Reconstructionist rabbis give it the old college try

Three years ago, Dan Ehrenkrantz and his colleagues at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College sat down to plan a new pilot program.

What happened next resembled a scene from one of those “Hey, let’s put on a show!” Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals.

“We asked what would happen if we put a rabbi into a Jewish community and said, ‘We want you to serve the community,'” recalled Ehrenkrantz, president of the suburban Philadelphia-based college. “‘We don’t have a synagogue or all the structures of an organization. Just find ways to be of service.'”

Those were the marching orders Ehrenkrantz gave Rabbi Henry Schreibman, former head of Brandeis Hillel Jewish Day School and now Reconstructionist Judaism’s point man in the Bay Area.

His official title: West Coast director of advancement and outreach.

Since the program began, Schreibman has developed adult education courses, b’nai mitzvah training, Shabbat services and Jewish education programs, in particular for special needs kids. All are imbued with Reconstructionist philosophy.

Two local synagogues have hired rabbis ordained at the Reconstructionist College, including Rosalind Glazer at Congregation Beth Israel-Judea and Katie Mizrahi at Or Shalom Jewish Community, both in San Francisco.

Neither synagogue is affiliated with the Reconstructionist Judaism, but if Schreibman and Ehrenkrantz have their way, the movement will continue to make inroads in the Bay Area.

“We don’t want in any way to take strength or energy away from existing communal institutions,” Ehrenkrantz said during a recent swing through the Bay Area. “At the same time, there are a huge number of Jews not necessarily being reached by all the institutions. This was a way we could make a contribution.”

Founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan early in the 20th century, Reconstructionism views Judaism as the evolving civilization of the Jewish people. While embracing much of traditional Jewish worship, Torah and mitzvahs, it is highly egalitarian, intellectual and open to innovation.

The world’s first bat mitzvah ceremony took place in 1922 when Judith Kaplan, daughter of Mordecai Kaplan, read Torah from the bimah.

As towering a figure as Kaplan was, the movement he founded remains small. There is no Reconstructionist synagogue in the Bay Area, and since it was founded in 1968, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has graduated only about 300 students.

Yet the movement has influenced Judaism far beyond its modest numbers. “We have seen unattributed successes,” Schreibman said. “Ninety percent of [Kaplan’s insights] turned out to be brilliant and sociologically accurate.”

For those interested in exploring Reconstructionist views, Schreibman has staged Reconstructionist High Holy Days and Shabbat services. He’s taught classes at Lehrhaus Judaica and local JCCs. He even hosted a tashlich ceremony at Fort Mason.

“It’s happening in Marin, Sonoma, San Francisco, up in Davis,” he said of the regional interest in Reconstructionist Judaism. “It has a buzz effect. That was one of the mission goals.”

Today there is a Reconstructionist havurah in the East Bay and a small, lay-led congregation, Keddem, in Palo Alto. But Schreibman predicts that within three years the Bay Area will be home to several more local Reconstructionist communities.

The prospect excites Ehrenkrantz, but he has never put all his eggs in the synagogue basket.

“I love synagogues,” he said. “You can develop Jewish life and community within synagogues unlike anything you can develop outside of them. We also know only 50 percent of the Jewish community is affiliated at any one time. We can either write them off, or we can determine it is an important population to reach out to.”

Ehrenkrantz is fond of the Bay Area, and not only because this is the site of the program. He spent his first 10 years in the East Bay, and though his family belonged to an Orthodox congregation, his grandfather, who identified as Reconstructionist, served as rabbi to a Conservative synagogue in Sacramento.

“When I was interested in rabbinical school, I determined I would get the best education at the Recontructionist Rabbinical College,” he said. “It had the smallest faculty, the worst library, but despite the paucity of resources, there was an atmosphere of intellectual inquiry and seriousness of study I didn’t feel was matched anywhere else.”

After his ordination in 1989, Ehrenkrantz served a Reconstructionist synagogue through 2002, when he left to become president of the college. He’s proud of the institution’s innovations, such as Hiddur, its in-house center for aging and Judaism, and Kolot, a center for Jewish women’s and gender studies.

Still, the college’s core mission is to turn out newly minted Reconstructionist rabbis. Their number may be small, but Ehrenkrantz believes his graduates have had a big impact. “But by investing heavily in a leadership cadre, you will see change,” he said. “If you want [change] to happen, we are a place that historically has led the way.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at