Reconstructionist Judaism, the stream of Judaism that likes to call itself the “fourth branch,” often in the shadow of Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Judaism, is reconstructing itself again. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, located in suburban Philadelphia, announced recently that it is starting a major program to boost its presence in cyberspace, according to the Philadelphia Exponent.
On the eve of the Jewish New Year, the Jewish Week spoke with Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, spiritual leader of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism SAJ), a prominent Reconstructionist congregation on the Upper West Side, about his movement’s current conditions. Rabbi Strassfeld is co-author of the popular “Jewish Catalog” series in the 1970s and a leader of the Havurah movement.
Q: The movement’s founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, spoke of Judaism as civilization, of a collective destiny shaped by participating Jews rather than a practice defined by written texts and a God who is not personal. So how does a Reconstructionist Jew approach the Days of Awe, and how does a Reconstructionist Jew view the prayer process?
Prayer is an experience foreign to most Jews of whatever denomination. Yet, services are at the center of what synagogues are. Reconstructionism means that each generation of Jews has the obligation and the opportunity to reconstruct the Jewish tradition. When the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis instituted prayer services as a substitute for the sacrificial cult. Perhaps in our time, we need to “reconstruct” prayer as a practice focused on our inner lives. Rather than conceiving of it as asking God for things, services are a precious gift to ourselves in our busy lives to focus on our spiritual lives.
What is SAJ doing to reach out to the Facebook generation?
People in their 20s experience the world as a society without boundaries. This is made true by cyberspace. It means that inclusivity rather than exclusivity is a primary way of looking at the world. It means the standard Jewish position on intermarriage is as old news as Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. As recent surveys show, it also means that there is less connection to Israel in that age cohort. Therefore, we will be inviting young adults who grew up at SAJ back for one of the holidays for an open discussion on what Israel does or does not mean to them.
This year, SAJ will engage in a yearlong community conversation on the question of what we might want from a synagogue and how that might change what our synagogue looks like. The new technological tools, blogs and Facebook, can be useful tools in making connections. Ultimately though they are only tools. It is the product that is the essence. Unless synagogues are sources for meaning in people’s lives, we will not be successful in the long run.
Are your movement’s numbers declining?
I don’t think so. Synagogue numbers across the board are in decline. We’re not immune to that. In a certain way, being the smallest of the four [denominations], we probably have a higher percentage of people who are committed. It takes a little more energy to pick the “odd’ choice.
You just completed a six-month sabbatical. What does a rabbi do away from the synagogue?
It was an opportunity to attend other synagogues, to see how other rabbis do services and organize their community. It was an also an opportunity to pursue two hobbies. I have an extensive collection of signs from synagogues that have closed down — the JCC in Manhattan did an exhibit of them a year ago. I’m interested in art — I’ve been paper cutting for a number of years. I studied [during the sabbatical] with a paper engineer, who does pop-up books.
What subjects will you talk about in your High Holy Day sermons?
I’m focusing on whether the model of the synagogue, the American synagogue model, is still working; does it need to change in radical ways? And whether prayer services need to be restructured to focus on the inner lives of Jews.