For many years, Ruth Wenger, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, shared her love of learning and passion for Judaism by teaching religious school at Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, in Evanston, Ill. One weekend, Wenger — a lawyer, philanthropist and Jewish communal leader who helps leads a weekly minyan at the congregation — came home from class and made a comment to her husband of 43 years, Jonathan Markowitz, himself a member of Reconstructing Judaism’s Board of Governors.
JRC leaders and education staff were spending a lot of time creating lessons plans from a Reconstructionist perspective. Why isn’t there an existing K-12 Reconstructionist curriculum?
Those observations and questions would lead to what would be by far — in terms of scope and dollar amount — the couple’s largest investment yet in Jewish education and Reconstructionist communities. They recently made a $1 million commitment to Reconstructing Judaism to establish the Wenger-Markowitz Family Education Initiative. With this gift, the couple hopes to inspire others to make similar transformative investments in the Reconstructionist movement.
On one level, the project aims to rectify the problem Wenger identified by creating a searchable database of Reconstructionist curricula. Existing educational resources will be gathered and curated and new ones will be created. Educators in communities large, small and in-between will be able adapt these modules to fit the needs of their students and schools.
Yet for Wenger and Markowitz the educational initiative is about so much more. They see it as a way to identify core components of what it means to be a Reconstructionist Jew. It is about empowering young people to find their own answers to some of the most profound identity-forming questions: What role does Judaism play in my life? How does it shape who I am in the world?
“This is a need that we have in the movement; we don’t have anything like this. It is to make sure that we can carry on l’dor v’dor, ‘from generation to generation,’” said Markowitz, also a lawyer, who has enjoyed a long career in finance and trading.
Wenger, thinking about her grandchildren and all Jewish youth, explained that her desire is “for kids to feel at home in Judaism.” She also stressed the need for a “toolbox” that teachers can have at the ready about the liturgy, practices and values of the Reconstructionist movement.
The gift came as part of Reconstructing Judaism’s Momentum Campaign. The organization has secured $8.4 million in commitments towards its goal of raising $10 million by 2024. The campaign was set in motion to ensure that Reconstructing Judaism has the resources to achieve its ambitious, five-year strategic plan.
“This is a thrilling gift in the Momentum Campaign that helps us move forward in meaningful and significant ways,” said Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president and CEO of Reconstructing Judaism. “We are affirming positive Jewish identity and building community based on Jewish values. Wherever we can celebrate it, we are making it available for people who want to find it.”
The project represents a collaboration across the Reconstructionist movement. Reconstructing Judaism will partner with RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America) and Camp Havaya. Additionally, the project will be designed using a racial justice lens and will attend to the varied ways that students learn. It will produce curricula for Reconstructionist perspectives on key Jewish topics and age-appropriate approaches to values-based decision-making.
The project’s first year will include hiring a project director; launching an advisory board; surveying of Reconstructionist educators and rabbis; and collecting and evaluating existing educational materials.
“Having a clearinghouse where many resources can exist, and can be seeded and thought through, and there can be Reconstructionist educational expertise that gets shared in a cohesive way is not something we’ve ever had before outside of camp,” said Rabbi Rachel Weiss, of JRC, Wenger and Markowitz’s home congregation. “This initiative adds a whole new dimension to what we’re going to be able to do.”
Catherine Carmel, director of Jewish family life and learning at Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, Wash., and chair of RENA, said that, in addition to a curriculum bank, having a staff person to connect Reconstructionist educators and point them towards existing resources will benefit education across the movement.
“I think it will benefit new education directors a great deal because it will really help them to connect, get into the groove of what Reconstructionist is,” said Carmel.
Wenger and Markowitz have expressed their Jewish and Reconstructionist values through their actions for decades. Between them, they have served in leadership positions and supported projects for their synagogue; the Reconstructionist movement, including Camp Havaya; the Chicago-area community; Hillel; and more. They are known for opening their Evanston home for all manner of Jewish gatherings and celebrations.
Each traces their passion for Jewish community to their childhoods. Markowitz was the product of a Conservative Jewish upbringing. Wenger was raised in a traditional congregation. Wenger’s parents, Irving Wenger, z’’l and Ida Wenger, z’’l, survived the Holocaust; they grew up in a village about 40 miles outside of Warsaw. Most of her family perished at the hands of the Nazis or their collaborators. Throughout her suburban Chicago childhood, her parents would talk of the time they were denied both secular and Jewish educations.
Weiss, a 2009 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, grew up at JRC and returned to become the community’s rabbi in 2016. She said that “for as long as my family has been involved in JRC, which dates back to the mid-80s, Ruth and Jonathan have always been a presence. They are always willing to show up. They always just want to be involved from such a deep place of care and love.”
Markowitz’s perspective on life was forever altered on Sept. 11, 2001. That day, he was on the 85th floor of One World Trade Center in the New York office of his Chicago-based firm. (Read more details here.) Following a life-threatening and altering ordeal, he safely made it down the stairs, helping many of his employees as well as complete strangers to safety. That day in the stairwells, when one might have expected people to be at their worst, he found people at their best.
“It wasn’t every person for themselves. It wasn’t a mad dash. We all worked together as a community inside the stairwells. Everybody helped everybody else,” he recalled.
He also came away with the sense that life is fragile, so whatever needs to be done should be done now. Each hopes to inspire others to embrace a similar worldview when it comes to shaping their philanthropic legacies.
“I think 9/11 gave Ruth and myself a bigger sense of immediacy, understanding that we never have an idea of when something might happen and there’s unfinished business,” he said.
Regarding the funding of this initiative, he said, quoting Rabbi Hillel: “‘If not now, when?’ The time is now. We cannot push it off. It is time to do it. And we are happy to sit there and start that process.”
Wenger thinks “doing it in our lifetime is really important because then you get to see the fruit of it.”
“I think,” Markowitz chimed in, “that Ruth and I feel an obligation as stewards of the Reconstructionist movement.” They intend for this profound gift to inspire others to make similar commitments.
Waxman shares this hope.
“We are so grateful,” she said. “We hope it achieves what Jonathan and Ruth intend, which is to inspire others to step forward in such a significant way.”