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President's Report 2020

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Judaism teaches that seven years is a full cycle, and the current status of Reconstructing Judaism bears this out. Over the last seven years since the merger, and in the six years of my presidency, we have been transformed and are acting more and more every day as an integrated organization whose staff members work collaboratively towards shared goals. This is true across Reconstructing Judaism and also, I believe, in our partnership with the RRA and with Havaya Summer Programs. I write now to give you an organizational update with a focus on the staff members of Reconstructing Judaism. They do their work in partnership with extraordinary and devoted lay leaders, to whom we are deeply grateful.

The fully staffed president’s cabinet is both an expression and engine for our collaborative efforts. The president’s cabinet is the collection of individuals who, along with me, is ultimately responsible for implementing the mission of Reconstructing Judaism. It is a group that is at once effective and lovely. The president’s cabinet consists of the following members:

  • Rabbi Amber Powers, executive vice president
  • Dr. Elsie Stern, vice president for academic affairs
  • Cyd Weissman, vice president for innovation and impact
  • Dr. Tresa Grauer, vice president for thriving communities
  • Joel Weiss, vice president for strategic advancement
  • Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, executive director of Havaya Summer Programs.

In addition, Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, joins us when the agenda expands beyond Reconstructing Judaism. Abby Gilbert, director of board relations and presidential initiatives, staffs the cabinet.

This year’s entering class of 11 rabbinical students was a joy to welcome. This cohort comprised 15 percent of the total enrollment in liberal, accredited bricks-and-mortar seminaries. They join a student body that has been working hard on campus culture, as well as academics and rabbinical training. We are continuing ongoing training in racial equity and trauma-informed communication. In addition, in November, we welcomed 23 participants to this year’s Recruitment Institute, thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Melissa Heller in her stellar work as our director of recruitment and admissions.

Under Elsie Stern’s leadership, we are expending significant energies around revisioning our rabbinic training curriculum. This is work that is uncomfortable and challenging, and also full of possibility. When I studied at RRC (1993-1999), practical rabbinics was central to my training, and RRC was at the forefront of seminaries in this prioritization. We were ahead of the field and influential in this area, as in so many others, and most of the other seminaries have adopted those classes and implemented more internships. The faculty is now building on that strong foundation to place field education at the center of rabbinical training. This shift will enable us to partner with rabbis in the field far more intensively in training the next generations of rabbis, drawing on their expertise and, we expect, offering more support to our communities and rabbis. Many folks at RRC and in the field bring some combination of curiosity and nervousness to the prospect of distance learning as an important modality in the latter years of the program. The faculty is currently enrolled in seminars to learn about the pedagogy and potential of this pedagogical approach.

In the Thriving Communities department, there is much excitement and early planning for our next joint convention in 2022 and significant programming before then.

We have an extensive set of community-oriented programs taking shape around our March 29 board meeting in Los Angeles. The program will include:

  • Friday evening, March 27, we will participate in services at University Synagogue in Irvine, Calif. Rabbi Yael Ridberg of Dor Hadash in San Diego will deliver a d’var torah, and the program will include a discussion between Rabbi Arnie Rachlis and me.
  • On Saturday, March 28, we will participate in Shabbat services and a (half) day of learning at the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.
  • On Saturday evening, March 28, we will celebrate havdalah and an evening of programming at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

In April, we will once again bring together Chesapeake-area Reconstructionists for the annual Chesapeake Annual Day of Learning & Celebration at Oseh Shalom Synagogue in Laurel, Md.

  • Sunday, April 19 at 1:15 p.m. EST will be a Day of Learning featuring Rabbi Jacob Staub, Ph.D., a professor at RRC and the leader of the Evolve project, which I discuss below.
  • Sunday, April 19 at 4 p.m., the Annual Celebration will commence.

Under Cyd Weissman’s leadership, our Innovation and Impact department continues to innovate and learn. Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations, which we founded in 2016, has emerged as an incredibly important and increasingly influential project. We are grateful to all the amazing Reconstructionist rabbis who are writing and commenting and helping to create such a powerful demonstration of a Reconstructionist approach. Most interesting to us is that one of the most frequent constituencies to visit the Evolve site are millennials. We are looking to learn more about what they like and how they are using the resources. The newest initiative is a podcast based on some of the articles.

Ritualwell continues grow as well. The site has approximately 22,000 visitors each month, and we continue to diversify the offerings out of Ritualwell, with intensive courses on a variety of topics, the opportunity for individual counseling by a rabbi and a store with creative ritual objects. Ritualwell also contributes supporting resources for every episode of Hashivenu: Jewish Resources on Resilience, my podcast, which has an audience of about 3,000 listeners.

We are working very hard to raise the profile of the Reconstructionist movement. We do this through multiple mechanisms. The senior leadership works to represent the Reconstructionist movement in the wider world. I do a great deal of this work on behalf of Reconstructing Judaism, as Rabbi Elyse Wechterman does on behalf of the RRA. Where possible, other leaders step forward. Six years of persistently showing up in (mostly American) national spaces has led to at least a bit more visibility and inclusion—the beginning of what I hope will become a trend. I have been invited by the Jewish Federation of North America and the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism to deliver the opening dvar torah at the Jewish Disability Advocacy Day on Feb. 3.

We also work to raise our profile through press coverage, both in the placement of articles and op-eds, and in capturing and amplifying when Reconstructionists are covered. Links to these publications are captured regularly in Reconstructing Judaism Today, our monthly newsletter. We have made significant progress in the Jewish press and more modest progress in the secular press, though The Philadelphia Inquirer is covering us with ever-greater frequency. And we do this through social media. This coming year, we will be working with consultants to boost our social-media profile on various initiatives.

I will add that renaming our organization Reconstructing Judaism has aided tremendously in this work. Gone is much of the confusion about who we are as a merged institution. In its place is a name that patently reflects our core work to both movement insiders and to the wider world. I continue to hear appreciation for the name change from national Jewish leaders in my travel. And the identity exploration that led to the new name also served multiple purposes, including giving us substantive opportunities to engage with rabbis and congregational leaders and data to inform not just the renaming, but many other initiatives as well.

We continue at all times to work on increasing the efficiency and impact of the organization, both internally and externally. In her role as executive vice president, Amber Powers has been a major driver and an extraordinary partner in this. Her strong internal leadership has enabled my extensive travel schedule, which I maintain to deepen our relationships with affiliated communities; boost our visibility and reputation; and fundraise. Across the Reconstructionist movement, we accomplish a tremendous amount on shoe-string budgets. We hope to raise more funds—for Reconstructing Judaism and for our communities on the local level—to do more important, inspirational and transformative work in the world.

President, Reconstructing Judaism; Aaron and Marjorie Ziegelman Presidential Professor, RRC

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