Cutting Edge Judaism: A Dialogue | Reconstructing Judaism

Cutting Edge Judaism: A Dialogue

Introduction

Reconstructionist Judaism originated as a cutting edge call to change and innovation in the Jewish community. Our fundamental commitment to adaptation remains central to our mission. In August 2015, we opened a dialogue on that legacy of engaging with, and sometimes pushing, established boundaries. What opportunities and challenges arise from being on the cutting edge? How has that approach shaped the Reconstructionist and broader Jewish communities, as the 21st century unfolds before us?

Our conversation began with three articles from esteemed Reconstructionist rabbis with diverse experiences in the Jewish community…

  • Rabbi Deborah Waxman reviewed the movement’s tradition of challenge to the Jewish status quo and weighs how best to carry this tradition forward.
  • Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben described the vital role of the Reconstructionist spirit of innovation in the growth and vitality of his thousand-household congregational community.
  • Rabbi Josh Bolton reflected on the gifts Reconstructionism offers the Jewish world while asking challenging questions about the future of denominationalism.

Following weeks explored innovation’s connection to:

 Inclusion and Welcoming

Pursuing Justice

Building the Jewish future

Our Dialogue podcast is now live on iTunes and other podcast apps - find out how to listen and subscribe!

Judaism on the Cutting Edge

The only surprise about my decision to become a rabbi was my choice of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Everything about my activities and commitments throughout my life made this seem logical to the people who knew and loved me—except that I had been raised in another movement. For me, however, I was either going to RRC or choosing a different career. I had a strong intuition then, now proven many times over, that within the Reconstructionist movement I would not only receive outstanding rabbinical training, but would be both pushed and supported to be the best person I could be. I also accurately sensed that I would find an extended community of committed people engaged in meaningful conversations who worked continuously to translate them into action.

My own experience embodies the essence of a Reconstructionist approach: fostering individual growth, mediated by committed engagement with Jewish communities both past and present. It reflects the Reconstructionist movement’s commitment to both celebrating the richness of Jewish history and ensuring a vital Jewish future by honing a cutting edge. I write as a trail blazer—the first woman rabbi to head a seminary and movement, an “out” lesbian, partnered with a passionate Jew by choice. I am the grateful beneficiary of the Reconstructionist movement’s commitment to expanding the boundaries of the Jewish community and the nature of its leadership without lowering standards. I am deeply honored by the opportunity to work with movement members as well as our allies in the wider Jewish world to continue this essential, intentional work.

The Reconstructionist movement’s fearless innovation and pragmatic spirit laid the groundwork for significant changes in North American Jewish life. In our 90-year history, Reconstructionist contributions include:

  • Giving modern Jews the expansive vocabulary of “peoplehood” to speak about our Judaism, freeing us from such incomplete descriptions as “religion,” “ethnicity” and “nationality”;
  • Insisting that Jewish belonging connects us with other Jews even when we differ in belief or practice;
  • Integrating democratic practice into religious and communal structures;
  • In a world of radical individualism, promoting with non-Orthodox and post-halakhic modes of communal decision-making.
  • Forging the way for true egalitarianism in Jewish life, from bat mitzvah (1922), counting women inminyan (1950), recognition of patrilineal descent (1968), and cultivating women’s leadership as rabbis (1968);
  • Pioneering non-supernatural religious thinking that helps Jews harmonize science and religion, and contributes to process theology and feminist theology;
  • Penning innovative and influential religious texts, including the first creative haggadah in North America (1942), two sets of siddurim widely emulated by other movements (beginning in 1945 and 1994), and the award-winning website Ritualwell.org;
  • Grappling with the role of Jewish particularism in a globalized world, while championing a Judaism that repudiates chauvinism and pursues universal justice;
  • Welcoming non-Jews who are committed to a Jewish future into our communities;
  • Demonstrating deep commitment to Israel’s Jewish and democratic future while accommodating diverse viewpoints about the best way to bring that future about;
  • Welcoming openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews as members and leaders of our communities; and
  • Exploring a variety of communal structures adapted to promote engaged Jewish living in the new conditions of 21st-century society. 

There is a tremendous need today for a Reconstructionist approach to innovation, and ample space for that approach to continue to inspire and lead the larger Jewish community. The new cutting edge builds on the core commitments that drove those influential Reconstructionist innovations that are now taken for granted.

At the heart of the Reconstructionist concept of Judaism as a “civilization” is an embrace of diversity. Reconstructionism recognizes there are multiple ways to be Jewish, including but not limited to religion. This approach affirms cultural and secular expressions of Jewishness that may never find a comfortable home in a synagogue, even as it seeks to draw from the power and richness of Jewish religion to inform the entirety of Jewish living. As the North American Jewish community increasingly moves toward new and uncharted models of Jewish life, leaders and lay people alike must recognize that Judaism and Jewishness look different for each person and emerge from different sources. We are all, to a certain extent, “Jews by choice” in an open society. When we foster a welcoming Jewish community that is diverse in expression and approach, we increase the possibility that members of the next generation will choose to be Jewish even while we are all intensely exposed to other options.

As both fundamentalism and secularism rise simultaneously in our society, Reconstructionism challenges both extremes. Modelling a progressive religious approach that is inclusive and non-authoritarian, Reconstructionism provides a path that melds our historical commitments to democracy and pluralism with an activist approach to Jewish living. We embrace Jewish particularism. Our commitment to the ideal of minyan, tending to the needs of community beyond individual desire, stands in counterpoint to emerging cultural norms of radical universalism and autonomy. Yet in our abiding commitment to tikkun olam and multifaith work, we are resolutely engaged with the wider world.

Perhaps most importantly, the Reconstructionist approach embodies an intentional optimism amid this period of intense anxiety. Understanding the ongoing evolution of all things, including the Jewish community, we accept that change is inevitable. Rather than despairing about change, we take steps to harness it, both to improve ourselves and to repair a broken world. We foster connections with other peoples out of the belief that we are better Jews when we deepen our shared humanity. We believe that the North American Jewish community—wealthier and enjoying greater freedom than any other Jewish community during any other period of our history—can work together to create a vital Jewish future in the 21st century.

The Reconstructionist movement has consistently been small, in spite of and perhaps even because of our outsized influence. We have insisted that every generation is entitled and even obligated to reconstruct Judaism to ensure its relevance. This stance has felt like a rewarding challenge to some, and a demanding or confusing burden to many others. The Reconstructionist innovations listed above are now widely adopted, but they were initially received as controversial and disruptive. For the organizations sponsoring Reconstructionist thought and programming, being on the “cutting edge” has meant generating new ideas on a shoe-string budget, encountering fierce criticism at their introduction, and receiving inadequate recognition once those ideas become mainstream. Yet our principled and affirmative approach, and the extraordinary people who are drawn to it, demonstrate how Jewish life and the Jewish people can flourish in an open society.

Mordecai Kaplan taught that preserving the past does not itself justify the continuation of the Jewish people and Jewish civilization. To remain vital, Jewish communities must invite and nurture their members living their complex lives, helping them to find Judaism a source of meaning, support and inspiration. Our challenge today: to create and refine the 21st-century Jewish storehouse, articulating Jewish values and then moving to responsive practice. We pursue this work in conversation with Jewish communities and authorities of the past; with present-day Jewish communities in North America, Israel and around the world; with fellow travelers committed to progressive religious and humanist values. We draw deeply from the rich and varied legacies of Jewish teachings and traditions, to appreciate them for their own sake and with an eye toward the future. We hone cutting edges not for the sake of radicalism or novelty, but for the promise of engaging a new generation in the holy work of furthering the millennia-old enterprise of Jewish life.

Sometimes You Have to Close Your Eyes and Leap

As a child I was never much of a risk taker. I was so afraid of the water that I didn’t even learn to swim until I was nearly a teenager. I was also definitely an introvert as a child: while I did have a few good friends, I was never really comfortable with most group activities. Other than music and a passion to learn drums and percussion, my favorite pastimes were either reading by myself (I still follow my regimen of reading at least 50 books every year), or hanging out at my synagogue, where I always felt comfortable, at home, and safe. I even used to go early to religious school on the weekends to hang out with the maintenance staff, helping them polish the silver on the Torahs and clean up the sanctuary from Shabbat services. Go figure.

Thinking back on my career as a rabbi these past 44 years, though, “risk-averse introvert” is not the description that comes to mind. The ‘cutting edge’ nature of Reconstructionism helped inspire my personal rabbinate, and shaped the process of building KI into what has become the largest Reconstructionist congregation in the world.

My early Jewish life was spent in the Reform movement: my family was actively involved in a Reform synagogue in Santa Monica, California; I attended Reform summer camp; and in a pre-emptive “mea culpa,” I have to admit that not only was I ordained in the Reform Movement at HUC-JIR, but my first job as a rabbi was as National Associate Director of Education for the Reform Movement.

The transition from my home state of California to New York to finish rabbinic school was a great culture shock –much more even than the two years I spent living and studying in Jerusalem. After all, California is where people have been running for decades specifically to avoid rules and rigidity, the constant refrains, “But we have always done it this way” and “That has already been tried in the past and so we know it won’t work,” and the myriad ways that people have had their creativity squelched, repressed and discounted. I remember that when one of my classmates started the first week at his new synagogue in New York, someone from his board of directors delivered a half dozen starched white shirts with a note that said simply, “This is how we dress at our synagogue.”

While my early Jewish life was spent in Reform institutions, my parents were card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool, unrepentant Reconstructionists. The Reconstructionist magazine was on our living room coffee table, they studied Mordecai Kaplan’s writings, and we have used the original Reconstructionist Haggadah every Passover of my life to this very day. So I was thrilled when in 1986 I was hired by Kehillat Israel Synagogue in Pacific Palisades, the flagship Reconstructionist congregation of the West Coast, to be their rabbi. Their one condition: that I become part of the RRA and officially “join” the Reconstructionist Movement. Yay! Not only had I studied with Kaplan himself during my first year at HUC in Jerusalem, I was now fully ideologically at home in my professional life as well.

The most intimidating experience of my life was the evening I spent studying with Mordecai Kaplan in Jerusalem in 1971, as part of a small group of Reform and Conservative rabbinic students. He was 92, and larger than life in every way. I will never forget his challenge to the group: he stared at us all for a moment, then thundered, “Who created Judaism? Where did it come from?” We sat in silence because every one of us was afraid to speak and say something stupid in front of such a legend. He shook his head, pointing an intimidating, accusing finger at us all and said simply (but loudly), “Jews. It came from Jews. Created by Jews to help them make sense of the world. Jews were not created for it. Now go and create something yourselves that matters.” I never forgot that moment, and what I took from that remarkable evening with Kaplan was that being a Reconstructionist meant challenging oneself to be on the creative, cutting edge of religious life as a Jew.

I know that many lament how small the Reconstructionist movement continues to be, but for me “small” has always meant light on our feet, quick to evolve and change, and eager to experiment and try new things. In my view, innovation is not just a means to an end; it is valuable for its own sake. For me, Reconstructionism is not merely willing to innovate. Being cutting edge is an important value to be embraced, celebrated and held high with pride.

I am convinced that this spirit of innovation was central to the dramatic growth of KI. During the 29 years I was privileged to serve as one of its rabbis, the congregation grew from around 240 families when I first arrived to a thousand by the time I stepped down as senior rabbi. Achieving this milestone was only possible due to the freedom and encouragement that both my congregation and the Reconstructionist philosophy of Judaism itself gave me to put people and their needs before ideology, “rules” and “the way it’s always been done.” For example, from the moment I was ordained I have been known as a rabbi who officiates at interfaith marriages and gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies (and of course now weddings as well). I firmly believe that this public openness, this attitude of non-judgmental Judaism that is part of the “cutting edge” nature of Reconstructionist Judaism is in large part responsible for our tremendous success and growth throughout these years. I can’t even count the number of times each year that someone has come to talk to me about how they felt rejected by their home congregation and rabbi when they fell in love with someone who wasn’t Jewish, and had despaired of ever being connected to the Jewish community again in a meaningful way. When they heard about, were referred to, or stumbled upon KI, they finally felt that they had a spiritual home again.

Jews and Christians, Muslims and Jews, people of every gender description have all been welcomed equally, felt validated for who they are without reservation, and as a result encouraged family and friends to join them as well. This welcome didn’t stem from any unique wisdom that I possessed. It was simply one of the most concrete reflections of what I have understood as “cutting edge” in my personal rabbinate. Moreover, for the decades that I served KI, it was the Reconstructionistexpectation and valuing of innovation that helped inspire me to take risks in what I do, what I say, and how I conduct myself within the congregation and in the community at large as well.

Sometimes the simplest gestures have had the largest impact. For example, the year that Proposition 8 (banning same-sex marriage) passed in California, I invited all our gay and lesbian couples to stand on the bima during Yom Kippur, as the cantor and I wrapped them in a tallit, recited the traditional Priestly Benediction and publicly blessed the sanctity of their relationships. It was a simple blessing by one rabbi and one cantor, but there wasn’t a couple standing that didn’t have tears in their eyes. To this day, many of those couples continue to talk about what a transformational moment that was in their lives.

Realizing how much the non-Jewish partners in our congregation continually contribute to the strength, vitality and success of our community, on another Yom Kippur I had every non-Jew who was present stand while I publicly thanked and blessed them. I praised their remarkable support for their families and the contributions that they make to our community week in and week out, noting their presence is central to KI’s becoming the vibrant spiritual community that it is. The notes and calls expressing shock, amazement, and gratitude for those simple words of acknowledgment reverberated throughout the community.

As Reconstructionists we have glibly spoken of Judaism as the “evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people” ever since Mordecai Kaplan first penned those words almost a hundred years ago. But what do we really mean by “evolving?” Most of us have been taught that “evolution” is something like the slow, inexorable march of those inevitable changes that come with the organic growth of a species or organism. It’s “revolution” that we usually think of as sudden, passionate and “cutting edge,” not evolution. Yet I believe that it is that very idea at the core of Reconstructionist thought that makes us “cutting edge” in the first place. It encourages us to innovate and constantly be searching for new and better ways of serving the Jewish people and transforming the world itself into a sacred community that transcends and unites all faiths. It is precisely because we expect Judaism to evolve, to change, and to constantly innovate, that the Reconstructionist community continues to be so vibrant and alive.

Now that I am no longer the senior rabbi at KI, having gladly turned over those 24/7 responsibilities to the able hands and heart of Rabbi Amy Bernstein, I have turned my own creative focus to larger communal issues. I am in the midst of creating a project called “Home Shalom” with the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. Our goal is to have every synagogue in America publicly declare itself to be a “Home Shalom Sanctuary.” Each Home Sanctuary will serve as a safe haven from domestic violence; have written materials, “palm cards” with referral information and resources always publicly available in every synagogue lobby; and train clergy to recognize victims of domestic violence and know what resources are available to help them. We intend “Home Shalom” to raise the consciousness of the Jewish community regarding the reality of domestic violence in our own community, so that rabbis will speak of it from their pulpits and victims within our own congregations and communities will feel that their synagogues are safe places to turn for life-saving help and support, without shame or fear.

I first spoke about Jewish domestic violence in a Yom Kippur sermon at KI over 20 years ago. I thought it was “cutting edge” at the time, and sadly continue to see the widespread denial and avoidance that is endemic in the Jewish community decades later. ”Home Shalom” is my commitment to end that denial and allow us as a community to literally save the lives of untold numbers of victims whose shame and guilt, and their sense that they are alone with no place to turn in the Jewish community, prevents them from reaching out for help. I see this initiative as a direct reflection of what it means for us Reconstructionists to be “cutting edge” as well.

We have never been merely about prayer, or study, or the celebration of life cycle moments. We have always recognized that to be a vibrant synagogue or Jewish community means to engage with the difficult ethical challenges of our time. To be a Reconstructionist is to believe that fulfilling our potential as Jews and human beings demands that we believe that what we say matters, that what we do matters, and that who we are matters. This is the true fulfillment of the rabbinic phrase,“Letakken olam bemalkhut Shaddai,” - To be partners with the Divine in healing the broken pieces of the world. What could be more “cutting edge” than that?

Reconstructionist Chutzpah: A Spirit of Provocation

Chabad shluchim, Beat poets, stoner Kabbalah artists, Walt Whitman, Rebbe Nachman, Mizrahi social activists: each of these occupy a place in my constellation of influences, waning and waxing in potency. I revere them and I synthesize many of their characteristics and techniques in my work.

Mordecai Kaplan is not on this list, nor are other “Reconstructionist” spiritual leaders. So am I a Reconstructionist rabbi? What does it mean to be Reconstructionist?

I want to believe there is a special chutzpah in the heart of the Reconstructionist project – a word I’m using to encompass both its approach to Torah and its communities. A chutzpah and a spirit of provocation. A dissatisfaction and an agitation toward change.

It’s a chutzpah emerging from a very particular historical context.

We live, as our teacher Rabbi Richard Hirsh thinks of it, in mishnaic times. As in the time of ferment after the destruction of the Second Temple, a frankly incomprehensible national trauma (the Shoah) shook the earth of Jewish civilization. Everything from identity to praxis was in flux, and only generations later was the newly settled consensus recorded in the Mishnah. Now too, the codes and the boundaries and the rules and the normative are all up for discussion. This era’s future Mishnah is still being written.

Or, in those other words we’ve come to recite: we live in an evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people – with an emphasis on the evolving part.

As is the case with modernity (perhaps itself a Jewish trauma), there have been a variety of responses to this period of Jewish reshaping. There are Jews who deny everything and just keep rolling with the answers as they’ve always been. Some are joyous and faithful and wait it out – they’re open to a future in which Judaism looks different, but they do nothing in particular to hasten its advent.

Reconstructionism is another possible response to these mishnaic times. It’s a response that’s unafraid to position itself on the edge of the evolutionary arc. It strives to provoke the jumps and “drifts” of the evolutionary process. In order to do that, Reconstructionists (and perhaps mostly Reconstructionist rabbis) have to be hanging out in the dark places and in the margins and in the laboratories where changes to Jewishness are taking place right now.

And of course Reconstructionists are not satisfied to let this experimentation unfold by happenstance. We carry a particular vision of justice, pluralism, progressivism, democracy, etc., and we hope to influence the evolutionary process by selective cultivation, shaping a future Judaism that reflects these values in philosophy, myth, and ritual.

So.

By the time I finally get to campus after having inherited all this, by the time I finally sit down to coffee with students of this millennial generation, it turns out that the Reconstructionist response to our contemporary Jewish moment is nuanced and chutzpadik enough to validate the complexity of Jewish identity found among young Jews in the early 21st century.

College-age Jews (like all late teens), are busy trying to figure out (and also play with) the boundaries of identity, as they explore the contours of the path ahead. In a context where the boundaries themselves are increasingly fuzzy, and where students’ own familial contexts don’t have firm precedents in the past, these issues of identity and choice  can be sources of great doubt and distress.

From day one on campus, I have found myself called upon to validate the Jewishness of students whose identities do not fit neatly into the Jewish boxes of the past. I am willing to do so, even when their Jewishness crosses over the borders of the halakhic map in ways that others find transgressive, because 1) I care most about their existential need for rootedness in a world where roots are being ripped up, and 2) because I believe a future halakhah will emerge to reflect the complexities of contemporary Jewish identity. I think it’s already happening.

A lot of students on campus refer to me as the “cool rabbi.” I have reservations about this title, but I’d like to believe that what students mean is that I’m a rabbi who’s willing to be there with them. I’m willing to be in the places where past rabbis (or even past Judaism) wasn’t willing to be. I don’t mean in the bar – though I’m willing to be there too. I mean that I’m willing to be present in the muck and mire of what it means to be a young person in the early 21st century, and I’m willing to be present in the dark shifting places of Jewish identity and feeling where millennials increasingly find themselves.

Students think that’s “cool.” I think that might be Reconstructionist.

But there are several big “buts.”

First, Jewish millennials – especially the so-called “engagement students” I’m lucky to spend most of my time with – are largely post-denominational and post-institutional Jews. They’re simply not interested in the boundaries,camps and denominations of 20th century Jewish life (among their other Jewish disaffections.) And who can blame them? Those structures didn’t make a big impression upon my students as children and teens, so they remain irrelevant to them now in their early 20’s.

Reconstructionism is a part of that denominational landscape, and no matter how cutting edge it may be, it is in tension with an emerging millennial posture that largely eschews the tribal for the universal. Millennials want the wisdom and peoplehood of Judaism. They don’t want an “ism” tucked within another “ism.”

Second, so many students – so many people – are just trying to figure out how to live good lives on this crazy planet. The world millennials are inheriting is fraught in ways it hasn’t been for the past few generations. Optimism is much more difficult to garner. The unknown – whether vocational, spiritual or national – is much more in your face. Students today are in search of wisdom that can best help them make better sense of the world before them. They’re trying to identify a reasonable and inspirational approach to the span of years they’re blessed with upon this earth.

Reconstructionism is an approach to Judaism. It may free Judaism up to be accessed by more folks, but Reconstructionism isn’t itself a source of meaning. Judaism is a source of meaning. And the fact is, most of my students really just want Judaism. I model a Reconstructionist approach through my teaching and community building, but it’s rare that I explicitly name that that approach.

My students’ time is precious and fraught with the business of life. They want meaning. They want Judaism – straight up.

Here’s an example where all these issues converge:

When I manage to battle back the ever-advancing armies of email, I flee from the office (or coffee shop or bar or wherever I am) with a big sign that reads, “FREE ADVICE from Rabbi Josh,” and I take a seat on Locust Walk, Penn’s main pedestrian thoroughfare.

Over the course of four years’ worth of free advice giving, I’ve addressed the spiritual, emotional, familial, academic, and social concerns of hundreds of Penn students – which means I’ve addressed the spiritual, emotional, familial, academic, and social concerns of some of the young men and women who are going to run and manage the world one day. Everyone is intelligent, ambitious, sweet, and broken.

It’s the most challenging and rewarding and essential work I do. I’ve told my boss that if he were to build me a weather-conditioned box and instruct me to sit on the walk giving advice every day – if this were the ONLY thing I did – I would both easily earn my keep, and affect a great many more student lives than I do through all the educational programs I offer over the course of each year.

Every once in a while I’m approached by a Jew – the type of Jewish student like many I know, raised with a mildly positive but lukewarm attitude about being Jewish. They often ask, “What type of rabbi are you?”

From the beginning I’ve said, “I’m a Hillel rabbi.”

By which I mean: “I want to be free from all those old boundaries. I’m not Reconstructionist or Reform or Conservative or Orthodox. I’m not interested in trying to figure out how to make those institutions better or more relevant or more involved in our lives. I’m just interested in Jewish growth – for you.”

I have no agenda that includes the sacred denominational desire: membership.

And this too is an authentic expression of who I am as a Jew. It speaks to Jewish millennials. It’s usually the place from which all my relationships stem and where Jewish learning begins. For me, it’s the approach at the heart of the Hillel project.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

And yet perhaps the act of saying that I’m not a Reconstructionist is, itself, the most Reconstructionist thing I can say.

***

There are many “Judaisms” on campus. There’s a whole marketplace of Judaisms that students can choose from.

Many students end up being really inspired by a Judaism that sells under the label “Truth.” And that makes some sense. In this world, there’s so much uncertainty, so much unknown, so much at stake. Who can blame a 20 year old for being drawn to the Judaism that says, “folks, this is how it really is, this is where the lines are really drawn, here’s what it all means.”

That type of Judaism was appealing to me too at one point. But today I think it’s just mokhin de-katnut – a restricted consciousness. It’s a Judaism that actually offers too many answers in our world of unending questions. I think it’s a small Judaism, where the black and white of the wardrobe reflects an intellectually untenable philosophical black-and-whiteness, and everyone dresses the same. But it’s well funded, its teachers are sometimes sexy, and it preys on students’ desire for answers.

My Judaism favors the questions instead. It’s a Judaism that places supreme value upon seeking – and is very suspicious of those who have settled their search. It’s a Judaism that you grow closer to through dialog and not through lecture.

It’s a Judaism that’s courageous enough to wake up alongside me me in this post-modern moment. I raise my head, take a look around, and decide that in spite of it all, I am determined to search for meaning – and that the process, not the conclusion, is the source of meaning itself. “Always seek God’s face.” (Psalm 105:4).

I think we’ve got to be compelling, we’ve got to be entertaining, and we’ve got to be provocative – but we’ve got to raise students capable of sitting with this Judaism of questions. We’ve got to fortify students with enough inspiration and validation that they don’t need to go running to answers so quickly.

In the civilizational evolution of the Jewish people, this is a moment of open questions with no certain answers. Let’s invite our students to participate in the mishnaic dialogs happening in our own day. You don’t have to be fluent in the tradition to participate. You don’t have to speak like or look like Jews of the past. The only prerequisite is that you have enough chutzpah to own the Jewish future.

Nota bene: It remains an open question whether I should describe myself as a Reconstructionist rabbi. While a degree from RRC hangs on a wall in my office,  I am uncertain whether the chutzpah I've reflected on above (and try to practice on campus) was taught to me by RRC professors or by the Chabad rabbi who played such an important role in my life as a college student. I think Reconstructionism as a philosophy and movement has a lot of potential to inspire and guide me and the work I do. I also think it has a long way to go in order to fulfill that potential. Right now, I identify  primarily a Hillel rabbi. Hillel is the emerging “movement” that most provokes me, and is my intellectual home. I welcome Reconstructionism to challenge that, and I remain open to that possibility. 

Episode 1: New Jewish Spaces (Interview with Rabbi Shira Stutman)

Episode 1: New Jewish Spaces (Interview with Rabbi Shira Stutman) by Jewishrecon

In this interview, Rabbi Shira Stutman reflects on the promise and potential of an open, welcoming and pluralistic synagogue and community space. 

 

Transcript

A transcript of this podcast is available here. 

Show Notes

Rabbi Shira Stutman serves as Director of Jewish Programming at Sixth & I in Washington, DC. Her focus is to make Jewish meaning and build Jewish community for young professionals. When not at Sixth & I, she serves as the scholar-in-residence for the National Women’s Philanthropy program at the Jewish Federations of North America. She is a member of the board of directors of Jews United for Justice and on the J Street rabbinic cabinet. She graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2007, where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. 

The interview for this podcast was conducted by Hila Ratzabi, Editorial Associate for Ritualwell.org. Audio editing and production by Rabbi Michael Fessler, Editor of Jewishrecon.org.

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Judaism in Three Dimensions

As a child, I loved Jeff Brown’s popular children’s book, Flat Stanley. In the book, poor Stanley Lambchop is flattened like a board when the bulletin board in his bedroom falls on top of him. The book tells of the many adventures he has – sliding under doors, being mailed in an envelope, being flown like a kite – in his altered state. At first, Stanley loves being flat, and all the fun, silly things it allows him to do. But the longer he remains flat, the more frustrated he becomes at his one-dimensional status. His younger brother finally saves the day by using a tire pump to blow Stanley back into a three-dimensional little boy.

Too often, we in the Jewish community view others as one-dimensional flat Stanleys, instead of as multi-faceted three-dimensional selves: as interfaith, or a person of color, or a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, or a member of a same-sex couple. I see the cutting edge of Judaism in North America in the ways that intersecting identities enhance and broaden our concepts of Judaism. Not either/or, but both/and: we are more than the sum of our parts.

You can be from an interfaith family or in an interfaith relationship, and a person of color, and in a same-sex relationship, and a person with disabilities, and a millennial, and a parent, and a college graduate, and…  and… and…. We want to honor and support all of each person’s identities, in all of their complexity and beauty. In the past – and in many places, still – people who carry multiple salient identities were asked to check some of those identities at the door. After all, it’s hard to deal with complexity – and not being able to easily characterize where people belong is challenging.

Here at InterfaithFamily, I think the work that we are doing is cutting edge specifically because of our understanding of the complexity of identity. We are willing to honor and engage the whole self, the whole family – to acknowledge and embrace the diversity of Interfaith families and the complexity of their lives. Interfaith families are not monolithic, or even static, in their identity, their sense of spirituality, their practice of Judaism. We are not just in Jewish-Christian relationships, but also Jewish-Hindu, Jewish-Buddhist, Jewish-Sikh, and many others, all of which have their own stories, triumphs and challenges.

We hope to challenge the assumptions of what “interfaith” looks like.  Earlier this year, we launched the #ChooseLove campaign. It’s a visibility-raising, partnership-building effort meant to engage other organizations and interfaith families in showing the diversity and complexity of their lives. Because being Flat Stanley isn’t ever fun for long. 

Episode 2: Acting Sustainably (Interview with Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb)

Episode 2: Acting Sustainably (Interview with Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb) by Jewishrecon

Transcript

A transcript of this podcast is available here. 

 

Show Notes

The interview for this podcast was conducted by Hila Ratzabi, Editorial Associate for Ritualwell.org. Audio editing and production by Rabbi Michael Fessler, Editor of Jewishrecon.org. 

Rabbi Dobb is chair of COEJL (the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life), and has  served as the rabbi at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD since 1997. He is the immediate past Chairperson of Maryland/Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light and past President of the Washington Board of Rabbis.  He has helped Adat Shalom become a widely-acclaimed green spiritual center and has been active within and beyond Adat Shalom on social and economic justice, LGBTQ and gender equality and progressive Israel education and advocacy, as well as eco-Judaism.  A Wexner Graduate Fellow, Fred received a Doctor of Ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary in 2009. His nine- and five-year old children provide both impetus for, and limits upon, his activist rabbinate.

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Where Prayer Meets Justice

In September, 2011, T’ruah, the organization I lead, brought seventeen rabbis to Immokalee, FL to visit workers in the tomato fields, not long ago considered ground zero for modern-day slavery in the United States. For two days, we sat with members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, farmworkers who have organized themselves into one of the most effective workers’ groups in the country. We heard about cases of out-and-out slavery — in which employers have held workers in chains overnight, or prevented escape by seizing workers’ passports and visas. We heard about sexual harassment and assault, and about workers handling dangerous pesticides without safety protections. We discovered that most tomato pickers at the time did not earn minimum wage. And we learned about the courageous efforts of the workers to persuade major retailers to join the CIW’s Fair Food Program, which creates protections from slavery, sexual assault and harassment, and wage theft. We were there at an exciting time — just at the cusp of implementing this new human rights program, designed by workers.

And then we went to a tomato farm.

The field we visited belonged to Pacific Tomato Growers, a Jewish-owned company led by Jon Esformes. A year before we arrived, Jon had decided to sign an unprecedented agreement with the workers’ organization, and to do so the day before Yom Kippur. In his speech at the press conference announcing the agreement, he spoke about his family’s values, and about teshuvah(repentance/return). Jon pointed to the tree under which the press conference had been held, and we decided to daven mincha (pray the afternoon service) there. This was, we decided, holy space.

In the course of the service, we sang aloud a line giving thanks for the bounty of the land. We passed around a tomato as we offered blessings. We stood there — rabbis, farmworkers, and a grower together — and prayed for strength for all of us.  

We then set out for a supermarket, where we kept praying. We visited a branch of Publix, a supermarket chain whose religious Christian owners refused even to meet with the workers. We encircled the tomato display, joined hands and prayed aloud. Before we left, we delivered a letter asking the management to purchase tomatoes picked under just conditions.  

This campaign did not end with a few prayer services. Since 2011, T’ruah has brought sixty rabbis to visit with CIW in Florida. These rabbis have engaged their own communities — Hebrew school students, adults, and teens — in successful campaigns to persuade Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, and Royal Ahold (the parent company of Stop & Shop, Giant, Peapod, and Martin’s) to join the Fair Food Program. Today, fourteen corporations — including Walmart, McDonald’s, and Burger King — are part of this program. Rabbis and our communities continue to push other companies — like Wendy’s, Kroger’s, and Publix — to join as well.

Too often, we think of prayer and justice work as living in separate worlds. Prayer happens in the synagogue, or maybe around the Shabbat table. Justice work takes place in the street, in the courtroom, and even in the grocery store. But as the prayer experiences in the tomato field and in the supermarket demonstrate, the line between prayer and justice is an artificial one. Creating a rich, vibrant, and necessary Jewish life means breaking down the boundaries between ritual and service, between prayer and justice.

Such boundaries do not naturally exist in Judaism. The Torah speaks in the same breath of Shabbat practice, obligations toward the vulnerable, and prohibitions on idol worship. Halakhah addresses not only questions of what to eat and when to pray, but also how to create a criminal justice system that protects both victims and perpetrators, and how to ensure that employers do not take advantage of low-wage workers. Our prayers remind us both of God’s mercy toward those in need, and also of our own responsibilities.

“Cutting edge” Judaism should mean a return to this natural integration of ritual and civil law, of prayer and justice, and a rejection of the unnatural bifurcation that separates our “religious” lives from our participation in the world.

Building the Jewish Future

My rabbinical career has been anything but planned. I would be a career counselor’s worst nightmare: the conventional ladder of professional advancement has never suited me. Instead, I’ve tried to think boldly about what the Jewish community needs, and have done my best to build institutions that could address those needs.

The Public Square

Two major passions have motivated my work. The first, which drew me to the rabbinate, is politics and social justice. I spent 25 years as an activist for Soviet Jewry. The cause made me a passionate Zionist and instilled in me a commitment to work for the human rights of oppressed people all over the world. My first job after rabbinical school was as the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington D.C. In that capacity I was able to work on domestic social justice issues as well as on Israel advocacy and endangered Jewish communities around the world. I had the unique opportunity to be among the planners of the Summit Rally for Soviet Jewry in December 1987, which took place the day before President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The turnout on that frigid Sunday of 250,000 people, mostly Jews from all over the country, changed the course of history.

The day after the rally I left my position to found a new institution: PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. My vision was a very Reconstructionist one: to create an educational program that would integrate Jewish learning, Jewish values and social responsibility. Reconstructionism has always held up the ideal of the organic Jewish community. In contrast the existing Jewish institutions were fragmented. One set of institutions championed religion and Jewish education, while another set championed social and political issues. The former orbit of organizations, including synagogues and Jewish educational institutions, were failing because they did not root their work in real world issues. The latter orbit of organizations were effective, but had no recognizable Jewish content.

PANIM’s mission was to bridge this gap: to offer a holistic Jewish identity that gave equal weight to Jewish content and to social and political activism. We were among the pioneers in the field of Jewish service learning. In the 21 years that I led the organization, we touched the lives of over 20,000 teens through programs that included Panim el Panim (4-day seminars in Washington DC), the Jewish Civics Initiative (year-long service learning curriculum and volunteering) and J-Serve (the day of Jewish service). We also published three curricula, trained teachers, and ran a fellowship program for recent college graduates.

Transforming the American Synagogue

My other great passion was to re-invent the American synagogue. While I was active in Jewish youth movements as a teen, I was not particularly fond of the synagogue of my childhood, nor its rabbi. In fact, in my application essay to RRC I noted that I was unlikely to pursue the congregational rabbinate because it did not seem to be a place where Jews were inspired to be their best selves. Youth groups and Jewish summer camps seemed to me where the best work was being done to create vibrant and engaged Jews.

It was therefore pretty ironic that in my second year at RRC I was hired to become the student rabbi at Beth Israel in Media, PA. The president who hired me said: “You are sure to leave here in a couple of years to take a bigger job. Just make it interesting and make it fun.” It was quite an empowering charge and I took it on with a full heart. I stayed at Beth Israel for eight years, four as a student and four more after I graduated. I used the synagogue as a laboratory to experiment with the kinds of informal educational models that worked so well for me when I worked in camps and youth groups. Already as a student I started to write up some of my innovations as articles in The Reconstructionist magazine. It was because of that work and my articles that, after I graduated RRC, I was invited by Ira Silverman (then President of the RRC) to develop a course that we called “Creating Alternative Communities.”. A few years after teaching that course (and in the same year that I launched PANIM) I helped to found Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD.

For many years leaders of the Reconstructionist Movement talked about the need to seed new congregations around the country. Of course, everyone looked around and said: “So who will do it?” My wife and I moved to the Maryland suburbs in 1984 and joined a progressive Conservative synagogue. It was OK but I thought that a Reconstructionist congregation could thrive in an area where the educational level was so high and there was a significant density of Jewish population. With some modest support from Mordecai Liebling, who was then the executive vice-president of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, we launched outreach High Holiday services in 1987 and attracted about 120 people. Among that group were a few couples who were good friends of ours. We invited everyone back to our house for break the fast and the energy for what had just happened at services was through the roof.

I cultivated the relationships that were forged during those few days and six weeks later, a meeting was convened at which a decision was made to form a congregation as long as I consented to serve as the very part time rabbi. I agreed. From day one my message was that the congregation was about empowering Jews to create a vibrant Jewish community. I was clearly the catalyst but I was intent on tapping the gifts of our members so we had the energy of a DIY minyan. Our Shabbat morning services became a happening, followed by a pot luck lunch catered by a rotating team of members. We became the talk of Washington and a destination synagogue for many. It wasn’t long before we expanded our scope into the areas of child education, adult education, social justice, chesed work and more. Adat Shalom became an amazing laboratory for what is possible for a Reconstructionist congregation. It was with deep regret that I had to step down as its rabbi after eight years simply because I could no longer manage its rapid growth alongside  the expanding scope and growing staff of PANIM. It has been one of the great blessings of my life that Fred Dobb (my student rabbi who then succeeded me at Adat Shalom) has made it possible for me to have an ongoing rabbinic role at the congregation (now 500 households strong).

Adat Shalom became the inspiration for my first book, Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue (2000). The book helped me launch yet another career as a consultant to rabbis and congregations across the country. For the past ten years I have been leading retreats for students from eleven rabbinic seminaries across the denominational spectrum that help future rabbis think more creatively about what might be possible in their rabbinates.

When I stepped down as president of PANIM in 2009, I became a senior fellow at Clal to advance my work with rabbis and synagogues. My most recent project is the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI). The premise of CLI is that the current model of the American synagogue can no longer address the needs of a rapidly changing Jewish community. Instead, synagogues need to pursue the paradigm model that I developed at length in Finding a Spiritual Home. After more than a decade of work with congregations and rabbis I was persuaded that rabbis needed to be trained to be effective change agents. CLI is a two-year program to support and encourage early career congregational rabbis (years 2 to 10) in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. We just graduated our first cohort of CLI and are beginning Cohort 2.

More information about CLI can be found at http://www.cliforum.org//. I’d be delighted to have more applications from RRC graduates for future cohorts.

Episode 3: Rainbow Tallit Baby (Interview with Aurora Mendelsohn)

Episode 3: Rainbow Tallit Baby (Interview With Aurora Mendelsohn) by Jewishrecon

Aurora Mendelsohn grew up in a Reconstructionist community. In this interview, she shares how that background has shaped her own Jewish life, and reflects on the challenges and opportunities facing new generations of committed progressive Jews.

The interview for this podcast was conducted by Hila Ratzabi, Editorial Associate for Ritualwell.org. Audio editing and production by Rabbi Michael Fessler, Editor of Jewishrecon.org. 

Transcript

A transcript of this podcast is available here. 

Aurora Mendelsohn has written about the intersection of feminism, Jewish ritual and liturgy for the past decade. At different times she has crafted new liturgy and prayers, served on the board of a pluralistic, urban Jewish day school,  directed Jewish programming at a camp for children with developmental disabilities, and been involved in independent minyanim. She blogs about the effect of growing up Reconstuctionist on her perspectives on theology, practice and parenting at RainbowTallitBaby and co-founded Hagbah, a Facebook discussion group for observant, progressive feminist Jews. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and three children.

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The Dialogue podcast is now available for subscription in iTunes and other podcast clients  –  details available here.