By Rabbi Deborah Waxman and Seth Rosen
As leaders of the Reconstructionist movement – a small but historically influential stream of Judaism – we had the great honor of spending this past weekend with the members of Dor Hadash, one of our affiliated communities.
Nearly one year ago, our hearts were in our throats when we learned that the Tree of Life building, where Dor Hadash had been meeting since 2010, was under attack. We mourned all victimized and those lost, and agonized for the entire Pittsburgh community. We felt Dor Hadash’s pain acutely: we mourned for Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz (z”l) and prayed for Dan Leger’s healing and for the well-being of the other community members in or on their way into the building that morning.
Dor Hadash, which means “new generation” in Hebrew, has persevered in the face of tragedy and adversity. Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement, has offered assistance where possible, and the generosity of the Jewish and general communities have both been inspiring and made a real difference. Still, the community has been upheld by the care, engagement, passion, humility and wisdom of its members. This past weekend, we encountered a group of people wrestling with loss, and committed to building and rebuilding a community based on its core values, engagement and love.
One thing we heard is that, in the aftermath of October 27, 2018, members of Dor Hadash often feel that they are called on to explain who they are as a religious community, and to explain why their core Jewish beliefs compel them to engage in social activism as an important component of their response to the horrific attack of October 27, 2018.
The primary reasons for this seem to be 1) the community is not led by a rabbi or other fulltime clergy and 2) Dor Hadash is affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement, which is not as well-known as the other major branches of Judaism – the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements.
The Reconstructionist movement was established in America nearly 100 years ago on three core principles:
- A commitment to diversity, the recognition that throughout Jewish history there have been many ways to be and do Jewish and that an embrace of this diversity strengthens the Jewish community.
- The understanding that the Jewish people and the civilization we create is vital and ever-changing. Although our values and beliefs are deeply rooted in the history and traditions of Judaism, we have the right, the opportunity and even the obligation, to “reconstruct” Judaism in each generation in order for it to remain relevant in our lives.
- A passionate belief that democracy emerges from and points toward universal truths.
Reconstructionists also believe passionately that we have a religious obligation, through the generations, to bring justice, fairness, and loving kindness into the world. That commitment is predicated on our commitment to see, in each person and all of creation, the image of the divine. For many Reconstructionist communities, those beliefs compel us to activism, so that we can play a meaningful role in creating a just and safe society for all.
These principles, especially the commitment to democratic practice, infuse the nearly 100 congregations affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. We believe in empowered communities, and view rabbis as guides and teachers, but not as solo decision-makers. Instead, lay people partner with rabbis and educators to shape the religious and cultural practices of each community.
As leaders of the Reconstructionist movement, we hold Dor Hadash up as a powerful example of an active and engaged lay-led Jewish community. Members create the community in which they want to live, through intensive planning, discussion and implementation. They partner with professionals – cantors, rabbis and educators – but overwhelmingly it is the members themselves who lead services, conduct life cycle rituals, visit sick community members, teach classes, engage in social justice work and more.
The community’s deliberate choice not to have a rabbi has made it more challenging for communal leaders and reporters to interact with and understand. There is no figurehead: Dor Hadash is a community that is genuinely comprised of its members. This is a great strength, and we urge communal leaders and opinion makers to recognize Dor Hadash itself – in all dealings around the attack, as an exemplar of vibrant Jewish life.
We learned much from the wise and brave and hard-working members of Dor Hadash, and we urge the greater Pittsburgh community to do the same. It is about honoring communities of religious and cultural diversity, the kind of pluralism birthed by our nation’s founders and nurtured through America’s turbulent history. It is about rejecting the intolerance and hate of a murderer and embracing what our nation is about: the blending of disparate voices into a sometimes discordant but always beautiful democratic chorus.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., is the president of Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement. Seth Rosen chairs the board of governors for the organization.
Also published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.