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Recon Deems 'Community' a Key Issue

November 16, 2006
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Rabbi Joshua Waxman

At the 41st annual Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Convention, Dr. Carl A. Sheingold, executive vice president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, noted the classic tenet of this particular branch of faith: "To see Judaism as an evolving religious institution."

"When we gather together," continued Sheingold, "there is a chance to compare notes on that evolution."

More than 400 people from throughout the United States and Canada gathered last week at the Hyatt Regency in Philadelphia to share ideas on the movement and its growth.

Members come together for an official convention every two years, with every third one held in Philadelphia, the home of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. "To some extent, all conventions are reunions," said Sheingold; indeed, one of the big issues that was explored this year was the larger sense of community."

According to leaders, achieveing communal balance is a delicate enterprise for the least familiar of the four streams of Judaism: Congregations try to instill intimacy, yet when a membership grows too large, that cohesion can be lost.

"The idea is to maintain community in each congregation and each region, and in the national movement," said Robert Barkin, the newly elected president of the JRF, adding that the movement works hard "to maintain that community feeling, no matter what our size is."

Barkin also said that Reconstructionist Judaism has gained a strong foundation in the past few years, with a stated goal of being able to "shed the image of the movement as the best-kept secret in the Jewish community."

The Evolution of a Movement

In 2006, the movement boasts 109 congregations throughout North America. When Reconstructionism started out in 1935, there were no congregations to speak of -- it was simply the beginning of the transition of Mordecai Kaplan's school of thought into a movement of its own. By the 1960s, the growth was rapid, and in 1968, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was founded in Wyncote to train new rabbis.

The movement has three facets: a synagogue arm (the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation), a rabbinical college, and a rabbinical association (the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association).

The convention's main theme centered on "Our Evolving Jewish Journey: Peoplehood and the Quest for Spiritual Community," with an emphasis on the movement's relationship with Israel, especially in light of this summer's war with Hezbollah. While there are no official Reconstructionist congregations in Israel, smaller chavurot there have often tapped into similar pluralistic and progressive ideas that remain hallmarks of the movement.

Workshops at the convention ran the gamut, from "Does Size Matter? The Challenge and Opportunity of Congregational Growth" and "They've Walked Through Your Doors -- Now What?" to "Using the Web as a Tool for Community Building" and "Has Anyone Ever Told You That You Would Make a Great Rabbi?"

Discussions focused on the fact that Reconstructionism was conceived as a continually evolving movement, and that its history is really quite new -- in fact, less than a century old.

As Barkin stated, "we are really a very bottom-up religion."

He went on to say that congregations often make decisions at the local level, and that there's no central religious authority. He also noted the importance of social-justice work and adult education -- hands-on mechanisms to grasp the notions of their religion better.

The movement has also described itself as the most progressive stream of Judaism, where, for instance, female rabbis, gays and lesbians, singles and interfaith families have almost always found a home.

Indeed, diversity is a key tenet of the Reconstructionist philosophy, according to Rabbi Joshua Waxman of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington.

"The more opinions you bring to bear," he said, "the closer you're going to get to truth as we can in this world."

Some workshops focused on the nuts and bolts of congregational development, while others tackled social issues. At "Social Justice and the Soul of the Community," presenters discussed congregation-based community organizing as a way to tackle such work.

For example, Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in West Newton, Mass., discussed a program in which synagogue members relayed everyday experiences that weren't necessarily part of their normal worship experience.

"My congregation was strengthened by sharing stories that middle-class people aren't supposed to tell," she said. The members of the congregation saw that their problems -- financial, spiritual, personal -- were often felt by others. The idea of not being alone in the wilderness was brought to light in a group setting.

At Rabbi Elliot Tepperman's congregation -- B'nai Keshet in Montclair, N.J. -- membership boomed from 180 individual congregants to a brand-new accounting measure of 250 families. The rabbi was convinced that his congregation needed to be involved in "relational organizing" -- getting involved with other local community groups.

In that vein, he said he started giving firebrand sermons on how to make a difference and fight social problems in the world, though he said that he didn't make much headway at first.

He was surprised to find out later, in one-on-one conversations, members opened up about issues of importance. For many, health care was a major concern; Israel was also on the agenda.

What was shown, said Tepperman, was that social issues were especially relevant to this group.

"When you do this work, you have the opportunity, once in a while, to win," he said.

As an example, he noted that the congregation's efforts helped pass a city ordinance to make one out of every seven new homes built in the town -- a suburb of New York known to attract the wealthy -- officially deemed affordable housing.

Like Tepperman, Spitzer acknowledged that she, too, made progress with the personal approach in her small program on story-sharing and relating -- the whole idea of drawing the community in, which, theoretically, was what the conference was all about.

"A problem is vast, undefinable and unwinnable," she said. "But an issue is winnable."

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