Reconstructionists Press Effort for Greater Jewish Recognition

Times Religion Writer

Reconstructionism, a progressive Jewish movement considered a major influence on American synagogue life, is continuing efforts begun a year ago to gain recognition as the fourth wing of organized Judaism.

The Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, based in New York City, has only been in existence since 1954. Its rabbinical college in Philadelphia began in 1968.

Its number of affiliated synagogues and havurot ("fellowships") climbed to just 60 with the admittance of five new congregations at its national convention in Los Angeles this week. By comparison, the Reform Judaism has more than 1,000 affiliated congregations.

And though its membership application to join the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox representatives on the Synagogue Council of America was vetoed by Orthodox members a year ago, it was learned that three Reconstructionist executives met last week in New York with some officials connected to the Synagogue Council to find some way of becoming involved in the umbrella organization.

'Quiet Rapprochement'

"We are working on quiet rapprochement," said Mordechai Liebling, executive director of the Reconstructionist federation. "We are discussing how we can be involved in an organic relationship with them."

He attributed the Orthodox veto of Reconstructionist membership to "the internal political problems of the Orthodox community," namely "intense pressure from its right wing." Orthodox Judaism consists of several groups, the most conservative of which have frequently criticized non-Orthodox religious bodies as violators of Jewish law.

A council spokesman confirmed that Orthodox representatives voted against hearing a report on the federation's membership last June. The spokesman said the Orthodox had enough difficulty at present working with the Reform and Conservative bodies.

The Synagogue Council deals primarily with certain interfaith and religious matters when a collective Jewish voice might have some impact. For example, the Council has urged Congress to adopt legislation permitting Jewish members of the Armed Forces to wear yarmulkes (skullcaps). The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a rule against such garb in the Air Force, but legislation has been introduced to allow it.

"Because we are not members of the council, we are developing some ties with the Christian world of our own," Liebling said.

The 27th annual federation convention at the Los Angeles Hilton and Towers Hotel approved a resolution to become a co-sponsor of the National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations, which meets in a different city each year.

Despite its low visibility in organized religion, Reconstructionism has had an intellectual attraction for Jews who appreciated Jewish history and tradition but not necessarily the supernatural claims.

"Reconstructionists believe that every generation has the responsibility--the right and the duty--to fashion its beliefs and practices in the light of its own highest ideals and authentic knowledge," says a federation booklet. It thereby "reconstructs" ritual and practice to speak to each generation.

Built around the teaching and writing of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983), the Reconstructionist tenets now widely accepted in Judaism include the ideas of Jewish peoplehood or civilization, of the synagogue as a multifunction community center and of treating women as equals in religious matters have been accepted broadly outside conservative circles.

Bat Mitzvah Rite

The movement's forerunners first instituted the Bat Mitzvah, the coming-of-age ceremony for young women, in 1922. In 1951, Reconstructionists permitted women to perform any function that is part of a synagogue service and decided to count both men and women in the minyan , the quorum of 10 needed for a religious service. More recently, the movement has devised an egalitarian religious divorce that disregards the traditional procedure dependent upon the husband's initiative and consent.

Like Reform Judaism, Reconstructionists began ordaining women rabbis in the early 1970s. Conservative Judaism ordained its first female rabbis this year.

Coincidentally, Reconstructionism's congregational organization and its Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assn. both have women presidents at present. Rabbi Joy Levitt of Brooklyn was elected to the rabbinical post in March. Lillian Kaplan of Washington is on her second two-year term as president of the Reconstructionist federation.

"Even being reelected to another term is a first," said Kaplan. "In the past, our presidents have not been as active as we have been in the last few years."

Wide Influence

Kaplan and Liebling, interviewed together at the convention hotel, said that many changes occurring in the Reform and Conservative wings have been influenced by Reconstructionist steps.

"They've been playing a catch-up game," Kaplan claimed. "They are not consciously trying to catch up with us, but we are raising their consciousness."

Liebling said that it is common to hear Reform and Conservative rabbis talk about "the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people, which is straight Reconstructionism."

Rabbi David Lieber, president of Los Angeles' University of Judaism, said that Reconstructionism's founder, Mordecai Kaplan, had a "profound influence" on generations of Conservative rabbis because he taught for 50 years at their school, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Describing Kaplan as one of the foremost American Jewish thinkers, Lieber said he "pioneered the notion the Jews of all denominations ought to be working together as one people."

Liebling said that Reconstructionist philosophy can be found readily in the work of two prominent Conservative rabbis--the best-selling author Harold Kushner ("When Bad Things Happen to Good People") and Encino Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a proponent of the small havurah (singular form of havurot ).

Synagogues and havurot affiliated with the Reconstructionist federation in Southern California include those in Pacific Palisades, Malibu, Whittier, Los Angeles and San Diego.

But it is little known that the 2,800-family Stephen S. Wise Temple near Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, one of the largest synagogues in the country, is nominally affiliated with Reconstructionism even though it is part of Reform's Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

In sympathy with the goals of the Reconstructionist movement, the temple contributes $1,000 a month to the federation. Senior Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin was to be the speaker at a Sabbath seder at the convention Friday night.

The sprawling Stephen S. Wise Temple epitomizes the Reconstructionist model of the synagogue as community center, Liebling said.

"Including the pool?" Kaplan interrupted with a laugh.

"Including the pool, and all their preschool, child-care and parenting programs," Liebling said.

Rabbi Jonathan Miller, an associate rabbi on the temple staff, agreed with Liebling's appraisal of Stephen S. Wise Temple as a multipurpose center. The swimming pool is used for aquatics and scuba-diving classes, he said. "We think that enhances the religious program," he said.

"Just about every Jewish institution is Reconstructionist in its emphasis on program," Miller said.

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