A Changing Landscape

by Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz

A changing landscape: that’s the catchphrase in Jewish organizations these days. It telegraphs a reality we’ve come to know well. People in their 20s and 30s do not hew to the Jewish denominations in which they were raised. They want a Judaism they’ve defined themselves. They are not joiners, but they will get on board if a community feels right to them. In short, they want choice.

Jewish organizations that let people choose how to participate and that leverage their members’ diversity for creative results will be the leaders in this environment. So why not shape a denominational structure on the same principle?

That was our thinking in the Reconstructionist movement when, six months ago, our congregations voted to restructure, closing the doors of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF) and bringing together most movement activities under one roof at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). In fact, we see a wealth of new opportunities not just for the Reconstructionist congregations formerly served by JRF but potentially for the Jewish community as a whole.

The first opportunity is for congregations and havurot. They know that it takes a denomination to produce liturgical materials, educate rabbis and run Jewish camps – to name just a few large-scale and important undertakings. So they support the Jewish community at large by supporting denominations.

In the past the cost of their support has been determined by the denominations. This fall, for the first time, the Reconstructionist movement has put that decision in the hands of the congregations. We’re taking this approach because we’re committed to working democratically and because we understand the changing nature of membership organizations. Rather than sending a “dues bill” based on the number of members, we’ve asked each congregation to choose one of three levels of financial support. They can start at a very modest level (1/1000 of budgeted expenses) and can go as high as they choose. They can scale their investment in the movement to suit their overall financial situation – and balance it among their other commitments. Depending on the level they select, they’re entitled to a given amount of individual attention from the movement’s consultants and other professionals. We believe that this will make stronger congregations on the local level and create a more meaningful relationship between congregations and the central organization.

The second opportunity is for other kinds of Jewish organizations. By linking movement support to a budget rather than to a head count, we’re encouraging organizations that don’t have individual members, organizations other than synagogues, to partner with us. Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan worried about turning Reconstructionist Judaism into a denomination. He was concerned that the movement would focus too much on synagogues and too little on organizations for Jewish culture, arts and learning. Now that we’ve spent decades creating a network of congregations, we can revisit the challenge Kaplan pointed out.

Why would another kind of Jewish organization choose to join us? Because that organization could express its support for the ideas and accomplishments of Reconstructionist Judaism – the first of the movements to welcome women as well as gay men and lesbians into positions of power and authority, the one in which each community determines its norms democratically.

We are comfortable with the idea of choice, and we don’t require our partners – organizations or individuals – to change how they describe themselves as Jews. In fact, most members of Reconstructionist synagogues refer to themselves simply as Jewish rather than as Reconstructionist. We find that communities where people take responsibility for Judaism are stronger and contribute more to Jewish life. An organization that partners with us is saying it likes that approach; aligning with the Reconstructionist movement means that you want your community to create Judaism for itself and that you support the right of other communities to do the same. Why should each Jewish organization live out ideals and norms crafted by others, when instead it could be making a unique contribution to the evolving culture we share?

An organization also may want to join us for practical reasons – so it can gain access to our consultants and professionals. Many Jewish organizations face the same issues synagogues do: learning and living best practice in nonprofit governance, ensuring adequate funds, attracting talented leadership and managing change. Skilled professional consulting is expensive, and pooled resources offer organizations help they otherwise couldn’t afford. Depending on its level of membership, an organization may get significant consulting at no cost. And the assistance it receives will improve over time – as we come to know the organization and its leaders come to recognize the best ways the movement can help.

Finally, what kinds of improvement do we imagine these changes can bring to the community at large?

Once synagogues and other organizations join in one network, we gain another set of opportunities. The community can do a better job of sharing resources. Central organizations also garner attention from the media and from policy-makers more readily than individual ones; together, those organizations can gain a bigger voice in the public square. And when Jewish organizations working for food justice, sustainability or diversity join us, they strengthen their potential social impact: The Reconstructionist movement is run democratically, so the interests of member organizations help drive our direction.

Because member organizations can choose their level of support, they can determine their budget priorities. We believe that when the organizations themselves decide, Jewish communal investment as a whole will go to its best purposes.

Of course, since we give organizations choices, the Reconstructionist movement must demonstrate real value. We welcome this challenge and look forward to meeting and exceeding expectations.

Better allocation of communal Jewish funds. Real value and support for the investment Jewish organizations make in the Reconstructionist movement. A progressive religious coalition that can contribute to the public square. And a Jewish community that works together across organizational types. This is the change we hope to foster.

Are you in?

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz is president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.