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Reconstructionists Pursue Overhaul

February 13, 2013 By:
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Children stack up the fun at a program at Or Hadash in Fort Washington, one of the region’s Reconstructionist congregations.

The Reconstructionist movement may have recently completed a merger of its two largest entities, but the overhaul of the small but influential, locally based denomination appears far from complete.

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, plans to oversee a deliberative process in which leaders and activists will examine the future of the movement.

Even the idea of dispensing with the name Reconstructionism is on the table.

“Who are we? What does it mean in the 21st century to be Reconstructionist? What do we want that to mean?” posed Eh­renkrantz, who has led the college since 2002. Once these questions are answered, he said, “then we will be able to look and say, ‘Now, what is an appropriate name for this entity?’ So we will be looking at the possibility of some kind of name change.”

At issue will be whether the name Reconstructionist, first used by the movement’s spiritual founder, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, to mean that Jews had to reimagine their tradition for the contemporary age, “is an appropriate description of where we are at this time.”

In addition to contemplating big, symbolic changes, the move­ment’s national body is also experimenting with more concrete ones, such as how its 100-plus member congregations pay dues to be part of the national body.

Ehrenkrantz’s hope is that the change will facilitate a shift toward fundraising to meet the national umbrella organization’s budget, give cash-strapped congregations a financial break and deepen the relationship between the movement and its member organizations.

If many individual synagogues of all stripes have struggled in recent years — both with paying their bills and remaining relevant spiritually — the national non-Orthodox move­ments have arguably had an even tougher time financially. For many Jews, a synagogue is close and personal, while a movement’s parent body is more amorphous.

Both the Conservative and Reform movements — each of which are comprised of multiple organizations — have made major cutbacks in recent years. They have also toyed with their dues structures and attempted to improve services offered to congregations. Some have even called for the Conservative movement to adopt a new name as well.

The Reconstructionist stream of Judaism took a radical step by merging two of its leading bodies into one organization last June. The congregational arm of the movement, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, officially merged with the rabbinical college, with Ehrenkrantz now overseeing the functions of both. For now, the merged organization is known as the Jewish Reconstructionist Movement.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association is remaining an independent group.

The Reconstructionist ideology dates back to Kaplan’s teachings from the 1920s. The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation was founded in 1955, and the RRC, the rabbinical college, was founded here in 1968.

Yet it has remained the small­est among the different streams of Judaism. Roughly 3 percent of Philadelphia-area Jews identity as Reconstructionist, according to the 2009 “Jewish Population Survey of Greater Philadelphia”; this number, if anything, is greater than the national percentage. Reconstructionism continues to have an outsized influence in Philadelphia since the college is here and so many of its graduates continue to live in the region.

Reconstructionism has also long been considered an innovator in many areas. For example, it was the first movement to ordain openly gay rabbis. 

Lately, RRC has sought to position itself as a leader in online outreach and it has recently retooled one of its websites, ritualwell.org, which is a resource for traditional and non-traditional liturgy that applies to all kinds of life situations, such as having a miscarriage.

In terms of movement dues, rather than ask a congregation to pay a set dues amount based on its size, the movement has set up a system that is not quite pay what you wish, but it is a step in that direction. The change, which movement leaders are calling an experiment that is not necessarily permanent, establishes three levels of membership for congregations.

The higher the level, the more services — such as consultations on marketing or governance or help hiring a rabbi — that a congregation is entitled to receive. The minimum a congregation can pay to affiliate is one thousandth of its annual budget. (The specifics can be found at: jewishrecon.org/

benefits-chart.)

Ehrenkrantz said the move was driven by the realization that the movement’s organization will have to rely more on fundraising and less on dues raised from its synagogues.

“I’m quite sure we will have a reduction in dues revenue from the prior year. Whether we will hit what we anticipated for this year or not, that I don’t know,” he said. “What has been significant, to me, is to see how many congregations really wanted to stay at the higher level of dues.”

Joshua Waterston, president of Beth Israel of Media, a 175-household Reconstructionist congregation in Delaware County, said the changes within the movement really do have an impact at the synagogue level.

“Our board felt strongly that we wanted to support the Reconstructionist movement to the best of our ability and that we had a higher obligation to do so,” said the 39-year-old attorney.

He added that Beth Israel, even at the highest level, will still end up paying $8,000 in dues, as opposed to the $12,000 it had typically spent.

Waterston said he is hopeful that the national movement can help Beth Israel better market its strengths and reach out to potential members.

“We are trying to reach people in whatever way works best for them,” he said. “I’m hoping that the RRC can help us market who we are in what we can offer.”

Rabbi Joshua Waxman, religious leader of Or Hadash, a Reconstructionist Synagogue in Fort Washington, sat on the movement’s congregational services committee during the merger process and heard repeatedly that congregations are looking for aid with membership recruitment and “getting their names out and their programs out.”

He called the new dues structure an interesting model but said he’s concerned that a truly struggling congregation might not get the help it needs because it can’t pay.

But when it comes to the question of whether the Reconstructionist movement still matters to individual congregations, his answer was unequivocal. “They provide good organizational rubrics under which groups of congregations that share similar ideas and values can come together.”

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