Coming of Age

Left to right, Whittier Havurah membersMort Meskin, Ellen Meskin, Howard Schwartz, Lenore Leshin and ShelOsman.

Long obscured by its tongue-twister name andmisunderstood ideology, Reconstructionism is coming on strong. Infact, it just might be the fastest-growing Jewishdenomination.

“It’s the good and bad news,” says StevenCarr-Reuben, rabbi of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. Hiscongregation has gone from 250 to 680 households in the 12 years he’sbeen there. “How do you keep what is precious and intimate andcommunity focused as you get hundreds of new families?”

Carr-Reuben will try to answer that question at”Intimacy and Growth,” the West Coast conference of the JewishReconstructionist Federation next month. Doubling in size has broughtthe movement into the single digits, at about 1 percent of theAmerican Jewish population, with 90 affiliated synagogues and 10,000″family units,” according to a survey by the movement.

Founded in the mid-1930s by Mordechai Kaplan,Reconstructionism holds that Judaism is an evolving ethicalcivilization, and that there is no supernatural Supreme Being issuingcommands from a heavenly throne.

Rather, Reconstructionism believes God to be thespirit within people and within the universe that urges humans towardgoodness, self-fulfillment and ethical behavior.

“If you ask someone if God is merciful, the answeris ‘I don’t know,'” says Seymour Leshin, who helped found theWhittier Reconstructionist Chavurah 40 years ago. “But if you say, isbeing merciful a godly quality, the answer is yes.”

At the same time, Reconstructionists adhere totradition and observance not because God commanded it, but because itis a valuable and beloved part of Jewish civilization.

The combination of observance, an intellectuallyhonest theology and inclusive social values is attractive to many,movement leaders say.

“We may not have the final answer, but weobfuscate less, we try not to dodge the question or make exaggeratedclaims, creating a theology of apologetics,” says Arnold Rachlis,rabbi at University Synagogue in Irvine, the fastest-growing Jewishcongregation in Orange County. “People should be very modest withtheir claims about God. Doubt is sometimes more holy thancertainty.”

In fact, sociologist Charles Liebman, years ago,said that if polled, most American Jews would find their beliefs mostconsistent with Reconstructionism.

“I think, frankly, in many ways, Reconstructionismhas been two steps ahead of where the Jewish population has been, andthe reason we are growing so quickly is that we’re in step with wheremany Jews want to go,” says Mordechai Leibling, executive director ofthe Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

Sociologist Egon Mayer agrees.

“The Reconstructionist movement emphasizes socialvalues that the mainstream American Jewish community are sympatheticto — equality of the sexes, openness to gays and lesbians,interfaith families,” says Mayer, author of the seminal 1990 JewishPopulation Survey. “These are the hot-button issues of the 1990s, andthe Reconstructionist movement has done a more consistent job ofhaving the right position on those issues.”

Of course, movement leaders are the first to admitthat it’s probably not always the ideology and value system thatattracts members. In Pacific Palisades, for instance, Carr-Reuben’sKehillat Israel is housed in a beautiful, new building, and theenergetic and dynamic rabbi is a strong pull to everyone, from localprofessionals to Hollywood celebrities.

“The vast majority of people who join do not havea clue as to what Reconstructionism is,” says Leibling.

But, Leibling adds, what congregants findattractive in fact emanates from the ideology of the movement, and,as they participate, they quickly pick up — and firmly hold — thetheology and values of Reconstructionism.

Much of the movement’s growth is a coming of age.Reconstructionism began ordaining its own rabbis about a quartercentury ago, and today there are simply more Reconstructionist placesto go and people to see.

“Reconstructionism is becoming a growing force toreckon with,” Rachlis says. “We’re no big three [Orthodox,Conservative and Reform], but more and more people are looking intoReconstructionism.”

For more information on Reconstructionism or theupcoming West Coast conference, call (213) 933-7491.

Synagogue Briefs

A Decade of Song

It’s when hesees his b’nai mitzvah students come back for their weddings thatCantor Evan Kent really understands he’s been at Temple Isaiah inWest Los Angeles for 10 years.

“One of the greatest joys of being clergy isseeing the entire spectrum of life,” says Kent, who will be honoredat “Cantor Kent andFriends,” a March 7 concert.

Local and national cantors, operatic vocalists andclassical pianists will join Kent in an eclectic evening of song. Andeclectic suits Kent just fine. He’s a marathon runner, a competitiveswimmer, sings with the Los Angeles Opera, teaches vegetarian cookingclasses and tours the country with his one-man show.

Still, music is his main love.

“I think music brings a community together,” Kentsays. “It acts as a vehicle for renewal and healing.”

Saturday, March 7, 8 p.m., Temple Isaiah, 10345W. Pico Blvd., (310) 277-2772. Tickets are $36, which includes adessert reception.

Anetched glass Shabbat wine bottle. Hebrew Union College Skirballcollection. From “Jewish Art,” 1995.

That Shabbos Feeling

There’s nothing that says Shabbat like diggingyour hands into a vat of grapes and crushing the life out of them. Atleast that’s the theory behind “World ofShabbat,” a hands-on, free program open tothe public at Willow Elementary School in Agoura Hills, on Sunday,March 1.

“Children are going to feel and taste Shabbat anduse their sensory tools to explore Shabbat, so the tradition canbecome a part of them,” says Rabbi Yisroel Levine, head ofChabad of the Conejo, which is running the program with a grant from the JewishFederation’s Council on Jewish Life.

Levine expects 500 to 1,000 children, who willmake and take home their own challah, challah cover, spice box,candleholder and havdalah candle.

Sunday, March 1, 1:30-5 p.m., Willow ElementarySchool, corner of Kanan Road and Laro in Agoura Hills. Free. CallChabad at (818) 991-0991 for more information.

Beyond the Bimah

They might be the most expensive seats in town,but they’re well worth the price. Members of Synagogue 102, a new program ofHebrew Union College-Jewish Institute ofReligion, will learn about the innerworkings of synagogue life while funding HUC-JIR’s synagogue trainingprograms.

Membership in Synagogue 102, named for the 100seats in the campus’ Walter Hilborn Synagogue plus two seats symbolicof growth from year to year, costs $1,000 annually and entitles youto attendance at lectures from some of the Reform movement’s greatestsyna
gogue thinkers.

The public can get in on the first lecture, freeof charge. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet of the Leo Baeck College in Londonwill explore “Liturgy or Prayer: The Paradoxes of Community Worship.”Magonet is a leader of the Liberal and Reform movements in Europe, “abiblical scholar, a poet, and a gifted and exciting speaker,” saysDr. Lewis Barth, dean of HUC-JIR.

Sunday, March 1, 3-5 p.m., Walter HilbornSynagogue, HUC-JIR, 3077 University Ave., Los Angeles. For moreinformation, call Corey Slavin at (213) 749-3424. — J. G. F.