A community founder reflects on the power of 30 years of continuity at Reconstructionist congregation Or Hadash.
“I remember the moment when the basket of instruments emerged from the corner and transformed Friday night into shaking, shouting, dancing, joy. Turning to face the door as the sun set and really seeing the Sabbath bride enter. I remember the synagogue being home, as much as our house was … Growing up Jewish, in a congregation that was a community, there was always a feeling of home. An understanding that my family was a part of something, Or Hadash, that was part of a bigger something, Reconstructionism, that was part of a very important something — the Jewish people.”
My daughter, Jessica, wrote that recollection two years ago when she applied for admission to rabbinical school at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the very place where that home-y congregation began 30 years ago. She is the first child from Or Hadash to study there. In so many ways, she came home.
Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington had a very unique beginning. My husband and I and five other families founded it, as the laboratory congregation of the RRC. An arrangement was brokered with the college to provide free “room and board” to this intrepid group of Jewish explorers in exchange for providing experience for four budding rabbis.
Six families and four rabbis — quite a ratio! We promised to pay each one $5,000 the first year, and then held open houses, hoping that additional families would join. Otherwise, we realized, we personally would be morally, if not legally, obligated for that $20,000.
Fortunately, by the High Holidays, we had a membership of 65 families. Over the years, as our numbers, like those of all synagogues, waxed and waned, we have attracted the same type of people who joined at the beginning and whom Jessica recognized even as a very young child and later wrote about — people who saw in this congregation the possibility of family and a way to feel a part of those bigger “somethings,” Reconstructionism and the Jewish people.
In the beginning, few people really understood what Reconstructionism was about, even those who joined.
We would explain with stock references, selected from the various writings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism: “The past has a vote, not a veto,” to illustrate our commitment to understanding halachah, Jewish law, but not feeling bound by it.
Or, we might have said: “Judaism is an evolving religious civilization,” as we explained our need to create new customs and new traditions for our community, “reconstructing” what we’d experienced in the past so that it would be more meaningful and relevant for us as American Jews today.
And, we obviously agreed with Kaplan’s emphasis on belonging to the Jewish people, rather than believing in a certain view of God, as the center of Reconstructionist Judaism.
All of this led us to create, and to continue to create, a congregation where all relevant decisions rest in the hands of the members, rather than being dictated by either the past, i.e., Jewish law, or even the present, the rabbi. And while much has changed over 30 years, none of those things have.
Our 30th anniversary celebration is typical Or Hadash. No fancy dinner or dance. Rather it involves a project now posted on our website, in which I summarized the congregation’s 30-year history and collected stories, written by numerous congregants, about their Or Hadash moments.
Amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly, many of the stories highlighted those same features of the community, summarized by the Yiddishism, “haimishness.” They say things like, “We came as guests but felt so comfortable we stayed as members,” or “I’m shy, but in just over a year I became chairperson of a committee and a member of the board.”
A women’s seder, held on April 10, was also typical Or Hadash. Led by Reconstructionist rabbis Roni Handler and Anne Feibelman, both of whom worked for the congregation while they were RRC students, the seder focused attention on people in the Or Hadash community, the local community, and the world for whom liberation has not yet been achieved.
The 50 attendees, happily including my daughter and myself, were invited to think about their own responsibility both personally and collectively, which, Handler explained, is “a part of everything we do at Or Hadash.”
The girls and women, including the female members of this year’s confirmation class who were invited to do a special reading about four daughters, “created their own questions in order to really engage with the material and take an active role in creating the experience together,” Handler added.
Thirty years in the span of Jewish history is a second in the span of the universe. Even in the history of Jewish Philadelphia, Or Hadash is, perhaps, a teenager. But, a certain maturity has settled over the community; it knows who it is and is proud of what it has become.
And those students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, including my daughter, still connected with Or Hadash as honorary members, understand the kind of community that they may someday serve as both the congregation, the college, and the Jewish community grow from strength to strength.
Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg is a retired educator and author and a past president and current board member of Or Hadash.