High above the sanctuary of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Synagogue, an eight-sided cupola rises skyward.
Clinging to each of its sides is a wooden balustrade that would not be out of place around the deck of an old sailing ship but which serves no practical purpose on the ceiling of the Potomac synagogue.
Yet imagine the faces of women, craning over the railing to glimpse the worship service below, and the balustrade becomes more than mere decoration. It is a permanent reminder of the old-fashioned women’s gallery, from a time when women were removed from view, the congregation far from reach.
It is the perfect Reconstructionist architectural detail, says Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb – a memory prompt of how the movement brought women down from the gallery and in doing so, raised their status to equality with men.
Yet Adat Shalom didn’t want to erase the women’s gallery from consciousness. It is preserved in vestigial form, Scherlinder Dobb says, a tangible memento of the Jewish past. That, he says, is how Reconstructionists do things. Theirs is a movement with mottoes. One is that the past has a vote, not a veto, on how Jews and their congregations conduct their lives.
With some 100 congregations, Reconstructionist Judaism is far smaller than Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism. But it prides itself in being an incubator of Jewish innovation – from the first bat mitzvah in 1922 to the ordination of gay Jews in 1984.
“People look to us for something new,” says Rabbi Doug Heifetz of Oseh Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in Laurel.
Like all Jewish movements, from the most secular to the deepest Orthodox, Reconstructionism is a response to the disruption of the modern world. It was launched in the 1920s by a Conservative rabbi named Mordecai Kaplan, who sought a Jewish approach that would retain the strong Jewish intellectual tradition, but also reflect the modern loss of faith in a supernatural deity. His Reconstructionist approach also celebrated American democracy and egalitarianism.
Kaplan defined Judaism not just as a religion, as the major movements did, nor as a nationality like the Zionists, but as an evolving Jewish civilization encompassing land, language, people, arts and literature.
Today, the movement continues to pioneer the frontiers of inclusion as it seeks to involve individuals and groups that have been unrecognized by Judaism. It also continues to be driven by a creative tension fueled by Kaplan’s prewar rationalism and an ecstatic tradition introduced by the Jewish counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. All this is overseen by the new president of the movement and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College since January, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, a historian who wrote her doctoral thesis on the movement she now leads.
“Kaplan said that every generation is obligated to reconstruct Judaism,” she says, quoting the movement’s founder the way a Chasid might quote his rebbe or a talmudic scholar one of the giants of the yeshiva world.
Waxman’s hiring follows the movement’s 2012 merger of its seminary and congregational arms. Combining the institutions is a nod to the downsizing that many Jewish movements are experiencing. At the same time, rabbis say, the new structure raises both promise and question marks.
“It’s a huge transformation,” says Rabbi Sonya Starr of Columbia Jewish Congregation. “It’s going to take us years before we know what this transformation means.”
In the short run, it means that the movement is becoming “lean, nimble and focused,” Heifetz says.
Under the new structure, the movement now sends consultants to congregations like Oseh Shalom to work with leaders on issues facing the synagogue, he says. The movement is providing funding to entrepreneurial ventures. And the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, headquartered in Philadelphia, “is increasingly bringing people together for discussions.”
Tear down that wall
Reconstructionism was never meant to be a movement. “Reconstructionism is an approach to being Jewish,” Waxman says. “It’s a method. It’s how we make the marriage between the individual and the communal.”
But early on, congregations that adopted the Reconstructionist approach sought to affiliate with a movement. Infused with Kaplan’s emphasis on the importance of democracy, they were ripe for becoming egalitarian and inclusive communities.
“There need not be structural barriers to participation in Jewish life,” Waxman says. “People have the right and responsibility to create the Jewish community they want to see.”
Reconstructionsts are exploring how to better include nontraditional families into their congregations – households that include same-sex or intermarried couples. More and more, when they look for those who remain at the margins of acceptance, Reconstructionists see transgender Jews.
Of the abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender – LGBT, says Scherlinder Dobb, “there’s still work to do about the T.”
Two transgender people are studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, says David Eber, a second-year student. The seminary is responding in practical ways, such as opening unisex bathrooms. But Eber says an acceptance of transgender raises far deeper questions about Judaism’s worldview.
“What science and experience shows is [that sexuality] is not a binary – it’s a spectrum. A lot of our tradition is built around binaries” – holy and profane, clean and unclean, Shabbat and the week, Jews and gentiles. Will the spectrum eventually crack the walls between the binaries?
Far less radically, some Reconstructionists say that it’s time to begin emphasizing movements less.
“The walls of denominations need to be less thick,” says Rabbi Leila Gal Berner of Kol Ami – the Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community, in Arlington. “In the 21st century, people are turned off by divisions and factionalism.”
The almost-year-old Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” and its 2012 report on the Rise of the Nones – the growing segment of Americans who don’t have a religious affiliation – seem to bear this out.
Pew found that the percentage of Jews who say they have no religion is growing – 32 percent of Jews born after 1980, compared to 19 percent of baby boomers and 7 percent of Jews born before 1927. Yet the survey also revealed that 72 percent of U.S. Jews believe in God or a universal spirit. This is the “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious” implicit critique of organized religion.
“We have to respond to ‘I’m spiritual but not religious,’ ” says Rabbi Jonathan Cohen of Mishkan Torah in Greenbelt. “It’s doable.”
Reconstructionists believe Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism-as-a-civilization model offers a way.
“Prayer, Jewish study, art, theater, drama, music, architecture. This is the way to live our Jewish lives,” says Heifetz, who has been exploring the ways technology can enhance the Jewish experience. From a High Holiday game app called “Shofar Run” (“Play the right blasts to help awaken everyone to a new level of awareness and harmony,” the description reads) to a website that brings together the scriptures of the three monotheistic faiths, the rabbi’s projects seek to reach Jews and to show them the wider world of faith around them.
The leaders of the movement that didn’t plan to be a movement are constantly looking beyond the walls.
“From Modern Orthodox to secular – we are all going through the same things,” Scherlinder Dobb says. “The biggest difference between us is regarding the pace of change.”
Head and heart
Change in the Reconstructionist movement first came from the counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s that rebelled against the suburban synagogue and created the chavurah, small member-led communities. Over the decades, the movement absorbed the ecstatic spirituality of Chasidism – an antidote to Kaplan’s fusty rationalism – but without Chasidism’s insularity and adherence to Jewish law.
“Kaplan found the supernaturalism of the traditional liturgy was deeply troubling,” says Waxman, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College president. “In my generation there’s been a recovery of metaphor, an evocative description that allows us to move beyond radical individualism and too much human agency.”
Like the others interviewed for this article, Waxman places herself on the head-to-heart spectrum.
“For me the intellectual is in the classroom, in the hallway, in conversations. But when I walk into a prayer space, I don’t want a lecture. I want a transformative prayer experience.”
She admits that the movement’s embrace of the heart is not welcomed by all. “Some feel the neo-chasidic approach is a betrayal.”
Rabbi Cohen, of Mishkan Torah, doesn’t speak of betrayal, but he does know where he and his congregation stand on the matter. “Kaplan talked about naturalism, not supernaturalism,” he says. “We [at Mishkan Torah] tend to be on the classical Kaplanian side of the movement.”
Mishkan Torah uses the Conservative prayer book, which retains traditional references to the Jewish people’s chosenness, concepts that Kaplan rejected because he believed the Jewish path was one among many. The Conservative movement fudges the issue by including the references in Hebrew, but softening them in the English translation, he says.
For Waxman, the head is for the classroom and the heart the sanctuary, Rabbi Berner, of Kol Ami, wants to tip the scales in the heart’s favor. “The heart is the warm welcome,” she says. “The prayer life and the learning life have to also come from the heart.”
She says that “a heart-centered approach is beginning to emerge. Things that used to be taboo — meditation, dance, chanting, silence, are not so taboo anymore.” And neither is “tying Torah text to one’s own life experience,” instead of only relying on the interpretations of sages.
Rabbi Starr, of Columbia Jewish Congregation, speaks often of her movement’s commitment to many paths to God. Even in the same synagogue. Sometimes even in the same prayer.
There are times in the service when worshipers will sing, not in the official congregational melody, but in any melody that moves them. In those moments, voices rise, but not in unison.
“It’s a celebration of difference,” she says.
And why should the result be dissonant, she asks. At Sinai, in the Torah “God was able to talk to us in a voice we understood. When I hear it, I hear a whole lot of harmony.”
Other articles in this series:
Conservative: A Year After Pew
Reform Judaism by Suzanne Pollak
Orthodox Judaism by Dmitriy Shapiro