Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College since 2002, has overseen the merger of his academic institution with the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation to create a single organization. The fifth president in the school’s history has presided over a $50 million fundraising campaign and been named to the Newsweek list of the most influential American rabbis multiple times: In 2012, he came in at No. 15.
He has also spearheaded an effort to overhaul the way in which Reconstructionist synagogues pay dues to affiliate with the national movement. He has even floated the idea of changing the name of the denomination.
Ehrenkrantz recently spoke with the Jewish Exponent about how he envisions the future of denominational and synagogue life. This is an edited version of the conversation.
Big picture, is your goal still to grow Reconstructionism?
I didn’t know that was ever announced as a goal. It seems to me that the goal is to have a meaningful influence on Jewish life and on the life of the human community and beyond. If that is the goal, there are a variety of ways we have achieved it and some ways have fallen short. We have always been a small movement in terms of numbers. But we have had, I believe, an impact that far outpaces our numbers. As a person heading up an institution of the Reconstructionist movement, I would love it if we were larger because, if we were larger, we would have greater resources, and I believe that if we had greater resources, we could have even greater impact.
What are some of the ways Reconstructionism has affected the larger Jewish scene?
I think that the most profound ways are almost invisible at this point. Things like the way that people understand what Judaism is — things like peoplehood. The word ‘peoplehood’ was coined by the early followers of Mordecai Kaplan. Those kinds of concepts are now understood and accepted in the Jewish community.
This is a long-running joke: The Reconstructionist movement comes up with the innovation or the idea and shows that it’s safe, then the Reform movement says that we are the first big movement to do it. And the Conservative movement is able to say we are the last movement to do it and then Orthodoxy says we don’t do it at all — then they do, but in their own way. Take the example of Bat Mitzvah: If you look at the Orthodox community, there are all kinds of things that are going on that I would say are quasi-Bat Mitzvah.
Could you explain the change in dues structures?
Congregations now have the option of paying pretty much what they wish. There is a minimum of 1/1000th of their total budget. What we believe is true is that, in fact, we are offering really good value and that congregations will recognize that coming in at a higher level is, in fact, advantageous to them — but they get to choose.
For many congregations in the Reconstructionist movement, their motivation for paying dues is not simply about a cost-benefit analysis. They want there to be a movement, they want there to be something larger. They want other congregations to receive benefits that their congregation might not have an immediate need for.
What prompted this experiment?
There are a huge number of things that prompted this experiment. The first is a recognition that dues as a major source of revenue has been decreasing. We have seen that in the Reconstructionist movement and I believe we have seen that for the Reform movement and the Conservative movement as well. We are asking ourselves what revenue streams do we want to rely on for the future and how can we grow those revenue streams?
I think the better revenue streams to rely on are going to be donations from people who appreciate and like what you do. It’s going to be individual donors.
This is going to take some time for the congregations to get used to and for us to learn how to do it as well. Whereas in the past, a congregation would get a bill that they needed to pay in order to affiliate, and the movement would call them up and say, ‘Have you paid your bill?’ And they might say, ‘We aren’t able to pay the full amount of our bill this year.’ And then we would have a conversation coming up with the appropriate amount that the congregation could pay and that the central organization was willing to live with.
Now, we say, ‘You pay the dues that feel right to you.’ Then we say, ‘You have come in at the invest level. You are entitled to some consulting services from us. We would love to be able to provide those consulting services to you this year. What are the challenges that your congregation is facing at the moment and how might we best help you address them?’ And that is a very different kind of conversation than, ‘Have you paid you dues yet?’ That changes the relationship and, to me, it is all about relationships.
Is it too early to evaluate how this experiment has worked?
I’m quite certain we will have a reduction in dues revenue from the prior year. Whether we will hit what we anticipated for this year or not, that I don’t know. Even then, I’m not sure how significant that number is. We were trying to take a guess.
What has been significant is to see how many congregations really wanted to stay at the higher level of dues. Some because they were excited about the higher level of services that came with that, but many because they liked the direction of the movement and they wanted to support it.
Is the sky really falling on synagogues and on movements?
I have heard a lot of that. The advantage of living within the Reconstructionist fold is that change is to be expected. Rather than the attitude of ‘The sky is falling,’ the attitude is, ‘Now that the sky is falling, what is the best response we can bring?’
There is no expectation that whatever we see today as Jewish life is going to look the exact same way in 50 years — or even five years. What we hope is that there continues to be Jewish life, that it continues to provide meaning for Jews and that it continues to be a force in the world at large for good and for positive change. As long as it is doing that, we assume that it is going to find ways to survive. Maybe not in ways that we have seen. Synagogues are challenged institutions and we are going to see fewer of them. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just part of life.