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Scenes from the "Reconvention"

“Our best ideas and our best features as communities have been appropriated throughout Jewish life — without credit to us or to Mordecai Kaplan.”

This observation was offered by Rabbi Sid Schwarz (RRC ’80) as a keynote challenge to the four hundred-plus Jews attending the 38th Convention of the movement for Reconstructionist Judaism, held in Philadelphia, November 2nd-5th.

Reconstructionism, Sid said, is by far the clearest embodiment of what he perceives to be the “new agenda” of Jewish organizational life: “I have met the future,” he paraphrased Walt Kelly‘s Pogo, “and it is us.”

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz

Yet we, along with every Jewish denomination, “have also helped to marginalize ourselves,” he noted, so that “while we are witnessing one of the greatest spiritual revivals in American history, our synagogues are empty . . .”

Overcoming that contradiction seemed the compelling mission of the Reconvention itself. It was the largest gathering in Reconstructionist history, and it launched numerous projects that reach across generations, geographic boundaries and resource gaps in order to position the Reconstructionist movement for a leadership role in a rapidly changing North American Jewish landscape. Here, then, are several glimpses of a movement in motion . . .

1.“All the calculated dates of redemption have passed, and now the matter depends upon repentance and good deeds.”
B. Sanhedrin 97b (Talmud)

At the inaugural meeting of the new JRF Tikkun Olam (repair of the world) Initiative, Rabbi Brian Walt (RRC ’84) offers for study a text about Parshat Noah (Genesis 6:9-11:32) that describes Noah as a tzaddik in peltz — a righteous man in a fur coat — because of his lack of protest over the imminent destruction of the world. “When one is cold at home,” Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk explains the Yiddish phrase, “one can heat the home or get dressed up in one’s fur coat or other warm clothes.” In the first case, the Kotzker rebbe continues, “the entire house is warm and everyone in it feels comfortable.” By contrast, a tzaddik in peltz hasn’t the vision to heat the house, only to retreat into the warmth and safety of his coat.

For the thirteen of us in the room, the passage raises a flock of issues about “doing politics” in the Jewish community: about gemilut hasadim (deeds of kindness) versus issue-oriented tikkun olam work, about embedding activism within community, about the role of money and class in defining the terms of Jewish involvement, and so on. These issues, familiar to progressive Jewish activists, will surface throughout the Reconvention workshop track on tikkun olam, particularly as participants try to frame the discussion within the real-life dynamics of their diverse congregations.

With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process disintegrating into bloody chaos and the U.S. presidential campaign chugging through its final week, patience might seem hard to come by for the launching of a Reconstructionist tikkun olam effort. But as Rabbi Toba Spitzer (RRC ’97) notes during this inaugural meeting: “It took Reform Judaism two hundred years to build the Religious Action Center! We’re off to a very fast start.”

2. “In my children, I speak clearly with the Eternal.”
— Theodore Herzl, 1895

There are pitchers of bug juice and platters of s’mores on our tables during the first plenary session, devoted to the launching of the JRF Summer Camp. (S’mores: a melted concoction of marshmallow, chocolate and graham cracker — does anyone, even the camp-deprived, not know this?)


When three fingers are raised in the air (to form a shin for “shh . . .”), everyone is to fall silent. This gesture is often needed, as the buzz in the room is loud and happy. First we sing, then we mill about forming “hevruta” pairs (“Find someone with your eye color!” “Who likes their challah with raisins?”). Finally we enter small group discussions about our most transformative Jewish experiences. At my table, Esther Bates of Temple Sinai (Buffalo, NY) tells about her bat mitzvah in Baltimore in 1939 — perhaps the second modern bat mitzvah after Judith Eisenstein’s, she speculates. Others tell about arrests at political demonstrations, experiences in Israel — and, of course, memories of Jewish camping.

Only four years ago, a demographic study of the Reconstructionist movement revealed children’s programming to be a low priority among our congregants. Growth, it seems, has enlarged not only our membership but our vision. Camp is now scheduled to open in the summer of 2002. The growth of a Reconstructionist youth movement is “scheduled” to follow on its heels.

3. “If [Jewish] reinterpretation is to succeed . . . it must seek out from among the implications of tradition those which would reenforce the highest social and spiritual strivings of our day . . .”
— Mordecai Kaplan,
Judaism as a Civilization

During lunch I bump into David Zinner of the Columbia Jewish Congregation (Columbia, MD), who authored an article on Jewish burial practices for Reconstructionism Today in the summer of 1997. David is very active in redeeming the Jewish funeral from the hands of the exploitative funeral industry, and was one of the creators of the Greater Washington Funeral Practices Contract, used by 35 congregations of every denomination in the Washington D.C. area to provide a simple, traditional, low-cost Jewish funeral to congregants ( Two workshops in the Liturgy Track at this Reconvention are to be devoted to rituals of death and mourning, he notes with satisfaction.

David is one of a score of Reconstructionist activists known to me who are deeply involved in innovative Jewish projects, independent of the movement yet thoroughly Reconstructionist in spirit. During this same lunch hour, I visit a while with Ruth Messinger, former Manhattan Borough President, now the director of the American Jewish World Service ( and a member of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (New York); with Linda Jum of B’nai Keshet (Montclair, NJ), who is working as outreach and program development consultant for the Jewish Multiracial Family Network; and with Rabbi Sid Schwarz, whose Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values is bringing Jewish ethical concepts to life for hundreds of Jewish teens through social action (see the write-up in our Summer, 2000 issue).

Mordecai Kaplan’s concept of “creative Judaism,” outlined in the final chapter of Judaism as a Civilization, is fulfilled beautifully in each of these projects, which are importing that creativity from the margins to the center.

4. “If we are to remain true to Kaplan’s teachings, we must take cognizance of the fact that the world in which he lived and wrote was vastly different from our own.”
—Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub,

Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach

Mordecai M Kaplan

Kaplan himself is being honored and studied at a three-session workshop track held at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC).

Rabbi Emanuel Goldsmith, a student of Kaplan’s at the Jewish Theological Seminary (1956-’60) and assistant editor of The Reconstructionist from 1963-’67, starts things off with “Classical Kaplan.” Manny is Kaplanian in style as well as content: sharp, blunt and brilliant, he might intimidate his 50-plus listeners if he weren’t also so funny and soulful.

“By nature,” he describes himself, “I am a chasid. But at CCNY a half a century ago, I encountered The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion — and though I first threw the book to the ground, I was curious, and eventually I was convinced.” The God of Kaplan, he continues, “is the God of enlightenment and liberation. This must be a non-negotiable part of Reconstructionism!” As Manny sees it, “spirituality is a halfway house between religion and irreligion.” While “everything human is corruptible, including reason and experience, progress can only be made through reason.” Therefore, “we can’t be half a religion of reason and half a religion of mysticism. Leaps of faith,” he concludes, “are dangerous.”

Kaplan’s biographer, Mel Scult is next, speaking about “Our Inner Chaos — Yours, Mine and Kaplan’s.” Mel’s focus is on Kaplan’s voluminous diaries (“one of the greatest Jewish diarists who ever lived”), which reflect Kaplan’s more uncertain, dark and ambivalent nature. (Scult’s Communings of the Spirit: The Diaries of Mordecai M. Kaplan, 1913-1934, is to be published in the Spring — see the excerpts in our Spring and Autumn, 2000 issues.)

The third Kaplan-track workshop, “A Neo-Kaplanian Take,” is led by Rabbi Richard Hirsh (RRC ’81), editor of The Reconstructionist and director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Kaplan was “a modernist with one foot in the post-modern era,” Richard says. The social context of Kaplan’s thought has changed considerably, and the “certitude” of his expressive style has been replaced by “post-modern tentativeness” — yet Kaplan’s view of Judaism as a humanly-shaped tradition with innate worth remains “indispensable” for us today. “Reconstructionist faith is not fragile,” Richard paraphrases his teacher, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, “because our faith is in the reality of Jewish history, not the historicity of Jewish mythology.”

I take it as symbolic that here at the newly expanded RRC, the doors haven’t yet all been outfitted with knobs. Peepholes onto the past — and the future — are available at intervals throughout the building. At the “Kaplan track,” the view is particularly vivid.

5. “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.”
Deuteronomy 30:11

In the Beit Midrash of the RRC, Rabbi David Teutsch, President of the College and editor of the Kol Haneshamah prayerbook series, is leading a workshop on “Building Community Through Jewish Values.” David’s handouts include a 10-page lexicon of “Attitudes, Beliefs & Values Shaping Jewish Practice” — a thoroughly Reconstructionist (and informative!) document that combines traditional Jewish values, values of “American Judaism” (e.g., “democracy”), and “traditional values that have been reframed in response to changed circumstances.” Reading through it, I find myself wondering what a modern society would look like if it were truly informed by, structured around, this lexicon. A society that always remembered avadim hayinu bemitzrayim (we were slaves in Egypt), that practiced anava (humility) and bal tash’hit (avoiding waste), that dealt with its resources in the belief that ladonay ha’aretz umelo’o (the earth and all that is in it belong to God)? And why is it, I ask myself, that those Orthodox and Chasidic Jewish communities which, presumably, hew most closely to the Jewish pieces of David’s lexicon, are invariably so conservative, politically and socially? The contradiction here “spontaneously generates” Kaplanian-type thoughts about the need to live in two civilizations . . . while my stomach tells me about the need to have lunch.

6. “I returned to Libivne on June 22, 1944 . . . Not a stone was left of the Besmedresh . . . it now lay in ruins. Thorns and wild grass covered it.”
— Chaim Rozenblitz,
Yizkor Book of Luboml (Libivne)

Even in the newly renovated RRC, a crowd this size is pressed for space to eat. One room is off-limits to food, and I find a little breathing space there after a quick bite: the Reception Hall, a large, spacious room in which the Luboml Exhibit is displayed.

Large photographs, museum-size text displays, and two cabinets of silver Jewish ritual objects tell the story — or, at least, hint at it.

Luboml (Libivne in Yiddish), a 500 year old Polish Jewish community of some 4,000 souls, was destroyed by the Nazis in a massacre in 1941, with only 51 Jews surviving. The Exhibit was underwritten and cultivated six years ago by Aaron Ziegelman, a Libivner who emigrated to the U.S. in 1938.

Great Synagogue, Luboml

Northwestern view of the Great Synagogue in Luboml, Poland, with shtiblekh(small prayer houses) at right. ca. 1930.

Last night, at a plenary gathering, we watched Aaron graciously receive a gift of thanks from the Reconstructionist movement for his extraordinary generosity to the RRC and the JRF. Here, in the photographed, extinguished faces, homes and streets of Luboml, we see some of the motivation behind his dedicated cultivation of Jewish life.

“There but for fortune go you or I.” The phrase, engraved into a folksong by Phil Ochs, keeps repeating in my mind as I take in the exhibit and see, among the Jews of Luboml, my friends, my family, my peers.

For more pictures of Luboml, click here.

7. “People groan in the city;
The souls of the dying cry out;
Yet God does not regard it as a reproach.”

— Job 24:12

I hitch a ride from the RRC back to the Crowne Plaza Hotel with Rabbis Shawn Zevit and Elyse Wechterman. We drive several miles sharing impressions and insights about the Reconvention — and meanwhile, out the window, I am witnessing the African-American poverty that hedges the hotels, office buildings, museums and megastores of downtown Philadelphia. Along Broad Street are blocks and blocks of dilapidated housing, adjacent to abandoned housing, adjacent to weedy, empty lots. The storefront churches and beauty parlors have similar inspirational names. The streets are treeless and fairly empty of people, just a few folks hanging outside of a check-cashing store, a liquor store, a small grocery store . . .

For my eight years as editor of RT I have been coming for meetings to the tree-lined streets and grand stone buildings of Wyncote, Elkins Park and Mount Airy — and raving to my friends back home about the wonderful neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Now another Philly reality is speaking to me, loud and clear. Some blocks along Broad Street, I daresay, look like the “thorns and wild grass” of Luboml testified to by Chaim Rozenblitz.

In recent weeks, I’ve been reading and writing about Randall Robinson’s book, The Debt: What America Owes Blacks. In its passion, the book resembles one of the prophetic Zionist manifestos of the 19th century — writings haunted by the degraded quality of life for Jews in Eastern Europe. Robinson even bolsters his argument for community-oriented reparations by discussing the history of what reparations did for the Jewish people following the Shoah.

Nevertheless, a major issue confronting tikkun olam activists regarding solidarity work with the African-American poor will be “Jewish self-interest.” Jews had material well-being at stake during the civil rights movement: the obstacles being toppled were impeding Jewish advancement into the upper class of American society. Can spiritual self-interest be as compelling to Jews: the fact that our values and identities may never be truly alive, truly fulfilled, truly central to our lives, as long as Broad Street looks like it’s been bombed?

8. “Jews who are unaffiliated are not committing acts of treachery, but are spotlighting the problems of our religious institutions. This is not about lost souls, but souls we’ve lost.”
— Rabbi Sid Schwarz

There is a new, pan-denominational agenda in Jewish life, according to the Reconvention keynoter Sid Schwarz, who ought to know: his best-selling Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue immersed him in hundreds of hours of conversation with synagogue activists and spiritual seekers of every stripe.

The old Jewish agenda, Schwarz says, was “Remember the Holocaust; oppose anti-Semitism; support Israel; and protect endangered Jewish communities.” But Holocaust remembrance is now an established enterprise; anti-Semitism is a “fringe phenomenon;” endangered Jewish communities are “relatively safe;” and the concept of Israel “as an engine of Jewish continuity” was “blown to smithereens by Yossi Beilin and Yitzhak Rabin’s telling American Jews to channel their money” towards programs to stem the American Jewish attrition rate.

Our new agenda, Schwarz continues, is about transformation “from membership to ownership in our organizational culture.” Goals that he sees as necessary for synagogue success include “inclusivity — ‘Who’s not here?’ is the key question” — and “community: How many times can you get people into each other’s homes?”

“The baby-boomers,” Schwarz suggests, “are a generation of spiritual seekers.” But we — and our rabbis and congregations — are “new at learning about spirituality.” In this realm, Schwarz says, even within our leading-edge Reconstructionist movement, there is a lot of catching up to do.

The Reconvention took some giant steps in that direction with compelling Torah study sessions, Shabbat services, and many workshops with themes not even hinted at in this cursory article. Movement leaders had their batteries charged, and their congregations will be feeling the juice for months to come.


Type: RT Article

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