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Beyond the Basics: Making the Movements More Relevant

December 2, 2010 By:
Rabbi Isabel de Koninck
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Opening a Community Conversation

Does the future of Judaism reside in the synagogue or beyond? Does the fact that you were raised an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Jew influence which community you join or identify with? How much do traditional labels matter in today's search for Jewish connections? Post-denominationalism, the notion that Jewish life no longer breaks neatly along the streams, has been a hot topic for years. Today, the questions go deeper -- whether and how the movements serve contemporary Jewish needs. With her opinion piece, Reconstructionist rabbi Isabel de Koninck opens a community conversation on this timely topic. But it's just the beginning. Send us your views on this issue. Whether you're officially involved with the Jewish community or not, we want to hear your opinion. Send no more than 200 words to: letters@jewishexponent.com.

Today, many of my peers and rabbinical colleagues are asking important questions about the future of "denominational" Judaism and the viability of our synagogue-focused movements. I believe there are two questions that are most important to how we shape the Jewish future and whether our current structure can remain salient.

What is Judaism, and how should we practice it today? And do our current institutions continue to be relevant to the religious, spiritual and community needs of a critical mass of contemporary Jews?

The challenge facing the liberal denominational Jewish world is that for the most part, we have forgotten the purpose of denominations. They should be the organizing bodies for people with similar approaches to Jewish practice, Jews who have similar answers to the question, "What is Judaism?" Yet our movements seem to see themselves instead as organizing bodies for institutions -- congregations, seminaries and lay educational organizations, day schools, camps and youth groups.

It's true that if the goal of a movement is to share a particular approach to Judaism, then the movement should use every possible strategy to achieve that goal. But we must remember that institutions are merely strategies for achieving it. The success of a movement cannot be measured by the success of any one strategy. Instead, we should ask: How relevant is that movement's approach to Jews today? Does it constantly evaluate how it reaches current and potential constituents -- discarding or adapting strategies that aren't working, and adding new ones to meet changing needs?

If movements are to succeed, it won't be because they have found ways to bring unaffiliated Jews into congregational life by preserving the status quo. It will be because they have adopted new strategies to meet these Jews where they are.

My home is in Reconstructionist Judaism, and within that movement, I am happy to say, we have recently begun to address these challenges. Leadership from the three constituent institutions --seminary, congregations and rabbinical association -- have been meeting regularly to envision the movement's future. In a May 2010 memorandum to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College community, RRC president Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz announced that this process would likely result in the reorganization and consolidation of movement services and institutions. At its recent convention, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation -- the congregational arm -- voted in favor of continued negotiations, which are expected to move forward quickly.

The success of such a shift must be measured by how responsibly it deploys resources that build and support dynamic, progressive Jewish life. But even with an institutional redesign, for the Reconstructionist movement (or any movement) to remain relevant, it must succeed not just in congregations, camping, rabbinical training, etc., but also in developing Internet-based engagement and other avenues for extra-congregational Jewish life.

Communication across communities is a key asset, and the Internet is an obvious arena for linking denominational institutions with their affiliated members. Most importantly, if we are serious about meeting Jews where they are, then we have to invest in modes of Jewish learning and congregating that can change at the pace of technological advancement.

Denominational leadership must also recognize that community is not static, and that congregational structures may not be the only or even the most viable way to organize Jewish religious community. Patterns of community life are changing, and Jewish community organizations are responding. Denominations must learn from the best practices emerging from organizations like Hillel, Chabad and Pursue, the new alliance of American Jewish World Service and Avodah.

Currently, I work for Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, an institution that I also served while working to complete my ordination at RRC. Hillel has devoted significant time and resources to engaging students who, in congregational terms, would be labeled as "unaffiliated."

In Philadelphia, hundreds have come into active Jewish life through these initiatives, but only a relatively small number of them have ever actually walked through the door of a Hillel building. "In-the-building Judaism" isn't for them, but that doesn't mean that they don't want Judaism. They want it in their dorm rooms or apartments, in their coffee shops and on their athletic fields.

Hillel has found ways to bring Judaism to them. Movements and congregations are going to have to do likewise.

I still believe that communities organized around particular approaches to Judaism are important. Much of Jewish life happens in the context of community. To be rich and full, each community must share a common understanding of how norms are created and negotiated, who is welcome and how, and relationships to Torah and to personal and communal obligation.

Will the current structures of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements provide the best opportunities for organizing these like-minded Jewish communities in the future? The test will be their ability to adapt to critical changes in the landscape and try new strategies that bring Judaism into the streets.

Rabbi Isabel de Koninck also wrote about denominationalism for a special edition of the journal Zeek, "Reconstructionism: Denominationalism That Works?"

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