Children Teach Us Something Important on the Basketball Court

I recently went to the Wells Fargo Center to watch some kids play a pickup game of basketball. It was not your typical basketball game, however, but not because the kids were playing on the home court of the Philadelphia 76ers. This was a game involving students from the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr and the Al Aqsa Islamic Academy in Philadelphia. It was also the bar mitzvah project of Ari Abramovitz, a middle-school student at Barrack. [Read more…]

Are You Opening – or Closing – Your Children’s Hearts?

— by Rabbi Rami Shapiro

There are only two ways to raise your children: you either shut them down or you open them up.

  • If you shut them down you raise them in a zero-sum world of winners and losers. You teach them that the world is a pie of fixed size, and that if they want more they must see that others have less or perhaps nothing at all. This is a fearful world of endless and often violent competition and retribution; a world of haves and have-nots; a world of us versus them where the ends (the success of us) justify the means (whatever secures the failure of them).
  • If you open your children up you raise them in a nonzero-sum world where abundance is the norm, and while there will still be winners and losers-those who have more and those have less-it is not a world that allows some to have nothing. This is a world rooted in compassion rather than competition; a world of us and them rather than a world of us versus them.

More after the jump.
Are you parenting opened hearts or closed hearts?

One way to know is to analyze the stories you share with your children. I’m not talking about the storybooks you read to your kids, though these too need to be looked at; I’m talking about the stories you teach them through your faith and your dealings with others.

The other day I was in a local Wal-Mart walking down a toy isle. Two kids were eyeing the action figures. Both boys were with their moms, one of whom was dressed in a manner that identified her as a Muslim. The little Muslim boy picked up a toy and turned to show it to the other boy who moved closer to get a better look. As the boy moved closer his mom, who had been holding his hand, yanked him back, turned and walked to another isle. As she passed me I heard her say to her son, “We don’t talk to those people. They don’t believe in Jesus.”

Religion is often a means for closed-heartedness, and parallel stories could be found in any faith. Because religious stories are some of the most personality shaping stories we humans tell, we must examine them to see what kind of children we are raising when we tell them these stories.

A few months ago I met with a small gathering of Muslim and Christian clergy to draft a statement condemning religious violence. We had no problem doing this as long as the violence was this-worldly, but when I suggested we also condemn the eternal torture of nonbelievers (who are really only differently believing believers) in the world to come, I found myself in a minority of one. If God wants to burn people for believing what they believe that is His business, I was told. So yes, we should avoid telling our children that our God condones violence against those who believe differently than we do, but we should tell them that God will do just that when they die.

Of course religion isn’t the only source of heart-closing stories. Politics, nationalism, ethnicity, race can all be used to this end. And what all these heart-closing stories have in common is that they demonize the other.

So what stories are you telling your children?

When you see a homeless person is your story “There but for the grace of God go I,” or do you talk about the power of negative thinking, or do you talk about justice and injustice and our obligations to the poor? None of these stories stops you from giving money to the poor and homeless, but each speaks to a worldview that is either heart-closing or heart-opening.

  • If your story is “There but for the grace of God go I,” you are saying that God loves you more than God does the poor and homeless.
  • If your story is one of negative thinking: the homeless person attracted poverty to herself by “thinking poor” rather than “thinking rich,” you are saying that you think better than does this other person.

Both of these stories are heart-closing, but don’t imagine that telling the story of justice and injustice is automatically heart-opening. If your justice story demonizes the wealthy or makes saints of the poor you are still telling a tale that closes the heart. As long as you tell stories that pit an “us” against a “them,” you are perpetuating a world and a mindset that will force your child to live in a fearful world haunted by the specter of the other.

Telling heart-opening stories isn’t easy. It requires you to carefully examine your worldview and the stories you tell to reinforce it. It may force you to challenge cherished stories of your own: stories about being chosen and not chosen, or saved and damned. It may force you to change your story, and that may cause others who still cherish that story to reject you because you rejected it. Storytelling has real-life consequences, and because it does it is vital that you know what you telling.

If you want to raise open-hearted kids tell them heart-opening stories; stories that speak of us and them rather than us versus them; stories that link success to personal integrity, creativity, compassion, and curiosity rather than selfishness, greed, conformity, and exploiting the weaknesses of others; stories that show a world rooted in love rather than fear. And if you take on this challenge, just know that you will be doing so in the face of a culture that too often tells a very different story.


Rabbi Rami Shapiro, PhD teaches religious studies at Middle Tennessee State University and is the director of Wisdom House Center for Interfaith Studies in Nashville. He has written over two dozen books and a new series, Rabbi Rami’s Guide to God: Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Teacher. Rabbi Rami Shapiro is also a contributing author to Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning.

Reframing the Hanukkah Christmas Dilemma

Rabbi Goldie Milgram

In memory of my father Samuel Milgram and his birthday on the third Hanukkah Light

When almost all your congregants raise their hands to the question “Do you have a Christmas tree up this season in your home?” it’s quite unsettling for a rabbi. This happened to me back in 1989 in a rural pulpit. The Hanukkah-Christmas dilemma full-blown. What to do, if anything?

A creative program came to mind during a night of troubled dreams. The president of the congregation, ever a supporter of my tendency towards R&D on behalf of the Jewish future, organized everything perfectly to my specifications. And the congregants came, almost all of them.

More after the jump.
First, we set up the synagogue president’s dining room perfectly ready for Passover.

Then we set up her basement, perfectly ready for Christmas with a whole set up borrowed from a pious Christian neighbor.

Then we set up her den with menorah, dreidl, Hanukkah decorations and foods.

Perhaps you can intuit why this particular set-up, a month before Hanukkah and Christmas which fell close together that year.

Bringing in the Light of Spiritual Intimacy and Understanding

As each couple arrived for the program, they received a questionnaire suggesting they go to the Passover room, if raised primarily Jewish, and the Christmas room, if raised primarily Christian. And there to sit quietly and sing along with the music, look at the tree, the art, the food, allow memories to arise and then answer a series of questions.

To the best of my recollection the questions were:

1. Please list all holiday and religious symbols in this room and  their meaning to the best of your knowledge.

2. Make a list of those with whom you’ve primarily shared this holiday with over the years and how that is for you.

3. What are your favorite foods for this holiday?

4. What are your most and least favorite customs and practices for this holiday and why?

5. Is this a holy day for you and what makes it holy for you?

Now, if you are in the Passover room please go to the Christmas room and vice-versa, turn this page over and answer do the same as you did here, answering the questions as well for that room as duplicated on the other side of this page. When you have been to both rooms, we will meet up in the Hanukkah room for a discussion of our findings, three couples will explain why they either a) have a Christmas tree and a menorah in their home, b) have only a menorah for this season c) have neither. We will conclude with a Hanukkah teaching with Reb Goldie.

What Do These Symbols Tell Us?

It was so moving to watch laughter and tears flow softly as congregants moved from room to room experiencing the differences among the holidays. The sharing was profound and interesting. What does the wine mean on the seder table? Jews would say joy, several Christians reported it symbolizing the blood of their Lord Jesus. Wine in Judaism actually symbolizes the joy of the gift of life, the life-force itself.

The painting of Jesus on the Cross that we were given to put up in the room with tree, presents and carols, Yule log (both aflame in fire place, and a yummy cake), Wassail bowl, etc. Jews reported sadness and some fear at seeing a young Jewish man dying a horrible death as a religious symbol, Christians reported the symbol of what their Lord Jesus did for them that their sins might be forgiven.

We listened to each other, educated each other, forgave each other our misunderstandings, appreciated fears of loss of identity, of family connections and histories, made room for respective persecutions across the ages. The power of Passover, one of our major holy days, became so palpably meaningful it seemed to all present. Dealing with the bitterness of slavery and taskmasters of old, within and present employers on the metaphor level. The importance of a holy day that values the tears of effort and pain shed on the way to eliminating slavery. Breaking the bread of affliction, the matzah over our hearts to led in the Light of healing…and so much more.

Balancing a Festival against a Holy Day – Ahhh, We Get It

Christmas tree envy was indeed described and receded as the program progressed and a striking concept emerged through our studies. The Hanukkiah, the menorah, is mentioned twenty-seven times in the Torah. Precise details of its construction are given when Moses is alone on the mountaintop, listening to G*d and seeing the Architect’s vision (Exodus 25:31-40). The menorah, then, becomes a symbol of this listening and holding of the Light of awareness that began for him at the Burning Bush. The menorah’s original shape is, indeed, that of a tree.

More on Menorah as Inspiring Metaphor

Torah (The Five Books of Moses) is called a Tree of Life and is made of the original light filtered, condensed, formed into creation, and encoded in letters dancing with energy. The menorah symbolizes the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, the awareness it only takes one person of vision to lead the way to face the pharaoh’s of our times and all times, the menorah is our Burning Bush. Its light is God as Torah, filtered through the prism of your soul and actions, focusing us on the mission of the Jewish people, to live mitzvah-centered, rather than self centered lives.

The original menorah had seven branches. The Hanukkah menorah has nine, to commemorate the Maccabees’ eight day festival for rededication of the temple, plus one extra branch for the shamash, a helper candle to ignite the others.

What about the miracle of the cruse of oil lasting eight days? This and many other stories arose long after the event, entering the realm of our tribal sacred myth. The Hanukkah menorah, however, does recall miracles-that there was enough “oil,” then and now, enough of the Jewish soul left after so much assimilation and trauma, to rededicate ourselves to the covenant of living as Jews. Even today a huge menorah engraved with scenes from Jewish history stands outside Israel’s parliament, an enduring symbol of that dedication.

The Seleucid Empire, part of the Greek Empire and its intent for homogeneous practices among its citizens, had enacted edicts prohibiting Jews from living our Torah. We were prohibited at peril of death to observe the sabbath, have a Jewish name, keep separate milk (the gift of life) from meat (life taken away), and worse. Hanukkah also symbolizes the courage it takes to trust and maintain our ways. We are one of the longest continually existing peoples on the planet with much of depth, importance and beauty to transmit across the generations. We exist for a purpose.

On the Roman arch of Titus, commemorating the conquering of Jerusalem, the Romans are shown carrying off the menorah in triumph. Those Romans didn’t know that the most precious part of all had been left behind, carried in the soul-sparks of our people, every one of us a branch of a hidden menorah, carrying the light of Torah.

Through our congregation’s program and studies we became a menorah of community in the room; each soul a candle burning brightly with a vision of God’s light coming into us as inspiration for living mitzvah-centered lives.

Making Each Night of Hanukkah Remarkable

We began to brainstorm how to make each night of Hanukkah a gift of awareness, spiritual growth, family and friend connection, and caring beyond our immediate circle. Jewish families, someone noted at that program, tend to randomly come home with gifts for our children throughout the year. Those presents are one way we show love and recognition of the interests and abilities of our child. On Hanukkah, we realized, the present is how we receive and utilize the light of Torah.

To transform from consumer consciousness to mitzvah consciousness on Hanukkah, over the years with communities, we’ve brainstormed:

On the first candle of Hanukkah some of us venture with into attics, closets and garages to find surplus things – bikes, tv’s, vcrs, computers; and after school and before lighting the menorah, brought these goods to family service professionals who know those in need…

Some of us focused on saving energy and care for the planet by putting in more efficient light bulbs, having energy audits, doubling up on blankets and lower thermostats for another day of Hanukkah…

Some hold an Israel arts evening as the Hanukkah candles glow, each family showing something they’ve acquired to symbolize the miracle of Israel realized in our times in their hearts and homes….Some also hold out a light to the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and hold a Hanukkah fundraiser for joint learning centers and summer camps…

The fifth candle might include an invitation to bring a photo of Hanukkah family times past, to tell and video stories of those no longer with us whose lives added light to our own… Some consider our own inner light on Hanukkah, is our spark dim or bright? What do we need to do to heal in order to become better able to serve and savor in this life?

By the sixth candle some of us take our tzedakah boxes (where we regularly drops coins and bills to accumulate for charity) and open them to count what has accrued over the year for distribution. Each person brings information about a good cause and those present become a holy allocations committee, sometimes adding Hanukkah gelt – funds dedicated with care on Hanukkah…

The seventh candle might involve bringing a menorah, candles and home-made latkes over to share at a shelter for abused women and children, homeless persons, or a home for elders…

The last night of Hanukkah, as eight lights blaze in the menorah sometimes we do an Internet search on the meaning and places in Torah and Jewish literature and history of  our Jewish names and make or give a piece of jewelry to honor the freedom we have to hold those names dear…

The eighth night is also a time to dream of peace and good lives for all, to discuss and donate to causes that work for education, well-being, the environment and peace. The root letters of Hanukkah come from the term for education and dedication. All ages who can be present for such discussions increase the light of understanding and let it fuel constructive action.

How the Christmas Tree Question Received Closure

My first pulpit showed me how to cast light on making Hanukkah spiritually meaningful. On the Shabbat of Hanukkah they brought their handmade menorahs from a congregational workshop and in front of the lights dedicated themselves to advancing their learning and practice. Each year I taught a series on one of the ten major aspects of living a mitzvah-centered life – Prayer, God, Torah, Shabbat, Hebrew, Halachah (guidelines), Mitzvot (actions to engage in and refrain from), Life Cycle Rituals, Peoplehood and Hebrew, our sacred language wherein so much wisdom and light abides. These teachings became my first three books.

My first congregation’s farewell service to launch me into a new career chapter as a seminary dean offered closure on the original Christmas tree question. After a quilt with a square of learning from each family was presented as part of the ritual, the president asked, “How many present put up a Christmas tree for the family at your home on the holidays?” As I recall, one new member family and one long-time member family raised their hands. I encouraged them to go to extended families for Christmas with love and joy, bearing and receiving gifts if that is expected. Their own homes had become Jewish homes with a tree of the light of Torah, the menorah at the center of their holiday season.

Blessings this Hanukkah to experience and increase “de”-Light.

See the Reclaiming Judaism Website for books by Rabbi Goldie Milgram.

Updated Article: Expanded Clergy Skills Being Cultivated at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

(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.

Expanded Clergy Skills Being Cultivated at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Michael Gross confirmed as a rabbi during RRC graduation tallit ceremony

(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.

Photo: Michael Gross confirmed as a rabbi during RRC graduation tallit ceremony
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 that’s all shifting! 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 in Jewish Women and Gender Studies 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 and Isabelle Dekonick 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 Rabbi Mordecai Liebling (RRC ’95) 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, 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. RRC now provides formal individual spiritual development of clergy students, under the supervision of its former academic dean, Rabbi Jacob Staub.

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-Flor 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 Dean of Students and Chair of Contemporary Judaism, 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.

But 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, mashpi’ah (spiritual director) and 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 Sandy 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 Dale 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;
  • 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.

Reconstructionist Rabbinical College 2010 Graduates as pictured from left to right.

  • Back row: Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, Cantor Manel Frau-Cortes, Rabbi Nehama Benmosche, Rabbi Sandra Hendin, Ph.D., Rabbi Evette Lutman, Rabbi Michael Ross;
  • Front row: Rabbi Sarah Newmark, Rabbi Julie Pfau, Rabbi Allison Peiser.