Last year, Reconstructionist Judaism reconstructed its own name. It will now be known as Reconstructing Judaism, and its adherents – if such a phrase is applicable to a movement wishing to disassociate itself from formalities – are now called Reconstructing Jews.
“Everything is always changing in the Reconstructing movement,” said Rabbi Greg Hersh of Temple Emmanuel in Wakefield. “[The new title] is more active, participatory, and therefore, more descriptive of what we actually do.”
Active, communal participation in the regular reappraisal of a congregation’s values and practices is arguably the central tenet of Reconstructing Judaism. The movement was developed in the early 1920s by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a Conservative rabbi who viewed Judaism as an evolving civilization rather than a divinely inspired set of laws given to a divinely chosen people.
“Kaplan was really thoughtful about what does it mean for Judaism to exist and to change according to the values of the American society that he was so happy to be part of,” said Rabbi Karen Landy of Havurat Shalom, a Reconstructing congregation in Andover. “Is there really one path to God, or are there many paths to God? Many of us would say ‘Yes, there are parts of Judaism that are outdated, and it’s OK to change it.’”
While Temple Emmanuel and Havurat Shalom started off in different places, they have arrived somewhere similar: the kind of congregation where a Saturday Shabbat service can be a hike in the woods, kids choose their own Torah portion for their bar or bat mitzvah, and the rabbis can not only perform interfaith marriages, they are allowed to marry non-Jews themselves.
Temple Emmanuel began as a Conservative synagogue known for its progressive views. According to congregant Warren Silbovitz, Emmanuel was one of the first congregations in the country to have a woman president.
In 2011, membership had dwindled to just 30 families, and the Wakefield temple was in danger of closing. Meanwhile, Silbovitz had just returned from living in North Carolina, where he attended a Reconstructionist synagogue.
“One of the things we realized by being away and coming back was our synagogue in Wakefield was a Reconstructionist synagogue – we just didn’t know it,” he said. The board began a search for a young, dynamic rabbi who could turn the place around.
After a long search, they found one in Greg Hersh, a former Buddhist who had considered becoming a monk until he discovered Reconstructing Judaism and decided to become a rabbi instead. Rabbi Hersh has worked with the congregation to implement important changes since his arrival in 2016. Through an 18-month process known as Values-Based Decision Making, the congregation made a series of decisions on the specific language used in its transdenominational prayer books; the degree to which electronics and musical instruments should be allowed in the synagogue on Shabbat; the level of adherence to kashrut; and more.
“The competing values were maintaining tradition – there’s something very powerful about using the exact same words our ancestors used, versus our ability to believe what we’re praying for: Can we really pour our hearts into this?” said Rabbi Hersh. “After this whole process, the community decided that we’re now using all Reconstructed language for our prayers. We use universal language vs. chosen language.”
Rabbi Hersh has implemented other meaningful changes, like reopening the Hebrew school, implementing voluntary dues, and organizing alternative Shabbats spent meditating or hiking in the woods.
“The congregation knew big changes were needed … it’s been a big three years here,” said Rabbi Hersh, though he noted that Emmanuel remains in many ways a classic suburban synagogue more conventional than many other Reconstructing congregations.
You can travel just 15 or so miles up Interstate 93 to see what Rabbi Hersh is talking about. Havurat Shalom began as the Andover Jewish Fellowship, a prototypical 1960s havurah co-op that met a few times a year and aimed to make Judaism accessible to those who didn’t know Hebrew. Today, Havurat Shalom retains that cooperative, egalitarian spirit. Dues are voluntary, the rabbi is the only paid staff member, and a tight-knit congregation meets once a month for services at Christ Church in Andover, where the Hebrew school is also held.
The congregation focuses strongly on fellowship and wide-ranging social justice efforts. “We refer to ourselves as a community,” said David Hastings, the longtime president. “We’re a community in the sense that we’re in it for each other. We’re more than just friends, we’re more than a havurah. Because we’re small enough … we end up knowing when people need assistance or a hand. And we try to be helpful to the community.”
Havurat Shalom has worked to further its original vision of accessible and meaningful worship for everyone. “As liberal Jews, we’re not bound by Jewish law, but we’re asked to look at Jewish law as a stepping stone to say, ‘OK, this what the law says – how do we incorporate that into our life in a meaningful way?’” said Landy, who is also a full-time rabbi for Hebrew SeniorLife in Dedham. This means that b’nai and b’not mitzvah are able to choose a meaningful Torah portion rather than having one assigned to them. Additionally, traditional requirements like kashrut and Sabbath observance are seen more as guidelines for discussion about food consumption or meditation.
“I often will talk about how to bring Shabbat into your life even in a minimal way, so you can mark the day and time,” said Rabbi Landy. “People feel like kashrut is the same – what’s the next way of looking at the food we eat? How do we care for the world, how are the animals raised and the vegetables grown? Is it sustainable?”
Rabbi Hersh noted that while Reconstructed ideas seem radical, other denominations often eventually follow suit. “We lead from the edge of American Judaism,” he said. “We’re a very small movement, but other movements listen to us, learn from us, respond to us. We were the first ever bat mitzvah, we were the first openly gay rabbi. We think of ourselves as precedent-setters. Eventually, the Reform movement follows suit, and then the Conservative movement does the same thing. Even though we don’t have a lot of synagogues to show for it, we’ve had a massive impact on American Judaism.”