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Reconstructing Gatherings for a Hybrid World

This essay originally appeared in The Times of Israel. 

From March 22-27, hundreds of Reconstructionists will gather in person in suburban Washington DC, and online for “B’Yachad: Reconstructing Judaism Together” a multiaccess, movement-wide convention. We come together with the clear sense that the world is changing and that we must respond with curiosity, intentional optimism and faith in the resilience and ingenuity of the Jewish people.  

This isn’t the first time.  

In 1942, 20 years after the founding of the first Reconstructionist synagogue and about a decade after the publication of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s magnum opus Judaism as a Civilization, Reconstructionist leaders gathered to assess their path forward. The war in Europe was raging, and while they didn’t understand the full implications of the destruction of European Jewry and its institutions, they had a sense that the world was changing. Even as they were responding to catastrophe, they were determined to chart a path forward of substance and vitality.

At this meeting in New York City, the rabbis and educators gathered around Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan offered up reconstructions of major ideas. They fleshed out a concept of “organic Jewish community” that could offer the basis for restructuring American Jewish organizational life on both the local and national level to reach for greater integration and collaboration and to mitigate competition and replication. They committed to generating new liturgy to reflect the American zeitgeist, including the first creative haggadah published in America.  

And they brought to speech the term “peoplehood” the idea that we are connected across time and space and bound up in each other’s well-being. Peoplehood quickly leapt into the Jewish lexicon and then into broader English discourse. In short, in the midst of disruption and destruction, these leaders acted on a vision to foster collective Jewish life and nurture individual Jews. 

Eighty years later, hundreds of Reconstructionists, as heirs to these pioneering leaders, will come together with the clear sense that the world is changing and that we must respond and lead. Like our founders, in the midst of massive transition, we seek to build.  

B’Yachad, in form and content, will explore what it means for us to gather, what being a community means today and what it can mean in the future. 

How do we bring people together meaningfully and toward lasting impact at a new time of seismic changes—the impact of technology; destabilization during an extended pandemic; a fraying social fabric that seeds polarization and works against finding common ground with those who hold other views; the notion of membership in religious communities as optional and occasional; a growing recognition that we need the voices of Jews of Color, of other BIPOC people, of queer Jews and of other previously marginalized people to be heard and to lead in our communities; a divergence of strongly held views about Israel/Palestine that could become a barrier to community building, particularly across generations; and growing awareness of our need to address justice concerns, including systemic racism, climate change and the ethical mandate for how organizations function. These trends are impacting all Jewish organizations, from synagogues to emerging communities to movements. B’Yachad will bring Reconstructionists from around the world to address, grapple with and ultimately reconstruct Jewish life as a movement and with and for our communities. 

The convention has been organized around the principle that there are new ways to gather, and with a pragmatic embrace of the new reality of hybrid. At B’Yachad, we will both theorize on and demonstrate various approaches, with most sessions hybrid and with opportunities for folks not in the room to join in, and special programming for virtual participants. Across the convention, we will explore how hybridity defines and redefines the experience of Jewish community. We will explore the long-term potential of virtual programming —greater accessibility for people with disabilities; shiva minyanim where friends and family members from around the world can offer their condolences; easier participation in governance meetings because there is no need to arrange for childcare or battle traffic; ways for people who have moved away to maintain their connection to the community. And we will assess the challenges — the unlinking of geography from membership; production standards and Zoom bombing; fostering of in-person connection alongside online participation and more. In affinity groups and workshops, we will dive into the implications for synagogue communities and Jewish professionals. In-person at the convention and then virtually beyond it, a group of young entrepreneurs, the Shapiro Fellows, will receive coaching and funding to help foster their visions of community. 

A major focus of B’Yachad will be how we tell our own personal stories and how these stories interlink with a larger communal narrative, especially in the midst of significant change. Making ample space for individuals to bring our full selves to community—with the understanding that our communities will be transformed through this experience—is central to a Reconstructionist approach to Jewish life. We will pay special attention to creating an inclusive community, inviting diverse individuals to share how their embodied experiences and worldviews inform their actions in building community and shaping public space and asking how we move from offering an analysis of problems to living into new realities. Within this focus on inclusion, racial justice will be a central preoccupation, with multiple workshops and a day-long intensive for congregational leaders on introducing racial justice work in their communities.  

B’Yachad will also ask how as Jews and as citizens of both nations and the planet we can and should act responsibly, with a day-long intensive on effective public advocacy, a wide range of workshops addressing topics from exploring the intersection of racism and antisemitism in the fight for democracy to a live podcast of Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversation on “Addressing Climate Disruption through Torah” to “Beyond Two States: New Conversations about Israel/Palestine” and closing with a plenary panel on “We the People: Reconstructing Civic Engagement.”  

As we mark our centennial, Reconstructionists are gathering together in person and online to chart a path for our second century. Like our founders, we face massive challenges and many unknowns. Like our founders, we face them with intentional optimism and a conviction in the resiliency of the Jewish people and the civilization we continuously create and recreate. At B’Yachad, we aim to channel the boldness and generativity of the founding generation of our movement to reconstruct Judaism so that we can create the Jewish community we want to live in and offer support and encouragement for the next generation of Jews–and the people who love us–to seed and build their visions of community, whatever the future brings.

 

The Reconstructionist Network