Reconstructionist Judaism Today

Reconstructionist Judaism matures under new leadership.

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One of the movement's chief challenges is to find a new director for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, which has 100 congregations as members.  The absence of a director has taxed the senior staff, which works out of a modest space housed in strip mall professional offices in a busy street a couple of miles away from RRC. But even so, the movement is expanding its reach. This summer it will open--for the first time in its in its 47‑year‑old history--a camp. It will be based at overnight Camp Henry Horner, near Chicago in Ingleside, Ill. Twenty children, who will be entering grades 5‑7 next fall, are already registered and another 20 are in the process of doing so, said Rabbi Jeff Schein, JRFs director of education. Come June, they hope to have 50 or 60 signed up.

The last of the movement's five‑volume series of prayer books, titled "Kol Haneshama," has just been published. The final volume, "Prayers for a House of Mourning," like the prayer books for the Sabbath and festivals, High Holy Days and others, embodies the movement's egalitarian and humanistically-oriented approach.

They contain a mostly traditional format to the daily prayers, but remove--as in all of Reconstructionist liturgy-- classic Jewish references to a personal messiah, revival of the dead, and to Jews as the chosen people. The prayer books also provide alternative renditions of many key prayers, integrating extensive commentary, contemporary poetry and transliterations.

The publication of the prayer book series, over the last several years, was the first comprehensive updating of Reconstructionist liturgy since Rabbi Kaplan published his Reconstructionist Hagaddah and siddur in the early 1940s.

"This is the movement having the maturity to say that Kaplan and [movement‑building Kaplan disciple Rabbi Ira] Eisenstein don't define the totality of Reconstructionism," said Rabbi Liebling. "The movement has passed successfully on to a second generation of real leaders."…

In the 1950s and 1960s, [Reconstructionism] was dominated by people with a cerebral, humanistic view rebelling against Orthodoxy. In the 1980s, many of the movement's leaders were deeply involved with Jewish Renewal, which is a loosely linked network of people and organizations focused on a religiously experimental and politically active approach to Judaism. While Renewal's ideology casts wide influence over the mainstream denominations, as a movement, [it] remains a marginal force.

What attracts American Jews to Reconstructionism?

Lately, Reconstructionist leaders have been eager to distance their reputation from that of the hippie‑ish Renewal crowd which, to confuse matters further, has organizations based in the same Philadelphia‑area towns as the Reconstructionists do.

As recently as a decade ago, "people confused Reconstructionism and Renewal,” said Rabbi Teutsch. "As we've come to a much more mature position institutionally, ideologically and in terms of practice, we're much more distinctive than we were before."

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.