About a year ago at a board meeting, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College President Deborah Waxman said she was hoping the Reconstructing Judaism convention could garner 500 attendees.
“They said, ‘Oh, don’t jinx us!’” Waxman recalled.
Early bird registration for the Reconstructing Judaism convention opened early this past summer, and not too long after, the numbers of people signing up floored Lani Moss, vice chair of the organizing committee and past president of Congregation Or Hadash in Fort Washington.
“Well before the end of the summer, we were like, ‘Oh my goodness, look what’s going on here,’” Moss said.
They had anticipated 300 attendees, but the numbers surpassed their expectations. In the end, 700 people from Reconstructionist communities across the world signed up to attend. The convention’s organizers needed to book rooms in two additional hotels, which was not an easy task for a convention taking place the same weekend as the Philadelphia Marathon. They also upped the number of sessions and are now essentially taking all the venue space of the DoubleTree by Hilton.
The Reconstructing Judaism convention, which will be held from Nov. 15 to 18, is the movement’s first convention since 2010. It also overlaps with the 50th anniversary of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Moss said she hopes convention participants make connections with others from different communities.
“There’s pent-up need and desire to have this kind of gathering because it hasn’t happened in quite a while,” she said. “It’s the need for connection with others, the need to feel part of a community. All these people, most of them, are members of individual communities, but when you all come together, it becomes a community of communities. That’s pretty powerful.”
The convention will overlap with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association’s biennial conference. The organization’s Executive Director Rabbi Elyse Wechterman said they had arranged this year’s conference to take advantage of the Reconstructing Judaism convention. The conference will take place in Philadelphia on Nov. 14 and 15.
“Every conference is unique,” Wechterman said. “We always try to combine learning with connections and with having a good time. I’m very excited that, as part of our conference, we’re going out to Northern Liberties to a bowling alley to celebrate and be together and have a good time, which after the stresses of the High Holidays and, of course, the added stress of caring for our congregations — which are still reeling from the attack in Pittsburgh — the opportunity to just be together and enjoy each other’s company is going to be really valuable.”
Wechterman said the conference will be the association’s biggest, with 130 expected attendees. Each conference has been bigger than the last, Wechterman said, and she believes the overlap with the Reconstructing Judaism convention added to the attendance.
“Many rabbis are coming with members of their congregation to the larger convention,” Wechterman said. “It’s an opportunity for people to engage in many ways and to bring people along, so there will be some opportunities for rabbis to meet with themselves and then there’s also great opportunity for rabbis to participate in larger congregations with their lay leaders and the people that we interact with every day.”
The Reconstructing Judaism convention includes a litany of plenaries, break-out sessions, field trips, volunteer opportunities and workshops on topics such as crocheting your own kippah, prayer through bluegrass music, racial justice and the rabbinate, and much more.
Waxman highlighted some of the convention events. These include the opening plenary, which will discuss reconstructing Judaism in the 21st century; a plenary the morning of Nov. 16 on food justice; and a Friday afternoon service dedicated to memorializing victims of hate.
This last program was originally planned for Blaze Bernstein, a member of a Reconstructionist synagogue in California and a student at the University of Pennsylvania who was murdered in California in what authorities believe was a homophobic hate crime. After the shooting in Pittsburgh, the service will also honor Jerry Rabinowitz, co-president of Dor Hadash, which met at Tree of Life synagogue.
On Nov. 17, the convention will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which will include a concert with Nefesh Mountain, a band which combines bluegrass and old-time music “with Jewish heritage and tradition.”
The convention will also hold a Reconstructing Shark Tank event on Nov. 18, where selected participants will present their entrepreneurial ideas for Jewish communal life. Three finalists, selected by the convention audience, will receive grants.
The movement hasn’t held a convention since before the merger of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, the latter of which sponsored the last convention in 2010. Waxman said they felt it was time to hold a convention once again and began planning two years ago.
“It’s about maturity, coming together for maturity,” Waxman said. “We felt like we were really ready to do it and do it well.”
Waxman sees this convention as something that will once again become a regular part of the Reconstructionist movement, though they’re not sure yet how often they will hold the convention.
This convention is being held in Philadelphia because it is the first in a while and its organizers wanted to take advantage of the movement’s resources here, such as the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the different Reconstructionist congregations in the area. Future conventions, Waxman said, will be held in different cities.
“We’re back in the convention business,” Waxman said.
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