Reconstructionist Jews set for historic gathering in S.F.

Founded more than 80 years ago, Reconstructionist Judaism has slowly but surely gained a toehold in the Bay Area, and now it’s taking a big step forward: its first ever gathering in Northern California.

Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman

“Giving and Receiving: A Reconstructionist Inheritance” is a one-day program of workshops and lectures scheduled for Feb. 7 at Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco.

“We thought it was time for all of us to get together,” said Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman, director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation’s Western region. “We now have enough people in Northern California, so it is time for us to have a day where we could meet and study together.”

There are currently six Reconstructionist communities in Northern California, including four in the Bay Area: Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto, Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco, Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati and Or Zarua, a small chavurah that meets in Berkeley.

Litman says she expects the event to be attended by more than 60 people — ranging from rabbis to members of Reconstructionist congregations to local Jews who are interested in learning more about the movement.

Elaine Moise

Elaine Moise, who helped found Keddem Congregation in 1993 (at the time, it was the only Reconstructionist congregation between Los Angeles and Marin), promises a packed, diverse program.

“[The committee] tried to figure out how much we could fit in a one-day program,” said Moise, the chair of the event’s planning committee. “We looked for members from all the different communities and tried to get a broad spectrum of diverse people involved.”

The six-hour event will include lectures, chanting and workshops, along with a vegetarian lunch.

Moise, a trained singer and music historian, will deliver a lecture on Judaism’s connection to music titled, “Living in Many Civilizations: It’s Music, But is it Jewish?”

Some other sessions include titles such as “Queer Midrash for Everyone” and “Returning Your Enemy’s Ox: Jewish Teachings on the Humane Treatment of the Other.” Rabbi Harry Manhoff, past president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, will offer “Maimonides: The First Reconstructionist.”

Reconstructionism, which was founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the late 1920s, views Judaism as the evolving civilization of the Jewish people. While embracing much of traditional Jewish worship, Torah and mitzvahs, it looks at Jewish life through a modern lens and is highly egalitarian, intellectual and open to innovation.

“Reconstructionists tend to be very socially progressive,” Litman said. “The first bat mitzvah [in 1922] was through a Reconstructionist synagogue, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia was the first to

admit women and openly gay students, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association was first to admit gay members.”

Moise, a Mountain View resident who grew up in New York, came to Reconstructionist Judaism 20 years ago, after being raised Reform.

“Reconstructionist philosophy says that Jews invented Judaism rather than it being given to them,” Moise explained. “The common misconception that Reconstructionists don’t believe in God is not true. The truth is that a strong belief in God is just not the major focus. The focus is on Judaism as the evolving civilization of the Jewish people.”

And now, the focus is also on the get-together Feb. 7.

“We finally have a critical mass of communities to get this thing going,” Litman says. “I think it will be a very exciting day.”

“Giving and Receiving: A Reconstructionist Inheritance” is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at Or Shalom Jewish Community, 1250 Quintara St., S.F. $18 registration fee includes lunch, $8 for no lunch. For details, visit www.orshalom.org.