(Philadelphia) An accrual of timely major changes in clergy training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) became apparent at the 2010 ceremonies graduating new rabbinic and cantorial clergy, and masters degree students. RRC is the seminary and movement founded upon the rational teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. His articulate demystification of the development of Judaism and the Jewish people afforded the conceptual grounding for the evolving nature of contemporary Jewish practice and clergy training.
As an alumna, it was healing to hear Reconstructionist Rabbinical College President Daniel Ehrenkrantz observe out loud that RRC had long been a place where “the head was celebrated over the heart.” Coming to rabbinic training as a board certified social worker, it was uncomfortable being prepared to serve those suffering, celebrating, growing and developing as people and as Jews primarily by means of utterly fascinating scholarly studies.
Major Expansion of Training Modalities
So nice to hear from President Ehrenkrantz in his address and newsletters about the continued evolution of studies at RRC. In the age of the internet where clergy are no longer primarily needed to serve as human hard drives stuffed with Jewish information, remaining relevant, useful and appreciated increasingly involves expanded skill sets. So, while not as extreme as the shift from priesthood officiants in the sacrificial system to scholars of Jewish law, the changing nature of Jewish clergy training at RRC announced is excitingly substantial. There's a lot that's interesting to relate to you.
Being a trendsetter in Jewish life is not new for Reconstructionist Judaism. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was the first American seminary to graduate homosexual Jewish clergy and to incorporate matters of gender studies in its curriculum. And, after an extensive tenure, Dr. Lori Hope Lefkovitz is leaving her RRC chair as the Sadie Gottesman and Arlene Gottesman Reff Professor of Gender and Judaism for another in Jewish Studies at Northeastern University. Her RRC position was envisioned by students and faculty back in the early 1990's as part of the original Jewish Women's Studies five year plan. Now that's planned change – from ideal to realized within one generation!
Visual evidence of the advancement of women in the rabbinate sat front and center on the bima before all, seven women and two men, now known as Rabbis and and a Hazzan. Rabbi Deborah Waxman, ’99, Ph.D. and Isabel de Koninck also rose for their certificates in Jewish Women's Studies, given by RRC in conjunction with Temple University. At the graduation ceremony President Ehrenkrantz announced Mordechai Liebling, ‘85 would be heading “a new Social Justice Organizing Program to invest rabbinical students with the clarity of purpose, vision and voice to become uniquely effective, spiritually strong leaders in the drive toward social justice and environmental sustainability.”
RRC also offers parallel training in how to foster understanding among people of all faiths under the supervision of Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, ’82, Ph.D. with a special emphasis on Jewish-Muslim engagement. Additionally, RRC maintains Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism, and also the Center for Jewish Ethics.
Can a Rational Seminary Incorporate Spirituality Training?
Spirituality ceased to be a scorned term shortly after the World Trade Center was attacked. We all were hurting in some undefined place within ourselves for which the term soul seemed most apropos. Help for those sore of soul, seeking in regard to important life issues, including one's relationship to God, is known in Judaism as hashpa'ah, the field of Jewish spiritual direction. This was first introduced outside of Hassidism by Rabbi Dr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who has by now taught or lectured at most Jewish seminaries in North America, including the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College which now provides formal individual spiritual development of clergy students, under the supervision of its former academic dean, Rabbi Jacob Staub, Ph.D., '77
In social work school we were taught to respect that “all change is difficult.” Honored on the RRC graduation dais, prominent scholar and author Dr. Paul Mendes-Flohr of University of Chicago and Hebrew University, was introduced by an usual quote from his own work: “Nothing Jewish shall be considered alien.” Hopefully this was a comforting thought to some of the rationalist old guard lay leadership of the Reconstructionist movement after the invocation, when Chair, Department of Modern Jewish Civilization and Associate Professor of Jewish Mysticism, Dr. Joel Hecker invoked angels in his benediction. When those graduating opened their collective presentation by speaking of their “immersion in the Divine,” a former RRC board member to my right softly groaned, “Dear God, what's becoming of this institution!” He then chuckled aloud at the expletive he'd so unconsiously uttered.
Fear not, the more things change, the more some things remain the same. Upon requesting ordination photos for this article, the public relations person sent them with the following clarification: “RRC does not use the term 'ordination' because it has the connotation of a divine intervention or intentionality that is not part of Reconstructionist Judaism.” Nor is there the laying on of hands that I experienced in receiving years later in addition to my RRC graduation, the honor of lineage smichah as rabbi, and later as mashpi'ah (spiritual director) and most recently as shlikhah (emissary) from Rabbi Dr. Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. Smichah is the tradition of ordaining rabbis that derives from Moses' laying his hands upon Joshua in passing on the mantle of leadership. Instead, as pictured, students have developed an accommodation to the RRC policy, not just the receipt of a diploma, but also students placing on each other the mantle of a tallit to mark the spiritual passage from student to graduate. And yes, the two rituals do feel remarkably different – one powerfully confers a profession, the second connects one's Source of support and inspiration all the way back to Sinai.
Keeping Rabbis Relevant in Changing Times
RRC's evolving clergy training model does seem to be the epitomy of Kaplanian thought in action during these sobering times of diminishing numbers of traditional clergy jobs. Stories in the press abound on alternative lay-led minyanim that are arising, interspiritual, pan-denominational and virtual seminaries, a growing trend toward lay-led rights of passage, and growing numbers of synagogue mergers. So it was heartening to listen to the mostly outside-the-box career accomplishment of earlier RRC graduates receiving Honorary Doctorates, having distinguished themselves by their longevity in the field and their significant impacts upon American Jewish life. To paraphrase from their introductions, the individuals honored were:
Rabbi Sandra Berliner for her role as a leader in hospice care, with seniors and teenagers here in the Philadelphia area.
Rabbi Deborah Brin, one of the first Reconstructionist rabbis raised in a Reconstructionist home and community and one of the first lesbian students and rabbis out of the closet.
Rabbi Robert Feinberg had the most wide-ranging rabbinate, for 20 years as a navy chaplain, in Jewish Federation work he had the applied goal of overcoming the divide between secular and religious organizations, and he served as a congregation rabbi;
Rabbi Dayle Friedman, honored pioneer in service to elders who has taken a significant role in the development of chaplaincy training for RRC students through her programs Jewish Visions of Aging and Jewish Pastoral Care, and service as founding head of Hiddur, Center for Jewish Aging should be Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism;
Rabbi Bonnie Goldberg has infused Jewish learning into Philadelphia's Jewish agencies, offered pioneering professional participation in the early stages of Birthright Israel, always reaching beyond boundaries of one population or agency to endorse a communal vision;
Rabbi Andrea Gouze, part of the early generation of Jewish women who took on a congregational rabbinate before women were widely accepted in the pulpit has also had active involvement in the Association of Jewish Chaplains, working on the professionalization of Jewish chaplaincy;
Rabbi Barry Israel Krieger, an early and ardent voice leading the RRC community to consider environmental concerns.
In Just One Generation
Amazing to take in that it has only taken one generation for women and gender studies, spirituality, GBLTQ inclusion, Jewish chaplaincy, and other forms of non-pulpit communal service to become core to clergy training. Congratulations to the administration, lay leadership, staff and faculty and mazel tov to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College's new graduates.