In conversation, Rabbi Lily Solochek (they/them) exudes passion for Jewish education and optimism for what’s possible in the Reconstructionist movement’s religious schools.
Some might find optimism hard to come by in the wake of a startling Jewish Education Project report, released in April, finding that enrollment in U.S. Hebrew schools across denominations fell by at least 45 percent between 2006 and 2020.
Yet for Solochek and many Reconstructionist educators, the report crystalized what they’ve long known: Jewish education must be meaningful and vital to kids’ lives — or families will vote with their feet.
Solochek is a key part of a bold new endeavor and has been tasked with taking Reconstructionist education to the next level. They have been named director of Reconstructing Judaism’s new Wenger-Markowitz Family Education Initiative. Funded with a $1 million gift from Reconstructionist leaders Jonathan Markowitz and Ruth Wenger, the initiative will bolster K-12 educational offerings across the Reconstructionist movement.
“Jewish families have many choices about how they spend their time, and we want to ensure that when they choose to spend it on Jewish education — whether Hebrew school, family programs or summer camp — that we are delivering high quality, engaging, meaningful education that will build their Jewish identities,” said Solochek, a 2020 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
“I’m really grateful to the Wenger-Markowitz family for making this happen and putting their resources behind it,” said Solochek. “This is a chance to have a deep impact on the youth of our movement, to put our values into action.”
While many Reconstructionist-affiliated communities have built strong educational curricula, there’s currently no easy way for educators to access existing material to build a curriculum that suits their community’s specific needs. To create such a searchable resource, Solochek will work with RENA (Reconstructionist Educators Network), Havaya Summer Programs, Reconstructing Judaism colleagues and other educators.
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We already have so much wisdom in the movement. What we need is a way to share that wisdom and put it together in a cohesive unit,” said Solochek. “We have such beautiful diversity within our movement, yet we’re all still part of one movement.”
Solochek is the perfect rabbi-educator for this new role, said Tresa Grauer, Ph.D., vice president for Thriving Communities at Reconstructing Judaism. (Grauer will be Solochek’s supervisor.)
“Lily is deeply Jewishly literate and Reconstructionist-trained, with a well of experience not only in congregations but also in thinking about big-picture strategy for online Jewish educational databases. They’re interested in Jewish education as a site in which to dive deep into Jewish identities and values while making space for the individual,” said Grauer.
Grauer added that Solochek understands “congregational educators to be the primary Jewish resources for kids, with congregational schools often being their entry point into Judaism. Congregational educators are crucial models for kids, and they hold lots of wisdom about what’s working and what isn’t in Jewish spaces. I’m thrilled that Lily will be working with educators in our Reconstructionist communities. They’re innovative in terms of both content and format, and not afraid to experiment and reflect and change things over time.”
In many ways, Solochek has been preparing for this role since they were a teenager. Raised in a Conservadox home in Oregon, they volunteered at their synagogue’s school, and found purpose and identity in Jewish communal settings.
They graduated from Brandeis University with degrees in Judaic studies and theater art. Having a background in improv and stage performance turned out to be very helpful in the rabbinate, noted Solochek.
“A lot of rabbinic work is improvisation. People are going to say things to you that you don’t expect,” said Solochek. “Having a little bit of background in improvisation, being able to be able to respond quickly in the way that people need, I think is very helpful to rabbis.”
After serving as director of Jewish student life at University of Wisconsin Hillel Foundation, they enrolled in the rabbinic program of the Jewish Theological Seminary — the Conservative movement’s flagship seminary — before discerning that the Reconstructionist approach far more closely aligned with their values, particularly the philosophical commitment to inclusion to its focus on values-based decision-making.
“Reconstructionist Judaism was not only a better fit for me personally, but Reconstructionist training was a better fit for the kinds of communities I wanted to serve,” said Solochek.
Solochek graduated RRC during the early days of COVID, when they were already serving as rabbi as Adas Yoshuron Synagogue in Maine. In a previous interview, they credited their RRC training with helping them adapt to leading a congregation during the pandemic. Solochek is currently pursuing a master’s in education through Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Solochek identifies as gender non-binary, part of a growing number of publicly identified, trans rabbis. At a time in which LGTBQ rights are under assault with a spate of anti-trans legislation under consideration across the United States and elsewhere, it’s vital for trans youth to have role models then can look to.
“Youth, no matter what background they come from, can say ‘there’s a future for me. I can be a leader in your movement.’ I think that is so key for people to see right now,” they said.
And it is on behalf of all Jewish young people that Solochek will begin by building relationships with educators across the Reconstructionist movement, having conversations that will help shape the future of Reconstructionist education.
“What are our goals? What are our dreams? Let’s dream big and find ways to make it happen,” they said. “Let’s figure out what it means for us to have curriculum that really works for everyone across the movement. I am looking forward to working with our educators across the movement to strengthen Reconstructionist educational programs that will have lasting impact on our youth.”