Koach Baruch Frazier began with a blessing.
“Elohai neshamah shenatata bi tehorah hi”, chanted Frazier: “My God, the soul that you have placed within me is pure.”
The phrase, originally from the Talmud, has for centuries been part of traditional morning prayers. Frazier, a queer, black and trans Reconstructionist Rabbinical College student, is an audiologist, an activist and musician. He told his Shabbat-afternoon audience at B’Yachad: Reconstructing Judaism Together — the movement-wide convention — that in 2014, he deployed the uplifting melody and revelatory words on the streets of Ferguson, Mo. That summer, Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, was shot and killed by a police officer, laying bare tensions between police and minority communities, and sparking protests for racial justice on a scale not seen in decades.
“When I found myself on the streets of Ferguson, people asked me why I was there,” said Frazier, who would answer with the chant from the morning blessing and the affirmation that yes, his soul is pure.
“If I get up every day and I believe that about myself, why is it that we can’t all believe that about Mike Brown? When can’t we believe that about all these other people? And why can’t I believe that about the person standing next to me.”
In his quest to speak truth, Frazier invoked Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the intellectual founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Frazier’s story of resistance was part of a B’Yachad panel discussion examining the evolution of Jewish music through a Reconstructionist lens. The program honored musicologist Kaplan’s daughter, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, and the 100th anniversary of her becoming the first bat mitzvah.
B’Yachad featured 146 plenaries and workshops over the course of five days in March; still, no one individual speaker, let alone a singular idea, could encapsulate programming of such diversity and range. Yet in trying to sum it all up, Frazier’s assertion that Jewish liturgy and song can and must be reconstructed in the service of social justice — and fulfilling needs outside the synagogue — may serve as well as any idea articulated over the course of the convention.
Many disparate strands and themes ran through the gathering, which lasted from March 22 to March 27, and included conventions held by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Reconstructionist Educators of North America (RENA). One overarching theme was the call for participants to have the courage to imagine a more just world, drawing upon Judaism and the Jewish community for needed resilience to work for change in the face of adversity.
Another motif was the need to dismantle barriers to Torah and Jewish community. Together, participants wrestled with ways to make congregations truly antiracist; engaged in open and productive conversations about Israel-Palestine; and learned to draw upon personal stories in pursuit of social change. Another highlight: Dozens of participants completed a year of study through the Adult B-/Re Mitzvah program, marking the 100th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah.
In the same way that Shabbat is supposed to be a taste of the world to come, this convention can be a taste of the world we hope to build.
From the outset, the convention was designed to have in-person and virtual elements in ways that just a few years ago might have seemed like science fiction. More than 450 people attended the convention in person in Tyson’s Corner, Va., with many traveling across the country or overseas from nations such as Denmark and Israel. (In-person participants were required to show proof of being up-to-date on vaccination and wear masks in all conventions areas, except for eating or when speaking before an audience.) And more than 260 people participated virtually, including serving as plenary speakers, with others asking valuable questions. During Shabbat-morning services, attended for free online by more than 750 people, a member of Klal Israel, the Reconstructionist affiliate in the Netherlands, appeared via Zoom and chanted part of Parashat Shmini from the book of Leviticus.
The proceedings were an exercise in reconstructing a large gathering after two years of pandemic-induced social distancing. Participants spoke of being exhilarated and inspired by the interactions; for many, it was the first time in two years they’d been around large groups of people.
“In a positive sense, the convention had a kind of dreamlike quality. At these gatherings, you are in a little bit of a parallel universe; you have this sense of shared vocabulary and concepts with everybody,” said Rabbi Steve Segar, a 1995 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who serves Cleveland’s Reconstructionist community, Kol HaLev. “In the same way that Shabbat is supposed to be a taste of the world to come, this convention can be a taste of the world we hope to build.”
Shaping the Public Square
With Reconstructing Judaism’s commitment to racial and social justice, B’Yachad was book-ended by plenary sessions focusing on how Jewish teachings and values can shape the public square, kicking off with “Creating a New Public Theology for a Multifaith World” and concluding with “We the People: Reconstructing Civic Engagement.” The former program highlighted the public works and theologies of two recently retired RRC faculty members and Reconstructionist luminaries, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling and Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, Ph.D. (Liebling, who founded RRC’s social justice organizing program, received the Keter Shem Tov Award at a special academic convocation at the convention. Kreimer received RRC’s Doctor of Humane Letters.)
Liebling, the child of Holocaust survivors, spoke about his decades of social-justice activism, including his participation in the counterprotests against the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., that resulted in the death of 32-year-old activist Heather Heyer and the injury of 35 others.
“Instead of being protesters, we turned into street chaplains,” said Liebling. “After it was over, I gathered a circle of the clergy and did some grounding — that felt like such a holy moment, just each of us supporting each other, trying to bring justice into the world.”
In “We the People,” Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), argued that reproductive rights are a Jewish value. Reconstructing Judaism is participating in NCJW’s 73Forward, a coordinated national Jewish campaign to increase access to abortion care at a time when the precedent established in Roe vs. Wade is in danger of being overturned and states such as Texas have all but eliminated access to abortion, profoundly impacting poor women, especially those of color.
“I am doing this because I am Jewish,” said Katz. “We have to work to ensure that the status quo is not normalized, or we are complicit.”
On the same panel, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) were explicit about how Jewish values animate their approach to politics.
“Our job isn’t to just say, ‘Gee, God is great.’ It is about lending hands to help make the world what it needs to be,” said Levin, who prior to his 2018 election served as president of Congregation T’chiyah in Ferndale, Mich.
Creating Inclusive Community
Perhaps the most affecting plenary session was called “B’Yachad: Creating Inclusive Community,” which examined how communities that strive to be warm and welcoming still have much work to do in fully embracing Jews of Color; people with disabilities; and all who fall outside a certain white, Ashkenazi archetype.
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari of Kol Tzedek in Philadelphia who identifies as a white, queer, trans person of Ashkenazi and Italian descent, began with a Talmudic story of the day when all who had been barred from studying Torah were allowed to enter and learn.
“The word that resonates with me more than inclusion, which somehow actually further alienates me, is the word belonging, which lucky for all of us is also a very Reconstructionist word,” said Fornari via Zoom. “More than being included, I think what we strive for is a sense of shared belonging. And this, too, is nonetheless aspirational.”
Rabbi Julia Watts Belser also appeared virtually, noting that the Zoom screen hid her wheelchair. The longtime disability-rights activist is an associate professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University.
“When I talk about access, what do you need to thrive, to feel honored and known, to live your life and sustain your friendships? That is what I mean when I talk about access. I don’t just mean a ramp into a building, though a good ramp is certainly part of it,” said Belser, calling for a holistic approach to inclusion that takes into account myriad disabilities that are not readily visible.
“I believe we can teach ourselves as a matter of deep practice to look beyond the quick fix,” she later said. “We can commit to the long slow work of always asking the questions — to learning, deepening, to restitution and repair.”
Along these lines, Rabbi Sandra Lawson, Reconstructing Judaism’s director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion, and Rabbi Micah Weiss, its tikkun olam specialist, led a day-long intensive introduction to congregational racial justice work. Later in the convention, Lawson reflected on Reconstructing Judaism’s pilot congregational assessment for racial diversity, equity and inclusion in a panel featuring rabbis and lay leaders from four Reconstructionist congregations.
We are going to have some hard conversations. We have a lot of guilt and shame. Guilt is OK, but shame freezes us into inaction.
Throughout the convention and in the days afterwards, many participants reported feeling inspired and more connected than ever to the Reconstructionist community.
It was Donna Coufal’s first Reconstructionist convention. She is immediate past president of Dor Hadash in Pittsburgh. It’s still hard to mention Dor Hadash without invoking the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue that left 11 Jewish worshippers dead, including Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, z”l, a longtime member of Dor Hadash, and grievously wounding Dor Hadash member Dan Leger. In the months that followed, the community responded by leaning into gun-control activism, which, according to Coufal, rankled many in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. Yet Coufal said that Reconstructing Judaism supported and embraced the congregation — in part by publishing this op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette throughout a difficult and at times isolating process.
No longer congregational president, Coufal wanted to come and connect with the larger Reconstructionist community.
“I want to develop a relationship with the larger community and bring our resources to the larger community; I really think the larger movement needs support. People need to learn how to lean on the movement and how to give to the movement,” said Coufal, who didn’t come alone. She was joined by her daughter, Anna, who this fall will begin her rabbinical studies at RRC.
“As a millennial, I don’t quite identify as a denominationalist,” said Anna Coufal. “I really connect with how Rabbi Deborah Waxman speaks about Reconstructionism as a methodology, and how Reconstructionism can be used beyond just creating congregations. And, in general, I appreciate this movement’s commitment to a more inclusive atmosphere in so many ways.”
RRC student Bridget Siegel-Fultz also used the convention as an opportunity to connect more deeply with the Reconstructionist movement, as she had been raised in the Reform movement. Like many of her classmates, Siegel-Fultz attended certain sessions while volunteering at others.
“I have been smiling through my masks for two days, just soaking it all up,” said Siegel-Fultz. “It was very exhilarating and tiring. I feel like there is a sense of understanding of where we need to go in the world, and what we can do as Jews to combat both antisemitism and racism.”
Rabbi David Kominsky is a 2004 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, a member of Reconstructing Judaism’s Board of Governors and rabbi of Temple Israel is Plattsburgh, N.Y.
“This is an opportunity to see what Reconstructionism is doing — to celebrate with other Reconstructionists, to learn new melodies, to hear new Torah and to spend time with people who are forming the future of American Judaism,” said Kominsky.
Shara Rosen, who belongs to Montreal’s Congregation Dorshei Emet, said she’d never had a chance to delve deeply into Reconstructionist thought. That changed at B’Yachad.
“My favorite part was learning about Mordecai Kaplan, who I hadn’t really studied all that much,” said Rosen. “Now I see the depth of his teaching. My favorite part of being here is learning more about Reconstructionist Judaism, meeting other people and hearing how they talk about it.”
This is an opportunity to see what Reconstructionism is doing — to celebrate with other Reconstructionists, to learn new melodies, to hear new Torah and to spend time with people who are forming the future of American Judaism
Jake Ehrlich, community engagement associate and full-time staff member of Congregation T’chiyah in Ferndale, Mich., joined in from home in part because of ongoing COVID-19 concerns and because leaving home for the long weekend wasn’t feasible.
“The virtual option,” said Ehrlich, “was a great move towards making this important kind of group learning and collaboration a possibility for those folks who are unable to uproot for a conference weekend.”
Torah reader Ivo Galli, who lives in The Hague in the Netherlands and belongs to Klal Israel, was another virtual participant. He had initially hoped to travel but decided against it since his spouse is in a vulnerable group.
“Had travel not been such a risk, I would have participated in person,” he said in an interview conducted over email. “The talks that were available online were interesting, so purely from an intellectual point of view, it was satisfying. But the human contact and sense of kehillah is just not quite as palpable when you sit facing a screen. You know, not being able to kibitz with Maurice late at night or to offer Deborah a Kleenex when she sheds a happy tear!” (He was referring to Rabbi Maurice Harris, assistant director of Thriving Communities at Reconstructing Judaism, and Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., the organization’s president and CEO.)
How did it feel chanting Torah into a screen that was broadcast to a packed room?
“I felt a very special bond of unity when chanting Torah from across the ocean,” he said. “Thousands of miles apart, and yet united by and in the same Torah. How much more Klal Yisrael and B’Yachad can you get? It was particularly heartening to me, personally, also for a different reason. As you know, war is rampaging only two state lines from where I live. Imagine being in Washington, D.C., and Kansas being blown up: It’s literally that close.”
He acknowledged that “many here feel despondent, myself included. But being able to feel unity and support in a simple ceremony like a kriyat haTorah lifted my spirits and imbued me with renewed hope.”
Special thanks to convention co-chairs John Riehl and Halle Barnett, Jackie Land and Lani Moss; convention co-coordinators; convention intern Josie Felt; members of the Reconstructing Judaism Board of Governors, staff and all who made this a meaningful and memorable gathering.
Reconstructing Gatherings for a Hybrid World: Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president and CEO of Reconstructing Judaism, explains why B’Yachad: Reconstructing Judaism Together matters to the movement and the wider world.
Twin Milestones Mark a Century of Reconstructionist Innovation: This piece lays out how the movement is celebrating the birthday of the bat mitzvah and how that was marked at the convention and elsewhere.
How One Trailblazing Rabbi is Fighting Racism in the Reconstructionist Movement: Read the Forward’s coverage of our pilot congregational assessment program that was highlighted at the convention.
Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations has a series of provocative essays on Judaism and race.
Hashivenu: Jewish Teachings on Resilience: Rabbi Sandra Lawson, Reconstructing Judaism’s director of Racial Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president and CEO of Reconstructing Judaism, discuss how to be an ally to Jews of Color.
The Holiness of Being Broken: Trauma and Disability Justice: Rabbi Elliott Kukla writes about how trauma and disability are essential parts of what make us human and what connects us to one another.
Reconstructionist Communities Make Disability Inclusion a Top Priority: Read how different Reconstructionist communities approach disability inclusion.