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Thinking About the Big Picture: What Congregations Need

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Tresa Grauer seated at table with congregational leaders

How do we navigate the rabbinic transition process? Can you help us develop innovative ways to grow our membership? Our synagogue is thinking about having co-presidents. Has anyone else in our movement tried it? How have Reconstructionist synagogues fared with alternative-dues models? What does it mean to be a Reconstructionist congregation in the age of post-denominationalism? How has the earth-shaking 2016 presidential election changed the work that we do? How do we talk to our students about incoming President Donald Trump?

These are examples of questions, both practical and philosophical, that Tresa Grauer, Ph.D., and her dedicated team fields on nearly a daily basis. Grauer is assistant vice president for affiliate support1 at Reconstructing Judaism, which serves more than 100 affiliated Reconstructionist congregations and havurot across North America. [Note: as of May 2019, the department is now known as Thriving Communities]

The team may not have all the answers at its fingertips, but in true Reconstructionist, democratic fashion, they work with communities to generate solutions at the grassroots level, and then share that knowledge throughout the movement and beyond.

“My job is to help support our affiliated communities toward achieving their own goals, and this support can come in different forms,” said Grauer, who has worked for the movement since the 2012 merger between the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. “Some of that support is practical, and some comes from listening to and thinking about the big picture of what our congregations need.”

The department works with congregations in exploring the pressing questions of Jewish life through a variety of ways, including convening online and in-person discussions, such as our new Reconstructionist Learning Networks (created by Cyd Weissman, RRC’s assistant vice president for innovation and impact); curating and sharing resources; providing direct consultation; organizing forums for congregational presidents; and coordinating the biannual Plenum for representatives of all our congregations, which is an important advisory body for the movement.

Responding to changing times and the needs of our members, Affiliate Support has reorganized so that each community has a personal liaison, or point of contact, with Jewish Reconstructionist Communities. In addition to Grauer, the liaisons are associate directors Jackie Land, who is a veteran of working for the movement, and Rabbi Maurice Harris, a 2003 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Click here for more information.

The department is partnering with communities to navigate a unique moment in American Jewish history. Across the denominational spectrum is broad realization that the way Jewish organizations function—and the Jewish community itself—will evolve in unexpected ways. Each community must forge its own path forward, but, in conversation with other communities, wrestle with similar challenges.

“Participation in membership organizations has been on decline since the mid-20th century,” noted Grauer. “It is our job and the job of all our communities to ask, ‘What does it mean to be part of a group?’ There is a value to the past, and there is openness to the future.”

Grauer holds a Ph.D. in American Jewish literature, and is first and foremost a teacher, having spent more than a decade on faculty of Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“I am most interested in helping people learn what they think they need to know and am most happy when I can get people excited about ideas, and feel like they see more clearly what they need to do,” said the mother of two teenage daughters.

The issue of co-presidency has been one topic of conversation in online forums and one-on-one discussions. With the responsibilities of a congregational president sometimes rivaling that of a full-time job, many communities are exploring what it means to share the workload.

Among the questions being discussed on listservs and other platforms: Should co-presidents oversee different committees? Should their terms be staggered?

At this moment—in which social media has upended how people interact and even behave—Grauer noted that perhaps the most pertinent questions Affiliate Support hears are: What does it mean to gather? How can we gather in ways that deepen us spiritually and build a sense of community?

Another related challenge is how to make individuals and congregations feel part of a greater Reconstructionist community, especially when many of our synagogues are the only Reconstructionist game in town.

These are questions that Grauer and her team grapple with constantly. “So how do we gather? We have days of learning and celebrations that bring congregations together. We have our biannual plenum calls with representatives of our congregations. We held a World Café. We run listservs, president’s forums and learning networks,” said Grauer.

Affiliate Support is now beginning to plan a movement-wide, international convention, scheduled for Nov. 15-18, 2018, in Philadelphia—the first gathering of this type since 2010. In a way, framing and planning for this convention represents the Reconstructionist enterprise as a whole: How do we stay true to what has been meaningful and has worked in the past while finding new ways to make it relevant to the present and future?

“This is an opportunity for all who care about the Reconstructionist movement to nourish our souls, strengthen our networks, deepen our connections and meet face-to-face with people we may have been communicating with virtually over the years,” said Grauer. “It seems like a long way off, but really, it’s just around the corner.”

  • 1. As of April 2019, her title is Vice President for Thriving Communities.

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