No one who knows me well has ever accused me of being a “starry-eyed optimist” — really, any kind of an optimist. However, as I work through my first months as chair of the RRC/JRC Board of Governors, I feel compelled to choose optimism. I believe that we are poised and prepared to take a great step forward in the development of the Reconstructionist movement. We have the opportunity over the next two years to energize and engage Reconstructionists in a way that will move us from planning and building on the hope that we can succeed, to realizing our vision of becoming a revitalized presence in North American Jewish life.
What are these great opportunities?
For more than a year, we have been working to develop a new name and visual identity for the central organization of the movement — the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities. The results of this effort will be rolled out in early 2018. This work has been shaped by good Reconstructionist process. At various stages, roughly 1,000 members of the Reconstructionist community from across North America have participated in town halls, either in person or on line, and substantive surveys and questionnaires that have shaped this new expression of our identity. The result will not only give us a new name and visual imagery to communicate who we are, but has helped us to develop the vocabulary we will use going forward to talk about who we are, what we do and what we value. It is my hope that this new unifying expression of our identity will inspire us to stop talking about ourselves as a merged organization with a college and a congregational movement, and will enable us to talk about ourselves, and to act, as a single organization with a unifying mission.
What is that mission? We nurture and strengthen communal expressions of Jewish life that reflect a Reconstructionist vision and Reconstructionist values.
We pursue that one mission in a number of ways.
- We train rabbis to serve existing and emerging communities and the Jewish people;
- We support and build Jewish camps;
- We provide support and resources to our affiliated communities;
- We produce faculty and rabbinic scholarship that enhances our understanding of our evolving Judaism;
- We encourage innovation through grants and education, and we support visionary efforts to create new expressions of Reconstructionist Jewish community;
- We connect interested and committed Jews and fellow travelers through virtual learning networks and, in person, through president’s forums for our congregational leaders, plenum, days of learning and other opportunities to work and learn together;
- We will hold our first Reconstructionist convention since 2010 in Philadelphia on November 15-18, 2018; and
- We clearly and forcefully articulate our values in the public square.
It’s all one enterprise, working in partnership with others (including the RRA, the Camp Havaya leadership and our affiliated communities), with one goal and many expressions. The optimist in me sees the launch of our new name and visual identity as an opportunity to talk about ourselves in that way, to see ourselves in that way, and to work together in an even more unified way.
In the summer of 2018, we will celebrate the opening of our first summer camp on the West Coast — Havaya Arts in California. We all know that there is no more potent way to nurture and strengthen the Jewish future than by providing excellent Jewish camping opportunities. Our East Coast camp — Camp Havaya in Pennsylvania — continues to thrive and to enable roughly 400 campers a year to be their best selves — boldly and Jewishly. We have already seen tremendous evidence that the opening of Havaya Arts will energize our communities on the West Coast, as we provide more life-changing Reconstructionist Jewish camping experiences for our children.
I don’t think that anything we are doing has greater potential to energize and engage committed Reconstructionists from across North America than a successful convention next November in Philadelphia. The convention will provide a great opportunity to show the Reconstructionist community the reality and the potential of our strength as a movement and to motivate Reconstructionists from across the movement to engage, within their own communities and beyond, in the dynamic process of reconstructing Judaism for our generation and the next.
Throughout the movement we have begun new educational initiatives that embody our commitment to nurturing and energizing Jewish life and learning.
- In the college, the planning and implementation of a revitalized Israel program, expansion of our distance learning pilot programs and the development of new continuing education opportunities outside of the rabbinic program;
- Evolve, the Reconstructionist thought project, that is well on its way with support from the faculty and from our RRA rabbis, and will be rolled out to the broader community later in 2018;
- A movement trip to Israel, planned for March, that will build upon the successful Reconstructionist Birthright trip (our first) that we ran in 2017; and
- A multitude of learning opportunities developed and spread through the cooperation of our faculty, our innovation and impact team, our communications team, our congregational support team and, of course, RRA rabbis – including podcasts, revitalized web resources and other communications initiatives, days of learning, scholar in residence programs and leading academic work by our faculty.
Now, I am not a starry-eyed optimist. I can see the problems, both the problems of the present, and the emerging problems that we face as we go forward. I have also learned the importance of working through problems and not letting them stop us. Like virtually all religious movements across North America, we face financial challenges, of course – but there are others. We must meet the challenge of understanding the next generation, the so-called Millennials and the people who will come after them, so that we can see how we will need to change to effectively nurture and strengthen the expressions of Jewish community that will emerge from their lives. The diversity across our Reconstructionist communities – a great strength of our movement – poses its own challenges, as members of our communities hold widely divergent views about vital issues. We need to learn how to speak and work together across differences in a way that will ultimately strengthen us. And we must nourish and strengthen ourselves to face to the many challenges that our world provides.
We can’t be pollyannaish about our problems. They won’t solve themselves. We can’t just wait for Hashem to provide. That may be the price of being a Reconstructionist. But we have provided ourselves a number of opportunities to succeed and to excel, and that we can employ to propel ourselves forward. I choose to believe that through diligent, realistic and fundamentally optimistic efforts we can succeed and enable Reconstructionist Judaism — in its many expressions — to thrive.