Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the newly renamed Reconstructing Judaism
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the newly renamed Reconstructing Judaism

Reconstructionist umbrella reconstructs branding as Reconstructing Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism is the smallest of the major Jewish denominations in North America — fewer than 100 synagogues — and yet its central organization has been saddled with perhaps the longest name: the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.

Something had to give.

As of today, the movement is going by the much snappier Reconstructing Judaism. Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of movement headquartered outside of Philadelphia, feels the name change was overdue.

“We needed something that more clearly communicates that we are a new organization,” Waxman said during a recent swing through the Bay Area to visit the region’s four Reconstructionist congregations. Reconstructing Judaism “is both the seat of the movement as well as the rabbinical training organization.”

Seth Rosen, chair of the board of governors who accompanied Waxman, said the name change resulted from 14 town meetings held across North America. “A thousand people weighed in on a survey, and we came up with a name that does articulate the sense of who we are.”

And just who are they?

The movement developed in the late 1920s to the 1940s under the leadership of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who believed Judaism was, above all, a constantly evolving civilization. Reconstructionist Judaism was “a response to modernity,” Waxman explained.

Opinion: Why the Reconstructionist movement is rebranding

In his 1935 book “Judaism as a Civilization,” Kaplan posited the notion of Jewish peoplehood long before anyone coined the term. Ordained as a Conservative rabbi, Kaplan built a movement that prized congregational democracy and lay leadership, and respected tradition but did not require observance.

According to the movement’s website, Reconstructionism is a form of “contemporary, common-sense Judaism … where, in Kaplan’s words, the past has a vote but not a veto.”

Reconstructionism is practiced at congregations in 27 states and four countries outside of the U.S. — Curaçao, Italy, Canada and the Netherlands. The communities in the Bay Area are Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto, Or Zarua (a havurah, or study-worship group) in Albany and Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco.

Waxman, 50, the first woman and first lesbian to head a major Jewish denomination and seminary starting in 2013, served as a weekend scholar-in-residence at Or Shalom Jan. 19-21. She said Rabbi Katie Mizrahi, Or Shalom’s spiritual leader since 2007, is a “sterling example” of the kind of rabbis the newly renamed College for Reconstructing Judaism turns out.

“We want them to know the halachah [Jewish law],” she said, “but we train them to be guides, skilled facilitators, to be partners, grounded in tradition, but not there to impose.”

Reconstructionist Judaism faces many of the same challenges that other streams of Judaism face, including falling affiliation rates.

Among other initiatives to address those challenges, Waxman said the movement will seek “ways of deploying the faculty to do leadership training more broadly, investing in our congregational leaders.”

I am an evangelist for progressive Judaism writ large.

Waxman and Rosen also expressed enthusiasm about the launching of the movement’s second camp, scheduled to open this summer on the University of Redlands campus near San Bernardino. Havaya Arts will be the first Reconstructionist camp west of the Poconos, where the original Camp Havaya (formerly Camp JRF) is located.

“Havaya Arts is a joyful, welcoming and progressive Jewish community where campers grow as intentional artists and amazing human beings,” according to the camp’s website. “Our campers come from all kinds of backgrounds — and each has a different story to tell. We have interfaith families; campers and staff of all sexual orientations and gender identities, as well as those from LGBTQ families; people of color; individuals with special needs; and families from all socio-economic situations.”

The movement is reaching out in other ways, too. Last August, Waxman began hosting “Hashivenu,” a podcast that explores ways the Jewish community responds to personal, local and national stresses.

She said the show’s premise is that “you cannot separate tikkun olam [the Jewish concept of repairing the world] from tikkun nefesh [repair of the soul] … We must speak out against injustice, oppression. I am not solely making the case for Reconstructionist Judaism. I am an evangelist for progressive Judaism writ large.”

And in November, the movement will hold its first national convention in eight years. Set to take place at a Doubletree hotel in Philadelphia, the confab also will serve as a 50th anniversary celebration for the founding of the movement’s rabbinical college.

The many tasks at hand are keeping Waxman busy, she said.

“I feel very called to do this work,” she said. “I feel very lucky, and I do not remember the last time I was bored.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.