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Why Reconstructionism Now?

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The existential nature of the Coronavirus pandemic is laying the groundwork for a religious revival — increased interest in religious explanations, leadership and communities, and renewed creativity among those communities. The Reconstructionist movement’s reverence for the past, curiosity about the future, pragmatic spirit and democratic commitments make us poised to contribute a compelling vision of 21st-century Jewish life as part of this revival.

At the heart of the Reconstructionist concept of Judaism as a “civilization” is an embrace of diversity. Reconstructionism recognizes there are multiple ways to be Jewish, including but not limited to religion; it affirms cultural and secular expressions of Jewishness that may never find a comfortable home in a synagogue, even as it seeks to draw from the power and richness of Jewish religion to inform the breadth of Jewish living. As the worldwide Jewish community increasingly moves toward new and uncharted models of Jewish life, both virtual and “in real life,” leaders and lay people alike must recognize that Judaism and Jewishness look different for each person. In open societies, we are all, to a certain extent, “Jews by choice.” A Reconstructionist approach insists on finding the richest possible balance between the well-being of the community and the aspirations of its individual members. We believe that when we foster a welcoming Judaism that is diverse in expression and approach, one that is willing to transform itself in the face of emerging commitments and communities, we increase the possibility that members of the next generation will choose to be Jewish.

Reconstructionists root ourselves in our rich Jewish legacy, drawing from its boundless well for nurturing wisdom about Jewish living and learning. At the same time, we look forthrightly at the challenges and opportunities of the moment. We accept that evolutionary change is inevitable. Rather than despairing, we take steps to harness change to improve our own community and to repair a broken world. Modeling a progressive religious approach that is inclusive and non-authoritarian, Reconstructionism provides a path that melds our historical commitments to democracy, pluralism and rationalism, with an activist approach to Jewish living. We fiercely embrace Jewish particularism, insisting that it is possible to be proud Jews in the modern world without walling ourselves off from it. Our commitment to the ideal of minyan, tending to the needs of community beyond individual desire, stands in counterpoint to cultural norms of radical individualism and autonomy. Yet in our abiding commitment to tikkun olam and multifaith work, we are resolutely engaged with the wider world, translating Jewish commitments into universal values. We foster connections with other religions and other peoples out of the belief that we are better Jews when we deepen our shared humanity, and out of recognition that our redemption is bound up in that of other peoples. In the face of rising fundamentalism and authoritarianism, we demonstrate a powerful expression of progressive Judaism that makes the case — in what we hope are gorgeous and compelling ways — about what we are living for.

Our theological commitments undergird these efforts. Reconstructionists set aside the idea of a supernatural God who intervenes in history. God is a Mystery, most clearly discerned through the actions of humans who bring Godliness to life through our efforts to promote justice, truth, healing, and all the other life-affirming, relationship-centered values attributed to God. Reconstructionists build our religious lives around the idea of partnering with the divine — the Power that makes for salvation, and justice and peace — to bring to life the communities and the world in which we want to live.

The Reconstructionist movement has consistently been small, in spite of — and perhaps even because of — our outsized influence. Our insistence that every generation is entitled, and even obligated, to reconstruct Judaism to ensure its relevance has felt like a rewarding challenge to some, and a demanding or even overwhelming burden to many others. Reconstructionist innovations have been widely adopted — from the first bat mitzvah to the concept of Jewish peoplehood, to the understanding that Jews who married non-Jews did not intend to exit the Jewish community, to an embrace of LGBT Jews as leaders and community members. These and other commitments were initially received as controversial and disruptive. Being on such a “cutting edge” has meant generating new ideas on a shoestring budget, encountering fierce criticism at their introduction, and receiving inadequate recognition once those ideas become mainstream. Yet our principled and affirmative approach, and the extraordinary people who are drawn to it, demonstrate how Jewish life and the Jewish people can flourish in an open society.

Mordecai Kaplan taught that preserving the past does not itself justify the continuation of the Jewish people and Jewish civilization. To remain vital, Jewish communities must empower their members to find Judaism a source of meaning, support and inspiration. Our challenge today: to create and refine the 21st-century Jewish storehouse, articulating Jewish values and then moving to responsive practice. We pursue this work in conversation with Jewish communities and authorities of the past; with present-day Jewish communities in North America, Israel and beyond; and with fellow travelers committed to progressive religious and humanist values.

At this time, our primary commitments include:

  • Training moral leaders from a progressive perspective. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s new curriculum combines our signature approach to studying Jewish history, texts and practices as they have evolved across time and place with intensive beit midrash-style learning, rich community building and immersive field placements. During the pandemic, in addition to continuing to train rabbis via distance learning, the faculty has taught regularly in the Recon Connect beit midrash, a biweekly learning opportunity offered online.
  • Bolstering communities affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. Nearly 100 communities around the world affiliate with Reconstructing Judaism. The Thriving Communities department offers support and resources, provides consultations, networks congregational leaders with each other, and creates regional and continental programming. (Save the dates for our next movement-wide Convention, offered in partnership with the RRA and Havaya Summer programs, March 23-27, 2022!) During the pandemic, Thriving Communities has emphasized providing digital resources (siddurim, haggadot, makhzorim); network weaving (convening rabbis, executive directors, educators and others by role); sharing real-time offerings from across the movement via Recon Connect, and, frequently in partnership with the RRA, offering movementwide programming (Chesapeake regional adult education series; Tikkun Leil Shavuot; high holiday videos).
  • Fostering innovation on land, online and at the intersection. Our department of Innovation and Impact nurtures new ideas through the Auerbach Innovation Grants and by training rabbinical students in entrepreneurship. Ritualwell curates powerful Jewish rituals and writings, and is growing as a site of immersive online learning and a rabbinic address for unaffiliated Jews. Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations promotes the ongoing evolution of the Jewish community by launching respectful communal conversations about the urgent issues of our day through essays, webinars and podcasts. And during the pandemic, Innovation and Impact has served our communities and other seekers by curating from these and other digital resources to create the Virtual Shabbat Box and its corollaries on the hagim.
  • Representing Reconstructionism in the public square. We raise up the diversity and the collegiality of Reconstructionist perspectives through two commissions jointly sponsored by the RRA and Reconstructing Judaism: the Tikkun Olam and the Joint Israel commissions. Through op-ed pieces, public representation and partnerships, we demonstrate a muscular progressive Jewish approach to contemporary life.
  • Deepening our partnership with peer organizations to expand Reconstructionist impact. The leadership of Reconstructing Judaism is deeply committed to working in partnership with the RRA and Havaya Summer Programs to increase our effectiveness, deepen our impact and raise the profile of the Reconstructionist movement.

We can build on these and other efforts to have an exponential impact as we move toward the post-pandemic moment. We hope you will partner with us in our efforts to continue our groundbreaking work, not for the sake of radicalism or novelty, but for the promise of engaging a new generation in the holy work of furthering the millennia-old enterprise of Jewish life.

President, Reconstructing Judaism; Aaron and Marjorie Ziegelman Presidential Professor, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College