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Building Jewish Communities: Opportunity and Obligation

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“As Reconstructionist Jews, we believe that we have the opportunity and the obligation to build the Jewish communities in which we live.”

On a recent Saturday evening I heard our president, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, say those words as she taught at Or Shalom, our affiliated community in San Francisco. It was not a new idea; I had certainly heard that sentence, and even said it, countless times before. But on that evening, I was stuck by the impact that the somewhat revolutionary thought expressed in that sentence has had on my life, and how much it encapsulates the aspirations that we have for the Reconstructionist movement. 

I say “revolutionary” because I understand the work of building the Jewish community contemplated by that sentence to be radically different from the Jewish community-building that my parents, and their parents, undertook. Certainly, my grandfather felt an obligation to build Jewish community; in the 1930s and 1940s, he founded a synagogue in New Haven, Conn. (known in our family only as “Pop’s shul”) and helped to found an Orthodox day school (which I attended, together with all of my cousins). During and immediately after World War II, my mother traveled the Northeast speaking on behalf of Hadassah. 

But while my mother and my grandfather — and their forbearers and their peers — embraced the imperative to build and sustain Jewish institutions, I do not believe that they saw for themselves the opportunity or the obligation to build a Judaism that would bring meaning and community to their lives. Rather, my parents and their parents felt the imperative to preserve the Judaism they had inherited, to pass it on to their children and to instill in us the urgency of Jewish continuity. 

I confess that when I became an adult, the Judaism that I grew up with did not inspire or motivate me to want to live a “Jewish” life. But I became inspired and engaged in a way that I never expected by the people that my wife and I met in 1989 when we happened upon Bet Am Shalom Synagogue, our congregation in White Plains, N.Y.  

I’m pretty sure that before we joined BAS, I had never heard the phrase “Reconstructionist Judaism.” We were not drawn to Bet Am Shalom because it was a Reconstructionist congregation. However, I came to realize over a period of time that the attributes of Bet Am Shalom that attracted us, drew us in and ultimately compelled us to be active participants in our community were fundamentally Reconstructionist ideas and approaches.  

It wasn’t just that the Bet Am Shalom community fully engaged women into the life of the congregation — from the leadership (lay and professional) to the bimah — that LGBT families were fully part of the community. Those hallmarks of 1990s’ Reconstructionist Judaism were clearly important to us, but those and other Reconstructionist innovations have at this point been fully embraced by Reform Judaism, and to a greater or lesser extent, by Conservative congregations. What really grabbed us was the seriousness of purpose — the intelligence and the engaged curiosity with which the members of Bet Am Shalom and our rabbi embraced the challenge of deciding how to live as a Jewish community while the world we inhabited continued to change. As a community, we faced basic questions like “what do we mean when we say ‘God’?” (or for some, “when did we start saying ‘God’?”) and “what does it mean to us to engage in communal prayer?”; practical questions like “should we require girls to wear kipot in our religious school?”; and questions that were compelled by our changing world, such as “how do we celebrate the unions of gay and lesbian couples?” at a time when such marriages remained illegal under secular law and were not celebrated by other Jewish denominations. 

Each of those questions, and others, called upon the members of the community — lay members in partnership with our rabbi — to work to define the essential Jewish values that informed our choices; to articulate the fundamentally Jewish principles that were important to us; and, particularly where we were departing from halachah, to understand the decisions we were making in terms of what we were rejecting, as well as what we were choosing to do. To me, that intentional embrace of change and growth is what we mean when we say that we have the opportunity and the obligation to build the Jewish communities in which we live. The commitment to live by that imperative is to me the fundamental distinction between Reconstructionist Judaism and other approaches to contemporary Jewish life.

As we fully integrate the institutions of Reconstructionist Judaism under our new name — Reconstructing Judaism — and as we work to strengthen the partnership between Reconstructing Judaism and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, we have a renewed opportunity to engage Reconstructionists from across North America in applying those same principles to address new questions of contemporary Jewish life. What does it mean to be Jewish and create Jewish community in the 21st century? How will we need to change and grow to foster the expressions of Jewish community that are emerging from the lives of our children? How will technology change who we are and how we “do Jewish”? How will we work to ensure that increasing numbers of Jews of color are fully embraced and empowered as members of our communities? How will we act upon our values in an ever-shifting political climate and come together to discuss difficult questions that have the potential to divide us? 

Reconstructing Judaism and the RRA are working to provide opportunities for members of the broader Reconstructionist community to engage in serious conversations about these questions. We and the RRA have recently launched a Joint Israel Commission made up of rabbis and lay members of our affiliated communities throughout North America and across the political spectrum. We hope to form additional joint commissions on tikkun olam and other topics. Our online Learning Networks link rabbis and lay members from across North America to grapple with questions of Jewish life that “can’t be answered on Google.” Later this year, we will fully launch “Evolve,” a two-year endeavor to engage in Reconstructionist thinking and discussion about seven key questions facing the 21st-century Jewish community. Our upcoming convention, from Nov. 15-18 in Philadelphia, will be organized around these same questions, and we will gather hundreds of Reconstructionist from across the movement for serious discussion (and, hopefully, some serious fun, too).

Of course, none of these approaches is entirely new to the Reconstructionist movement. The Prayerbook Commission, the Reconstructionist Commission on the Role of the Rabbi (which reported in 2001) and JRF’s 2004 Israel Policies Task Force, along with many other efforts, brought together Reconstructionist rabbis and lay leaders to address major questions of contemporary Jewish life. But 18 years into the 21st century, we face new changes and challenges, and we are working hard to give ourselves more opportunities to join together to build the Jewish community in which we all will live. 

Chair, Reconstructing Judaism's Board of Governors