My Accessible Reconstructionist Adventure
Each week Florida Region FJMC reaches out to offer a tidbit of Torah, a moment of Jewish learning and a glimpse into some of the many active and dynamic Jewish Men’s Clubs, Brotherhoods and synagogues that populate the Sunshine State. Did you know there are almost three quarters of a million people living in Florida that self-identify as Jewish? Some are Jewish by birth, others are Jewish by choice. Some worship as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist while others defy a “traditional” label.
Several months ago I had the pleasure of meeting Len Zangwill at a multi-region Men’s Club Retreat in the Pocono Mountains. Unlike the other attendees, he was not part of a particular Men’s Club or Brotherhood but instead joined the FJMC as a “individual member”. Len told me we was a “Reconstructionist” Jew and was kind enough to explain his philosophy of Judaism in this week’s column:
“My Accessible Reconstructionist Adventure“
– by Len Zangwill
I consider myself a Reconstructionist Jew. An obvious question from those who are not is “What does that mean?” A trio of word pairs can be very helpful in explaining what Reconstructionist Judaism is all about. These are Accessibility and Adventure; Choice and Community; and Traditional and Timely.
Accessibility and Adventure
At a recent Shabbat service the words Accessibility and Adventure came up. These two words are actually a good reflection of my experience with Reconstructionist Judaism in general. Reconstructionism overall is really good at valuing different pathways to being Jewish. Each person has the right to connect with Judaism in their own way. This connection may or may not be focused on attendance at services and/or celebrating Jewish holidays. This is because a fundamental concept of Reconstructionism is that Judaism is much more than a religion (beliefs, writings, liturgy, ritual); rather it is a civilization that incorporates all of the above as well as arts, language, food, memories, history, ethics, etc. As these have evolved over the years, so has Jewish civilization changed over the centuries.
Choice and Community
An individual can effectively choose which of the above elements they want to adopt as they define what “being Jewish” means for them. These individuals may or may not have a direct biological trail back to the Jews of ancient times. “Being Jewish” means that one is choosing to attempt to learn and incorporate G-d’s wisdom and knowledge into their lives and be part of the Jewish community. “Being Jewish” does not mean being chosen by G-d to receive greater wisdom than other peoples of the earth. This inclusivity (allowing people to effectively choose to participate) is a key part of Reconstructionism. Being born of a Jewish mother and/or father is not a requirement if you are choosing to be a part of the Jewish story. In a broader sense, Judaism is the sum total of the people who have made the choice (and are still making) the choice to incorporate Judaism into their lives.
Akin to other Jewish movements, Reconstructionist Judaism is best experienced in community. One distinctive aspect of my congregation is the ethos of congregant engagement. I can’t speak for other congregations (both within Reconstructionism and in other movements), but my synagogue seems to have many more volunteers than other organizations its size. Another really neat aspect of my congregation (similar to other congregations in the movement) is the role of the rabbi. She is the spiritual leader for sure, but most definitely not the spiritual arbiter. I think of her as a guide to the vast array of Jewish teachings and traditions as opposed to the decider of what the congregation should believe.
Traditional and Timely
The Reconstructionist movement values Jewish tradition as the first source for answers and guidance. However, it is not the only source. We look to Jewish tradition for guidance but not necessarily as the determinative answer. Put another way, Jewish tradition has a vote, but not a veto. Just as many generations in the past have done, we can look at a concept that has been discussed previously and apply a newer perspective to it. The Reconstructionist movement was a leader in enabling women to be counted in a minyan. For centuries, the tradition had been men only. Another example is the Aleynu prayer, which traditionally focuses on offering praises to the One who made us different from other (non-Jewish) peoples in various ways. Another (Reconstructionist) interpretation of Aleynu is to emphasize celebrating the truth of the actual teachings as much as the Creator’s greatness. By broadening and changing the focus of the prayer, we no longer proclaim that we have access to the Creator’s teachings while others do not. (I highly recommended the commentaries in the Reconstructionist Kol Haneshamah siddur; they are wonderful for providing different perspectives on the liturgy.)
The High Holiday season is upon us. This is a really good time for me to take (spiritual) stock in general, and think about Judaism and the role it can play in my life. The answer is – I do not really know; but I do know that it is never too late to try to figure this out. If that answer changes over the weeks, months, and years, ahead, so be it. As many commentaries in the Reconstructionist siddur Kol Haneshamah say, the kavanah (intention) is really important. If I stay attuned to the kavanah of “being more Jewish,” whatever that means, I’ll be fine. More Jewish pathways will inevitably open up. Multiple pathways into Jewish life? Sounds pretty Reconstructionist to me!
Len Zangwill is a member of Congregation Or Hadash in Ft. Washington PA, outside of Philadelphia. Learn more about Or Hadash and Reconstructionism visit https://www.orhadash.com/ and https://www.reconstructingjudaism.org/ or email Len at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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