Baltimore Rabbis Divided on Reconstructionist Rebranding

Rabbi Deborah Waxman is the president of Reconstructing Judaism. (Provided)

What’s in a name? Last week, maybe a little confusion — in the announcement by the leader of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities that the organizational body’s name was changing to Reconstructing Judaism, although the name of the Reconstructionist movement, begun by Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan in 1922, would not. At the end of this academic year, the rabbinical seminary will become the College for Reconstructing Judaism.

The rebranding includes a new logo of a group of light- and dark-green leaves above the catchphrase “Deeply rooted. Boldly relevant.”

While some area rabbis have embraced the change, others feel as if the rebranding is moving Reconstructionism away from its history and core values.

When he founded the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (a precursor to the Reconstructionist movement that came out of the Conservative branch of Judaism), Kaplan envisioned the new branch as a constantly evolving religious civilization that embraced modern thought and culture along with age-old Jewish teachings and tradition.

(The Reconstructionist movement was restructured in 2012 when the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation voted to join with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, creating the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities as the organizational body.)

Last week, organization president Rabbi Deborah Waxman announced that the name shift would help refocus the founding mission and ideology not only by simplifying the wordy title, but also by morphing the name to a verb, which would signal a call to action.

“I do think our name is now our mission,” Waxman said in a video about the rebranding. “Everything we do here is about this project of reconstructing Judaism. Whether it’s training rabbis, whether it’s providing support for our affiliated congregations, whether it’s nurturing innovation — that is the very action of reconstructing Judaism, and the name of our organization now communicates that very succinctly.”

At Kol HaLev synagogue in Baltimore, Rabbi Geoff Basik is enthusiastic about the new moniker, logo and its active feel.

“I like the rebranding,” he said in an email. “It has been a constant challenge presenting ‘Recon’ as an approach to Judaism and Jewish life, and life in general, and not yet another ‘ism.’ So the shift from noun or adjective to verb is good by me.”

“And I like the tagline — rooted and relevant — and I even like the graphic, leaves that are evocative and suggestive of life, flourishing, growth, change,” he added. “It has an air of activism and effort and personal responsibility, too, for constructing one’s Jewish life. It’s like a call to not arms, but a call to participation and ownership. Yet, it also infers a nod to belonging and rootedness.”

In her announcement of the changes, Waxman said that a “critical path forward is shifting from a focus on ‘being’ Jewish — important but insufficient for providing substance and structure — to a focus on ‘doing’ Jewish,” she said.

“The point of being Jewish is that we are here on Earth to live lives of meaning and connection to each other, Jews and non-Jews alike,” she added. “To do this, we need to shift our preoccupations away from being Jewish, which is significantly a conversation about boundaries and authority and which leads us to infighting and name calling. Instead, we need to focus our energy toward doing Jewish.”

Rabbi Sonya Starr of Columbia Jewish Congregation said the name change is a perfect example of “how one does something is as important, if not more than, what one does,” she said in an email. “The movement held focus groups all across the country with different rabbis, lay leaders and new members determining what aspects of Reconstructionism gives our life meaning. The discovery that we found G-d in the doing was not a surprise. Our congregations are filled with people who explore sacred connections to G-d, while dedicating themselves to tikkun olam work/improving the world as dictated by Talmud Torah — the study of Jewish civilization.”

“It says in the Torah, ‘Naaseh v’Nishmah,’ we will do and then we will understand,” she added. “It is in the doing of Judaism that we create the sacred moments in which our lives are enriched.”

Rabbi Larry Pinsker is formerly of Baltimore’s Congregation Beit Tikvah and is now working in the community. He was in the third graduating class of the former Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and is a founding member of Beit Kaplan — The Rabbinic Partnership for Jewish Peoplehood, a group of Reconstructionist rabbis that formed in 2016 to focus on Kaplan’s traditional Reconstructionist teachings. He is affiliated with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the (Conservative ) Rabbinical Assembly.

He said that he and a number of other Reconstructionist-ordained rabbis are concerned that the movement’s history and its core Jewish values are being watered down and lost in the rebranding.

“That has generated a lot of tension among rabbis in the Reconstructionist movement,” he said. “There seems to be quite a large number of people who quietly have objected strongly to the changes, because it’s one thing to have a movement decide that it’s going to change its marketing and it’s another to make changes that dissolve historical connections and what the ‘product’ was.”

“The only [item] that seems to be short on their list seems to be Jewish identity, which is missing,” he added. “So, if being Jewish means support everyone else and forget yourself, your heritage and your values and your history and your language, it creates a tension for people who have dedicated their careers and lives to a form of ethical Jewish engagement that was historically one of the strengths and great, great aspects of that label of Reconstructionist.”

Rabbi Jerry Seidler of Adat Chaim, an Egalitarian Conservative synagogue, is a member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. He is also chaplain at Sinai and Northwest hospitals. He said his initial reaction to the name change was “what a waste of time and energy.”

“What it seems to be about is some type of proclivity for certain leaders of the movement to talk in terms of consulting-firm jargon, and they’ve lost sight of serious, meaningful Jewish spirituality and Jewish life,” Seidler said. “That’s why it’s to me such a waste. There’s no there there.”

“I commend what Deborah Waxman and the others in their heart of hearts are trying to do,” he added. “They’re trying to address a serious existential crisis in American spiritual, intellectual life. I think they completely missed it. I imagine what the Reconstructionist leadership wanted to do was to offer something that might be helpful. But I don’t see it. And I’m sad. I’m sad.”

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