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Rooted and Relevant: Dispatches from Convention 2018

Playing their own strings and percussion instruments, Rabbis Benjamin Barnett, Micah Becker-Klein and Katie Mizrahi offered a slow, campfire-like version of Lekha Dodi, the song sung by Jews around the world to welcome Shabbat. Hundreds of voices accompanied the rabbis, the devotional sounds vibrating off the ballroom walls, building an energy that one could almost touch.

Nearly 800 people attended at least part of “Rooted and Relevant: Reconstructing Judaism in 2018,” which took place from Nov. 15-18 in Philadelphia. A large majority of them packed into the hotel ballroom, many standing, for Friday night’s Kabbalat Shabbat services. Few had ever attended a Reconstructionist service with so many people.

Then, as often happens midway through Lekha Dodi, the prayer leaders sped up the tempo. The instant the strumming and drumming picked up, people were out of their chairs. From their teens to their 80s, hundreds of participants joined one another in ecstatic dancing while singing along. The scene simultaneously appeared like a religious festival and counter-cultural musical experience. 

It was as if many of those assembled had been waiting for that moment to express their joy. In many ways, this moment served as an apt metaphor for convention as a whole. Clearly, many had been waiting for it — the last movement convention took place in 2010. And when the moment came, Reconstructionists from as far away as the Netherlands and Israel were ready.

For every participant, there were many answers to why they decided to make the journey to Philadelphia.

“I’m a big believer in movements and really believe in the Reconstructionist movement,” said Cantor Howard Friedland, of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill. “It really is important for people to get together.”

For Adele Basayne, a longtime remember of Havurah Shalom in Portland, Ore., who recently joined as the community’s program director, coming to convention felt essential to understanding her mission.

“I really wanted to be here to feel the rekindling of the movement,” said Bassayne. “Getting together is a way for us to share solutions.”

Lily Fisher Gomberg, a Camp Havaya alum who grew up at Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in Newton, Mass., attends Brandeis University and hopes to one day become a Reconstructionist rabbi, noted that she was “so grateful to be in this space, to be able to learn so much, and to reconnect with so many people I haven’t seen since camp.”

Convention offered a huge scope of programming: more than 80 workshops led by 170 presenters, with programming starting at 7:30 a.m. and ending around midnight (with impromptu gatherings sometimes lasting into the night). Topics included Kaplanian philosophy, food justice, the future of Judaism, Israeli art, engaging college students, working with the elderly, understanding gender, discussing Israel and the Torah of #MeToo. (The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association’s convention preceded the larger gathering.)

As a whole, convention demonstrated the passion that members of Reconstructionist communities feel for the broader movement. It exhibited the inclusive, participatory, forward-thinking nature of a movement that offers a meaningful and relevant vision of Judaism. Convention also highlighted the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead for communities as they seek to reconstruct Judaism for our time and the future.

As Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., recently told the Jewish Exponent, “Reconstructing Judaism is back in the convention business.”

The following vignettes, taken from the first two days, offer snapshots of convention. In the months ahead, staff at Reconstructing Judaism will cull through the video, photography and audio recordings captured at convention and share additional stories and moments. 

Reconstructing Bluegrass

Members of Nefesh Mountain perform with Rabbis Micah Becker-Klein and Shawn Zevit

Members of Nefesh Mountain perform with Rabbis Micah Becker-Klein and Shawn Zevit

Eric Lindbergh acknowledged that people find it funny that a Jewish group brings a Jewish sensibility to a genre that traditionally leans heavily Christian.

For Lindberg, a multi-instrumentalist with a jazz and classical background who co-founded Nefesh Mountain with his wife, Doni Zasloff, playing bluegrass is about blending varying aspects of his Jewish and American selves. In many ways, combining Jewish liturgy and sensibilities and old-time Americana music is akin to the Reconstructionist project of bridging American and Jewish civilizations. (Lindberg and Zasloff are members of Bnai Keshet in Montclair, N.J.)

“Our music is purely a statement about who we are as Jews and Americans,” said Lindberg, during a workshop called “Experiencing Prayer Through Bluegrass and Old-Time Music” in which the group alternated performance with answering questions about their craft and how it relates to Judaism. “We have within each of us a wandering spirit. Our music is our version of putting firmer roots down in America.”

About 50 people crammed into a windowless conference room–the bane of conferences–for an intimate experience with Nefesh Mountain. The band seemed intent, at least metaphorically, to bring the participants into nature, the inspiration of their music.

“For us, I always have a better day if I get out into nature,” he said, adding that Judaism too, draws much of its power and inspiration from the natural world.

A member of the audience asked Zasloff how the group differentiates its approach to leading a prayer service from performing a concert.

“Leading a prayer service is not about us,” replied Zasloff, explaining that the line can be difficult to define. “It’s an art.”

Rather than try to explain the difference in words, the band attempted to demonstrate it with a song. Zasloff asked participants to get out of their chairs and join Nefesh Mountain in a tight circle.

She began to sing, “I want to hear somebody pray.” As folks danced and clapped, supplying their own rhythms, Zasloff invited anybody who felt compelled to join her in singing. The line between performer and audience was all but erased.


Rebuilding a Life After Attempting to End It

More than a year ago, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president of Reconstructing Judaism, launched the podcast Hashivenu to raise up the role that Judaism can play in cultivating resilience. At convention, for the first time, Waxman and producer Sam Wachs recorded an episode before a live audience. 

The conversation is now available as Episode 20 of Hashivenu – click here to listen. The original video is available to view on Facebook.

It was advertised as an interview with board member Susan Levine about how Jewish practice and community helped Levine recover from a catastrophic accident in which she lost both an arm and a leg. As Levine revealed in the interview, the accident was actually a suicide attempt. On Nov. 11, 2015, Levine jumped onto subway tracks in New York City as a moving train approached. She doesn’t remember much of what happened or her state of mind at the time.

Waxman and Levine engaged in a frank, raw, at times uplifting discussion of suicide, mental illness, and living life as a disabled person.

The book Levine is writing is “about hope, and navigating a successful and productive life, while living with these facts.”

What led a highly successful person with family and an extensive support system of friends attempt to take her own life?

“There is no good answer,” explained Levine, though she is exploring aspects of her childhood with her therapist.

Levine explained that she was forced to retire from her all-consuming job in finance. These days, she’s relying on therapy, medication, Jewish community and prayer, and exercise—she has a specially-designed cycle—and she is managing, even thriving. But she still has tough days, and her demons are never far away.

“As soon as someone suggests they are thinking about killing themselves, take them to the hospital,” Levine implored the audience. “This was an impulsive move. If I would have had time to think about the ramifications, it might have stopped me.”



What Will Judaism of the Future Look Like?

How can Jewish communities be reconstructed and serve the needs of future generations?

Four of the movement’s many forward-thinking rabbis took part in a panel to address this question: Rabbi Sid Schwarz, founder of Kenissa, a national organization dedicated to supporting emergent communities, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann of the SAJ: Judaism That Stands for All in New York City, Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, rabbi emeritus of SAJ, and Rabbi Shira Stutman, senior rabbi of Sixth and I in Washington, D.C. 

Schwarz, who authored, most recently, Jewish Megatrends, said that, until recently, synagogues were the primary address where North American Jews experienced Jewish life. Moving forward, Schwarz predicted, synagogues will remain important, but as one of a growing number of addresses where Jews experience Jewish community.

“There are rising modalities of Jewish identity that are brand new. This is part of this new wave of how Jews will do Jewish,” he said.

Schwarz urged everyone in the room to ask themselves how they are reconstructing Judaism in their own lives and communities. “I think that is why we are in this room tonight, let’s figure out how to do it together.”

Grabelle Herrmann, who joined SAJ in 2015, spoke about leading the first Reconstructionist congregation, which Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan helped found in 1922. She explained that the congregation underwent a deliberate rebranding process. It’s still SAJ, but no longer goes by the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. In adopting the phrase “Judaism That Stands for All,” the community is making an effort to demonstrate what an inclusive, social-justice-oriented community looks like.

“What might it look like to face outward and how might we present ourselves to the larger community?” said Grabelle Herrmann, explaining the questions asked during the rebranding process. “It is so important in this marketplace to be intentional, be explicit, be bold, to reclaim and reframe the core tenets of Reconstructionist Judaism. Make Judaism personal and impactful. Make Judaism global and part of a larger story.”



“The Answer is Always Compassion”

Four panel members seated on podium

Seth Goldman, Mike Dahl, Judith Belasco and Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D. participate in the Reconstructing Food and Justice panel.

Food is an elemental aspect of human life that plays an outsized role in religious, communal and family life. Waxman led a panel discussion looking at the ways food can be produced and consumed in a just and equitable way that benefits food producers, the environment, consumers and, yes, animals.

Seth Goldman, who co-founded Honest Tea and is executive chair of Beyond Meat, spoke about the role corporations can play in repairing the world. For Goldman, a member of Adat Shalom in Bethesda, Md., corporations don’t primarily improve the world through corporate philanthropy. Rather, it is the manner in which corporations pursue profits that matters most. Beyond Meat, which Goldman acknowledged is not yet profitable, is about feeding more people while slaughtering fewer animals and making less of a negative impact on the environment.

“The work we are doing is the work that a nonprofit would envy,” said Goldman.

Mike Dahl is executive director of Broad Street Ministry, a religious organization and social service agency best known for offering the homeless and hungry high quality meals and service. (A number of convention participants had the opportunity to volunteer in Broad Street Ministry’s kitchen. Others donated to the organization through a tzedakah box.)

Dahl spoke about building coalitions with other religious organizations (including Muslim and Jewish congregations) as well as corporations and other nonprofits to tackle hunger, homelessness and poverty in the Philadelphia region. Providing for someone’s basic needs, if provided in the right way, can be the first step to helping a person reclaim their sense of self and find hope, noted Dahl. His work begins and ends with compassion.

“I think that is going to be one of the takeaways of convention,” said Waxman. “The answer is always compassion.”



Remembering the Victims of Hate, Carrying on Holy Work

Despite the joyous nature of convention, there was no getting around the fact that it took place in the shadow of tragedy, falling less than three weeks after a gunman killed 11 Jews at prayer in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pa. Among the dead was Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, former co-president of Dor Hadash, Pittsburgh’s Reconstructionist community. Another member, Daniel Leger, was critically wounded in the attack.

For months, organizers had planned to use Friday afternoon services to honor Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student who was murdered in January. Bernstein’s high school classmate was charged with the murder and a hate crime, allegedly targeting Bernstein both as a Jew and gay man. (Bernstein’s family is affiliated with University Synagogue in Irvine, Ca.)

The service, led by Rabbi Deborah Waxman and Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, was expanded to honor Bernstein, the Squirrel Hill victims, and all victims of hate.

“So we act, and we pray, and we mourn,” said Waxman. “We also know that prayers can ground us so that we can act.”

Mark Bregman, a University Synagogue member, offered a few words about Bernstein. He said Bernstein had numerous passions, including writing and writing about food.

“He was somebody who absorbed experience and did everything with it,” said Bregman, explaining that Bernstein had worked post-bar mitzvah in his synagogue’s preschool. “He is not somebody who just went through life. He saw experience as a gift.”

“His parents have been incredibly strong and brave throughout this whole ordeal, which is far from over,” he added. “They face his trial, in our area, they have received threats and hateful messages with groups that have aligned themselves with Blaze’s alleged killer. Nonetheless, this has created a movement, called ‘Blaze it Forward.’ “ 

Blaze it Forward is about honoring Bernstein by performing good deeds in the world.

Still clearly raw and processing the horrifying events of Oct. 27, Dor Hadash president Ellen Surloff and Rabbi Doris Dyen, a member, offered brief words near the service’s conclusion.

“I really didn’t know what a nightmare was before,” said Surloff. “A nightmare is when you come upon your synagogue crowded by police. And you know that members of your congregation are likely inside the synagogue and your prior congregation, where I grew up, where my sister grew up. And the nightmare is knowing that these were senseless killings because all the victims were Jews.”

Surloff wanted members of the movement to know “how much your support has meant to us.”

So far, Reconstructing Judaism has raised close to $6,000 from 60 donors for the purchase of new Reconstructionist prayer books and Torah commentaries for the congregation.

Two days after the service, at convention’s concluding program, Waxman announced that Leger had been released from the hospital and is now in rehab. She also recounted a conversation she’d had with Surloff, who shared that, for one of the first times since the horrific murders that devastated her community, she felt joy.

In a sense, this conversation summarized what convention, and what the Reconstructionist movement is all about.

“That is who we are. That is what we can do, to raise somebody up,” said Waxman. “Let us continue with our beautiful, hard, joyous, incredible, sustaining, holy work that we are doing.”

Note: In the months ahead, Reconstructing Judaism looks forward to sharing more convention content.

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