Hoping to engage Jews "where they are," the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote has adopted an ambitious -- and expensive -- plan to boost its presence in cyberspace.
Also, as part of the seminary's effort to, if not reformulate its mission, at least re-examine how it fulfills a myriad of roles, the 42-year-old institution has entered into talks with the Jenkintown-based Jewish Reconstructionist Federation about the possibility of merging into a unified organization.
The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which is actually based at the college and has roughly 300 members,has been involved in those talks but is expected to remain a separate organization. > Some of the reasons behind the potential merger talks include a desire to cut costs, increase efficiency and come up with a new way to organize the movement as it confronts modern challenges.
"This is us being true to our mission," said Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, RRC's current president, referring to both the Web initiative and merger possibilities. "Our mission is to educate leaders, advance scholarship and create resources for contemporary Jewish life."
Other changes are afoot at 1299 Church Road, a converted former Curtis mansion that the school has occupied since 1982. In the past few months, the institution has hired Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, the former director of the JRF, to direct a new social-justice program that, according to RRC's Web site, will offer interested students the opportunity "to become uniquely effective, spiritually strong leaders in the drive toward social justice and environmental sustainability."
RRC has eliminated the position of dean of students, held by Rabbi Gail Glicksman. In place of that post, it added two new positions. One is called the director of student life, which has been filled by Rabbi Nathan Martin, a 2006 RRC graduate. The other is assistant vice president for enrollment and rabbinic formation.
In that job, Rabbi Amber Powers will oversee the development of rabbis outside of the classroom, and ensure that they learn to respond like rabbis -- something that can't necessarily be taught by studying classical Jewish sources, according to Ehrenkrantz, 49, who took over as the college's president in 2002.
All of these moves come as RRC itself -- which serves about 80 students and had a 2010 graduating class of 11 -- has been facing certain fiscal woes.
Grappling With a Lack of Interest
The school's projected 2011 deficit tops $450,000 and accounts for about 8 percent of its $5 million budget.
In an interview at his office, Ehrenkrantz said it wasn't the first time in the school's history that the board has approved a budget deficit. But in the past, the school has managed to raise enough dollars by year's end to make up the difference, so the institution hasn't accrued any debt.
The school, as well as the other branches of Reconstructionism, is also contending with a general waning of interest among American Jews in specific religious movements and denominational labels.
While these issues are far from unique to the Reconstructionist movement, the brainchild of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and his disciples happens to be far smaller and less well-funded than other non-Orthodox streams.
But its leaders says that its lack of size -- about 3 percent of the Philadelphia Jewish population identify as Reconstructionist, according to the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia" -- will allow it to react to the times in a far more nimble fashion than perhaps the other much larger movements.
On June 6, the board unanimously approved Ehrenkrantz's plans for bolstering the school's Web presence.
"We need to look to other avenues besides Reconstructionist synagogues to grow a constituency base that will be invested in our work," Ehrenkrantz wrote in a May 24 memo to Reconstructionist leaders about the digital initiative. "Thanks to the advances in social networking, the Web provides a promising method to grow that constituency base."
As to what the digital plan actually entails, Ehrenkrantz said that he couldn't yet go into the details, other than that it will focus on "community engagement."
In recent years, there's been talk in certain circles about the potential of online congregations and online davening, and how that could add to Judaism's appeal.
But Ehrenkrantz mentioned that wasn't exactly what he had in mind.
To implement the digital program, the college has hired Blue State Digital, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that's also done work for President Barack Obama's campaign, as well as for the Jewish Federations of North America.
According to Bob Goldfarb, a critic of the plan who writes widely on the influential site www.ejewishphilanthropy.com , the digital initiative is budgeted at $500,000 per year.
Ehrenkrantz, however, said that he could not provide a dollar figure right now, since the plan is still in the process of being worked out.
Goldfarb, who is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, questioned in a June 1 posting as to why the RRC board was willing to allocate so much money to a digital strategy as it faces such financial uncertainty.
"If the administration is hoping to revitalize its mission and its finances simply by spending half-a-million dollars a year on social media in unspecified ways, that proposal calls for the closest scrutiny," he wrote.
Goldfarb continued, saying that "with the RRC budget for the next year purportedly projecting a deficit almost as large as the expenditure on the digital initiative, there is no apparent way to maintain it without large cuts elsewhere."
'All Things Are Possible'
In the interview, Ehrenkrantz acknowledged that "we do not think that we are going to recoup what we invest. The primary purpose is community engagement."
But in the planning stage, he said, all things are possible.
"When we move out of the planning stage, we'll be a little more focused," added the rabbi.
He also denied that the Web initiative would result in any cuts to existing programs or academics.
Rabbi Avi Winokur, a member of RRC's board of governors and religious leader of Society Hill Synagogue, also defended the board's decision.
"We really don't have a choice in this climate but to go online and start taking cyberspace much more seriously -- or we will be left behind," declared Winokur. "The Reconstructionist movement has always seen itself as a movement that pushes the envelope and tries to push the Jewish community forward."
Leaders at the RRA and the JRF confirmed high-level talks are in the works about creating one organization, although again, they declined to go into details.
Ostensibly, such an organization would be involved in training rabbis and building congregational life, in addition to functioning as a resource for the larger Jewish world.
Carl Sheingold, executive director of JRF, acknowledged that the desire to cut costs is one factor behind the talks.
But another is to have the Reconstructionist movement -- for the most part, envisioned as being a small denomination with outsized influence -- serve as an example for how denominations can reorganize themselves to confront the new realities of the 21st century.
Sheingold said that "there is absolutely no question that there are broad challenges to synagogues and the denominational movements."
Rabbi Sid Schwartz -- who formerly edited the school's journal, and who served as a pulpit rabbi in the Philadelphia area before founding his own Washington, D.C.-based organization called PANIM -- said that many in the movement have been calling for such a reorganization.
"From where I sit, it makes sense. The economic environment recommends consolidation," said Schwartz. "You've got to be leaner and meaner, and make your product more attractive in the marketplace."