconstructionist, but Reconstructionist federation officials say the number of affiliated households is growing by 6 percent to 10 percent a year.

Currently, 109 congregations affiliate with the federation and a growing number are looking to erect buildings, hire full-time rabbis and become more established, full-service synagogues.

That growth poses a challenge to a movement with a high percentage of smaller congregations and that sees highly participatory services and democratic decision-making as central values. Many Reconstructionist communities spun off from more established synagogues, and some fear a loss of intensive commitment and sense of purpose as new members join a core group of founders.

At Bet Am Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in White Plains, N.Y., members considered limiting new members when the synagogue’s size threatened to become unwieldy, but instead decided to cap the number of bar mitzvahs at 36 a year as a way to control expansion without actually turning anyone away.

“We were worried if we had a bar mitzvah every week, that eventually we’d have two every week, and then all we’d be doing was bar mitzvahs and there would no longer be an identifiable central prayer experience for the congregation,” Rabbi Lester Bronstein said.

Even so, Bronstein’s congregation has grown significantly, from 185 families when he arrived in 1989 to 420 today. That number is considered large for the Reconstructionist movement, but it pales next to Congregation Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, Calif. — which, with roughly 1,000 households, is the largest Reconstructionist synagogue in the world.

Like Bet Am Shalom, K.I., as it’s known, also experienced a period of rapid expansion, doubling its membership since it built a larger facility in 1997.

That growth prompted calls to limit new members, though the synagogue rejected it in favor of other strategies — including what its rabbi, Steven Carr Reuben, calls “constant vigilance” to small groups: creating opportunities for individuals to gather in smaller subcommunities around issues of common interest.

“Our key to success is to create communities within communities,” Carr Reuben said. “We recognize the synagogue isn’t just one community. Those communities function on their own level and in their own way.”

Still, Reconstructionists are hardly growth-averse. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the movement’s seminary, is more than halfway through its first development campaign. The $50 million fund-raising drive may be small by the standards of the other denominations, but it’s a milestone for a movement that represents a tiny fraction of American Jewry.

At its biennial convention in Philadelphia last week, the movement introduced a range of new fund-raising instruments, including a soon-to-be-launched Web site aimed at educating congregations about opportunities for planned giving.

The federation also hired its first development director, Barry Nove, a further sign of the professionalization of its fund-raising operations.

“The movement is maturing,” said Nove, who joined the federation three months ago. “If we don’t plant seeds now, there won’t be trees later.”

Some of the movement’s younger congregations are aggressively pursuing participants. Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann is unique in the movement for marketing her congregation, Kol Tzedek, to young unaffiliated Jews in West Philadelphia.

But more common are the challenges posed by the movement’s passage to a more advanced stage of life. Many at the convention spoke of Reconstructionism’s “maturation” and its evolution from a school of thought spun off of Conservative Judaism by Mordecai Kaplan to a full-fledged movement, with a network of synagogues, a youth group and, as of last year, a summer camp.

To Sheingold, that maturation is evident at least as much in the attitudes of Reconstructionists as in the movement’s structural development.

“The origins of the movement had a lot to do with a desire for a form of religious life in Judaism that was compatible with rationality, with scientific progress,” Sheingold said. “In the last 10 to 15 years there have emerged approaches within Reconstructionism that are more tuned in to what has been called the spiritual aspect of life. You really become mature when you can find ways to reconcile those things and you’re not debating whether it’s about the mind and the heart, but you’re finding ways for it to be both.”

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