Berkeley rabbi hitting the road for Reconstructionists

If you happen to catch Rabbi Jane Litman humming that old Willie Nelson tune “On the Road Again,” it’s probably because she’s on the road. Again.

As Western region director for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, Litman covers a big chunk of real estate. She consults with 25 Reconstructionist congregations and chavurahs spread out in four subregions, from San Diego to the south, Seattle to the north and Denver to the east.

“You can do only so much virtually,” says the former rabbi at Berkeley’s Reform Congregation Beth El. “I’m on the road a fair amount.”

The challenges those congregations face run the gamut, from fundraising and launching a Hebrew school to bigger questions about identity and purpose.

“Reconstructionism is not well known,” Litman adds. “It’s a Judaism for the 21st century, and so people need to focus on how their community functions, on ritual and theology from a Reconstructionist perspective.”

Founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the early decades of 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 egalitarian, generally liberal, highly intellectual and open to change. The world’s first bat mitzvah ceremony took place in 1922 when Judith Kaplan, daughter of Mordecai Kaplan, read Torah from the bimah.

The movement remains small, though it is growing, especially in the Bay Area.

Two local congregations — Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco, and Or Zarua Havurah in Berkeley — are now affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. The latter is Litman’s chavurah, which she says is largely made up of rabbis and Jewish educators.

“They impress me,” she says of Or Zarua. “Their annual yearly budget is $5,000 and 40 percent of that goes to dues [to the Reconstructionist movement].”

Other local Reconstructionist congregations include Keddem in Palo Alto and Ner Shalom in Cotati.

What makes them Reconstructionists? There is no cookie-cutter portrait of a Reconstructionist congregation, but Litman says they tend to be “highly participatory, well educated, liberal politically and socially, relatively traditional in terms

of ritual and seriously engaged in Jewish heritage.”

Litman is the first rabbi to hold the directorship since 1996. She was ordained as a Reconstructionist rabbi in 1989. During her rabbinical student years, she interned as a chavurah organizer in her native Los Angeles. She went on to serve with several California synagogues — all affiliated with the Reform movement — as well as teach at Loyola Marymount and California State University, Northridge.

She was a rabbi at Berkeley’s Beth El for several years. Litman also currently serves as rabbinic co-chair of the Northern California Progressive Jewish Alliance and sits on the executive board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.

Litman is the first Bay Area-based director in the history of the movement. But local Reconstructionist congregations shouldn’t expect any special treatment. Or should they?

“I’ll give them a lot of extra attention,” she says with a laugh, “because I live here.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.