When Pragmatists Dream: A Reconstructionist Vision for the Jewish Future

Jews who identify with a Reconstructionist approach to Jewish living generally feel comfortable with complexity. It’s built into our ideological DNA. We care deeply about the rich Jewish legacy we have inherited, grapple with the challenges and opportunities of the current moment, and dream about — and build — the Jewish future we want to see.

Our dreams are grounded in pragmatism and complex realities, but that doesn’t make them any less potent. Which is why I’m proud to introduce our 2016 video annual report: this three-minute, animated video captures our spirit and aspirations for the future. I hope it serves as an inspiration to all Jews – both inside and outside our small yet influential movement – who are cultivating a vibrant, progressive and meaningful future.

The challenges, and the opportunities, facing Jewish life are manifold. Today’s Jewish community is more diverse – ethnically, religiously, politically – than previous generations could have imagined. Young Jews today are far less likely to join synagogues, affiliate with Jewish organizations or, yes, marry someone Jewish. Attitudes toward Israel are far more complex than at any point over the last 70 years. Many in the Jewish world have predicted that these trends will one day spell the end of non-Orthodox Jewry in North America.

The Reconstructionist approach neither minimizes challenges we face nor gives in to doom and gloom. As our new video illustrates, we continue to dreaming dream based in our grasp of complex developments. In order to make the world as we’d like it to be, we begin by understanding how it is.

Consider the nearly three year-old Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, which elicited a wave of hand-wringing and consternation that continues to this day. The discussion largely focused on the decline of religious observance, synagogue affiliation – which actually remains quite close to historical levels – and the rising intermarriage rate. Commentators rightly pointed out that the Jewish distancing from religiosity mirrors a larger American trend in which fewer people are identifying with organized religion.

But almost lost in the debate was the statistic the study begins with: an overarching claim that 94% of American Jews are proud to be part of the Jewish people, and 46% are very proud. From the start, we celebrated this, recognizing the enormous potential in all those proudly identified Jews who are open to a vision of Judaism that is meaningful and vibrant.

How can we be so confident about the future of progressive Judaism? It’s not because we ignore the numbers or discard realities. It’s because we are grounded in our approach to Jewish life. Mordecai Kaplan, the founding thinker of Reconstructionism, applied the principles of pragmatism — a quintessentially American philosophy developed by William James and others — to Judaism in the twentieth century. As a pragmatist, Kaplan resisted answering the question of why we should be Jewish. He understood that when the breadth of Jewish practice and thought was exposed to the openness of modern society, it created an unprecedented situation where each individual could answer this “why” question differently.

Some Jews would find the answer in religious life, others in political activism, still others in cultural explorations of Jewish identity: many define their Jewishness via combinations of all of them. Kaplan believed all of these were integral to the larger project of sustaining Jewish living and meaning-seeking. From the 1920s onward, a major Reconstructionist commitment has been to pragmatically demonstrate multiple ways of how to be Jewish in an open and accepting environment.

The uniqueness of our modern times, and the stakes involved, cannot be overstated: For the first time in Jewish history, being Jewish is a choice.

As part of this pragmatic approach, Reconstructionists have inaugurated new rituals, such as the bat mitzvah, welcoming ceremonies for baby girls and same sex marriage ceremonies (see our website Ritualwell.org for a contemporary collection of rituals). We have edited influential prayer books that include multiple voices and approaches to Jewish prayer. For decades, we have led the way on widening the Jewish tent. We’ve fostered women’s participation, embraced women rabbis, Jews of both patrilineal and matrilineal descent, and openly LGBTQ Jews. These and other efforts emerge out of Kaplan’s insistence that Jewish sources and practices must be relevant and attuned to the contemporary moment. They are expressions of his insistence on broadening the boundaries of the Jewish community without lowering standards.

We firmly believe that the rich storehouse of Jewish teaching and practice can be drawn upon and reconstructed to help Jews — and the people who love us — to be most fully Jewish and most fully human. Our pragmatic approach helps us rise to the challenges and the many opportunities in this age of openness and create a rich, sustaining progressive Jewish future.

But where we go next is up to us.

According to the Pew Report, about 1 percent of the American Jewish population identifies as Reconstructionist. While we are always seeking to grow our dynamic communities, we know we can’t do it alone.

We know we need partners, fellow dreamers and strivers. We need people who share our commitment to a Judaism that is neither secular nor fundamentalist, that welcomes all, that is upheld by the past and embracing of the future.

We dream of Jewish communities where individual needs are recognized, embraced and met. Where meaning seeking and connection are fostered. Where we work in partnership to create a more just and caring world.

Our beliefs and our approach reflects those of the majority of North American Jews. We need your passions, your ideas and your voices. I invite you to connect with us, build with us, and dream with us.

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., is president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College / Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.

About the Author
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D. is the president of Reconstructing Judaism.