From his childhood congregation to Camp Havaya and rabbinical school, Rabbi Asher Sofman found his spiritual home in the Reconstructionist movement. Now the 2023 Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) graduate has joined the Reconstructing Judaism team to help even more people find the same kind of life-affirming, spiritually nourishing community.
In late November, Sofman joined Reconstructing Judaism as its inaugural Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) program coordinator. (Sofman, a proud fantasy and science fiction nerd, can’t help but love the Star Wars reference in his job title.) As part of the Thriving Communities department, he is working with Reconstructionist congregations and havurot on initiatives concerning racial justice, disability justice and LGBTQ inclusion. He’s a welcome addition to a team that already includes Rabbi Sandra Lawson, RRC ‘18, Reconstructing Judaism’s director of Racial Diversity Equity and Inclusion; and Rabbi Micah Weiss, RRC ‘19, associate director for Thriving Communities and JEDI.
This new position is designed to increase Reconstructing Judaism’s capacity to engage and support congregations and communities in the work of transformational change. In this position, Sofman will focus on projects around internal culture change as well as external coalition work, and the curation and amplification of existing JEDI resources.
Sofman brings to this work patience, careful listening, quiet thoughtfulness, a belief in the transformative power of conversation and, yes, a love of the Reconstructionist community. His lived experience and perspectives will doubtless prove valuable in making Reconstructionist spaces even more inclusive. He’s Asian-American, transgender and the child of an interfaith marriage. (Sofman and classmate Rabbi May Ye were the first two Americans of Asian descent to graduate RRC.)
“We are incredibly blessed to have Rabbi Ash join the Thriving Communities team. His joy in his work supporting our congregations is simply infectious,” said Weiss.
“In a world where DEI is increasingly coming under attack and it grows more common to ask why we should care about the interests of those whose needs are not currently being met by our communities, Ash is humbly accompanying the Reconstructionist movement to live into visions of a more just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive Jewish community,” continued Weiss. “His leadership makes this essential culture-change and communal evolution irresistible. “
“I feel a deep pride in the Reconstructionist movement because of its commitments and because of how it acts on those commitments,” said Sofman. “I love the people of the movement and have known many of them for a long time. It’s a joy to be working on making the world a better place together.”
Sofman’s position is funded by a Momentum Campaign gift from George and Holly Stone, members of Oseh Shalom in Maryland who are longtime supporters of Reconstructing Judaism and Camp Havaya, where Holly Stone is also a board member.
“Bringing on a young, energetic professional represents a promising first step to begin to translate vision into practical actions that will have important positive, lasting, meaningful influences,” said George Stone.
In his first months on the job, Sofman is concentrating on disability inclusion, an agenda in perfect alignment with the movement’s deeply held, inclusive values.
According to a 2023 Pew Report, some 42.5 million Americans live with a disability that could include “hearing, vision, cognitive, walking, self-care or independent living difficulties” which all could present obstacles to full participation in many Jewish communities as they have been constructed. Sofman’s work builds on initiatives across the movement that are already in place. This February, he will be highlighting Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). He is working with congregations and havurot, as well as Reconstructing Judaism’s communications team, to share and promote resources from across the movement in a month’s worth of social media posts.
“Disability justice and inclusion isn’t something that goes away on March first. It’s something that we will continue to work on every day throughout the year,” he said. “Nobody consists wholly of a single identity. Just like each of us is part of multiple civilizations that bring different blends of practices and values to the fore, each of us carries multiple identities that interact with a given situation in different ways. I can be Jewish, multiracial and queer, and find one or more of those identities activated to varying degrees at different times. But I never stop being all of them. We try to keep these many marginalized identities in mind when we work on any one aspect of justice.”
Building on the racial justice commitments established in Reconstructing Judaism’s 2021 strategic plan, Sofman will work closely with Reconstructionist communities on efforts to promote racial justice within Jewish spaces and the wider world.
Among those initiatives is the Pilot Congregation Assessment Tool for Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Created by Lawson, the assessment tool helps rabbis and communities evaluate their physical and digital spaces and identify steps to become more anti-racist and inclusive.
In addition, Sofman will work to expand on “Race, Religion and American Judaism,” a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project. This study, led by Rabbi Mira Wasserman, director of the Levin-Lieber Center for Jewish Ethics at RRC, explored the range, depth and complexity of the moral, historical and practical questions that race and racism pose to Jews and Judaism.
One of Sofman’s goals is to support congregations as they adapt and adopt the curricula developed as part of that project.
Reconstructing Judaism understands its racial justice work to be interconnected with other axes of exclusion and oppression. According to the job description for the new position, “there continues to be significant work to be done to improve and re-create communal Jewish spaces that both embrace and empower those who have been historically excluded and marginalized. We commit to a future where our communities are open and engaged in this ongoing process of transformation.”
Sofman added that, “Reconstructionist communities are really strong at making changes and transforming their culture and their spaces in response to people’s needs.”
Journey to the Rabbinate
Sofman is the child of a mother who emigrated from the Philippines and a Jewish American father. The couple searched for some time to find a synagogue where they didn’t feel merely tolerated or needed to fight for acceptance. After trial and error, they found Temple Ramat Shalom in South Florida, then led by Reconstructionist Rabbi Jeffrey Eisenstat and his partner, Rabbi Sarah Messinger. (At the time, Ramat Shalom was affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement; today it is not affiliated with any denomination.) The whole family connected so deeply with Eisenstat’s upbeat, non-judgmental Jewish approach that when he signed on to be Camp JRF’s inaugural director in 2002, Sofman and his younger brother, Andrew, were among the first campers to sign up. (Sofman’s mother, Susan, spent the summer at the camp’s first home in Illinois as a nurse and unofficial “camp mom.”) That’s where Sofman first experienced round-the-clock Judaism and discovered the freedom and confidence to shape his own identity.
“Whenever anyone asks me about what it means to be Jewish, I go back to my time at camp,” said Sofman. “I would look up through the trees and see a sky that was so blue, almost purple, where the light spilled down golden through the leaves. That image infused my understanding of spirituality. That’s where the experience of Judaism, spirituality, community, song and finding new ways of being were all intertwined.”
Sofman attended Brown University, majoring in literary arts, and founding a social group for trans and gender non-conforming students. After graduating, he tried his hand at writing fiction, yet struggled to find his path. After moving back to Florida, his father said that he used to talk about becoming a rabbi. Sofman didn’t recall that, though the more he thought about the rabbinate, the more sense it made.
RRC is the only seminary he considered.
For most of his time as a student, Sofman focused on building his chaplaincy and pastoral skills. Then, an unexpected opportunity came. Weiss asked him to be the RRC student representative on the Jews of Color and Allies Advisory Group, which guided development of the language of the reparations resolution later adopted by the full movement, which is closely tied to the racial justice work Sofman now supports in congregations.
In a way he never expected, Sofman found similarities between chaplaincy and DEI work. After graduating, he expected to work in a chaplaincy position indefinitely, but when he saw the posting for his current role, he jumped at the chance. In fact, he was the very first person to apply, according to Weiss. “And, despite an incredibly competitive applicant pool, he was clearly the right person for the job.”
Sofman has eagerly begun the work, cognizant of the challenges ahead and motivated by the difference he knows Jewish community, specifically Reconstructionist community, can make in people’s lives.
“The end goal is to help people be their best selves and to help communities be the healthiest, the most thriving,” he said. “I really want to be here doing this work with these communities that gave me life, sustained me, and brought me to where I am now. If I can help them do that even more, then that would be a joy.”