Rabbis to Boy Scouts: Lift ban on gay members

More than 500 rabbis and cantors urged the Boy Scouts of America to drop its ban on homosexual members when the youth group’s National Council convenes in Dallas this week.

Representatives of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements signed the letter, which was coordinated by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and sent to the BSA leadership on Tuesday night.

“Many of us are former scouts, the parents of scouts or children who aspire to scouting, and admirers of the mission and purpose of the BSA,” the religious leaders wrote. “Each of us, however, opposes the BSA’s discriminatory policy that excludes gay scouts and leaders.”

A spokesperson for the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism said it did not know if any of the signatories were Orthodox.

Some 1,400 leaders from the National Council are scheduled to have their final vote Thursday on changing the long-standing ban on openly gay boys in the scouting movement.

The National Jewish Committee on Scouting has been vocal in calling on the BSA to drop the ban.

In their letter, the rabbis and cantors expressed their dismay that the current proposal would lift only the ban on gay youth and called on the BSA to end the exclusion of homosexual adults as well.

Reconstructionists try to manage growth

When Dorshei Tzedek, a small Reconstructionist congregation in West Newton, Mass., began an explosive growth spurt in 1997, some of its members were concerned.

The addition of more than 100 families had nearly tripled the congregation’s size in just a few years, and some worried that it was losing its intimate character.

“It was an anxiety-ridden issue for a long time, but that’s partly because we didn’t understand it,” said Nancy Gertz, whose two-year term as president ended in July. “There were people who felt if we get any bigger, they’re going to be scared to lose the sense of familiarity they have with everybody in the congregation, lose a sense of intimate connection with the rabbi, their peers.”

The establishment of a growth committee and a strategic planning effort have put some of those fears to rest, and led to a more thoughtful growth process, Gertz said.

While some synagogues would kill for that kind of growth spurt, Reconstructionists, who prize a highly participatory form of worship and whose congregations tend to be smaller than those of other movements, see growth as something to be carefully managed so as not to compromise what’s essential to the movement.

“We’re thinking about growth in lots of different ways,” said Carl Sheingold, executive vice president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the movement’s congregational arm.

Sheingold said the movement’s development is important and there’s greater recognition now of the need to get larger, but not at the expense of what he calls a “critical feature” of Reconstructionism: the willingness to experiment and serve as a kind of laboratory for American Jewish life.

“There may be limits to growth we want to think about,” Sheingold said. It’s “not just a question of running headlong into numbers, but at the same time wanting to grow the movement.”

Studies show that roughly 2 percent of American Jews identify as Reconstructionist, but Reconstructionist federation officials say the number of affiliated households is growing by 6 percent to 10 percent a year.

Currently, 109 congregations affiliate with the federation and a growing number are looking to erect buildings, hire full-time rabbis and become more established, full-service synagogues.

That growth poses a challenge to a movement with a high percentage of smaller congregations and that sees highly participatory services and democratic decision-making as central values. Many Reconstructionist communities spun off from more established synagogues, and some fear a loss of intensive commitment and sense of purpose as new members join a core group of founders.

At Bet Am Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in White Plains, N.Y., members considered limiting new members when the synagogue’s size threatened to become unwieldy, but instead decided to cap the number of bar mitzvahs at 36 a year as a way to control expansion without actually turning anyone away.

“We were worried if we had a bar mitzvah every week, that eventually we’d have two every week, and then all we’d be doing was bar mitzvahs and there would no longer be an identifiable central prayer experience for the congregation,” Rabbi Lester Bronstein said.

Even so, Bronstein’s congregation has grown significantly, from 185 families when he arrived in 1989 to 420 today. That number is considered large for the Reconstructionist movement, but it pales next to Congregation Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades — which, with roughly 1,000 households, is the largest Reconstructionist synagogue in the world.

Like Bet Am Shalom, Kehillat Israel, locally known as K.I., also experienced a period of rapid expansion, doubling its membership since it built a larger facility in 1997.

That growth prompted calls to limit new members, although the synagogue rejected it in favor of other strategies — including what its rabbi, Steven Carr Reuben, calls “constant vigilance” to small groups: creating opportunities for individuals to gather in smaller subcommunities around issues of common interest.

“Our key to success is to create communities within communities,” Carr Reuben said. “We recognize the synagogue isn’t just one community. Those communities function on their own level and in their own way.”

Still, Reconstructionists are hardly growth-averse. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the movement’s seminary, is more than halfway through its first development campaign. The $50 million fund-raising drive may be small by the standards of the other denominations, but it’s a milestone for a movement that represents a tiny fraction of American Jewry.

At its biennial convention in Philadelphia in November, the movement introduced a range of new fundraising instruments, including a soon-to-be- launched Web site aimed at educating congregations about opportunities for planned giving.

The federation also hired its first development director, Barry Nove, a further sign of the professionalization of its fund-raising operations.

“The movement is maturing,” said Nove, who joined the federation three months ago. “If we don’t plant seeds now, there won’t be trees later.”

Some of the movement’s younger congregations are aggressively pursuing participants. Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann is unique in the movement for marketing her congregation, Kol Tzedek, to young unaffiliated Jews in West Philadelphia.

But more common are the challenges posed by the movement’s passage to a more advanced stage of life. Many at the convention spoke of Reconstructionism’s “maturation” and its evolution from a school of thought spun off of Conservative Judaism by Mordecai Kaplan to a full-fledged movement, with a network of synagogues, a youth group and, as of last year, a summer camp.

To Sheingold, that maturation is evident at least as much in the attitudes of Reconstructionists as in the movement’s structural development.

“The origins of the movement had a lot to do with a desire for a form of religious life in Judaism that was compatible with rationality, with scientific progress,” Sheingold said. “In the last 10 to 15 years there have emerged approaches within Reconstructionism that are more tuned in to what has been called the spiritual aspect of life. You really become mature when you can find ways to reconcile those things and you’re not debating whether it’s about the mind and the heart, but you’re finding ways for it to be both.”

Open Enrollment

The Academy for Jewish Religion, a transdenominational rabbinical seminary, will open its doors in Los Angeles this fall, giving formal expression to a longtime trend toward a more personalized, spiritually oriented, pluralistic Judaism, academy founders say.

The branch in New York, which was established in 1956, draws its faculty from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, but is not formally affiliated with any of them. The Los Angeles academy has already assembled an impressive academic council of local rabbis and educators from all movements.

“The dream here is a transdenominational seminary that will train rabbis and cantors to serve God and the Jewish world, not just movements and institutions,” says Rabbi Stephen Robbins, founder of N’vay Shalom, a small kabbalah–and spirituality-oriented congregation that meets at the Milken Community High School.

The undercurrent in all classes — from Talmud to kabbalah, liturgy to meditation — will be deciphering the personal relationship each Jew is supposed to have with God, according to Rabbi Stan Levy, leader of Congregation B’nai Horin-Children of Freedom, a Jewish Renewal minyan that meets on the Westside. Levy and Robbins initially conceived of the West Coast branch two years ago, when both sensed a growing demand for a pluralistic, spirit-centered school for rabbis and cantors.

That focus on spirituality is what American Jews are craving more and more, says Shohama Weiner, dean of the New York school. Having seminaries on both coasts will allow the school to meet the growing demands of its graduates, she says.

“This will give us an exciting synergy for changing the face of American Judaism, to make synagogues more spiritually based and inclusive,” she says from her New York office.

Rabbi Wayne Dosick, a San Diego-based author and educator who will serve as dean of the school, says the pluralistic nature of the school will also serve to heal the rifts that threaten the Jewish community nationally.

“If we haven’t yet come to a place where we dismiss the rigid differences between denominations or branches of American Judaism, we are coming to a place, at the very least, where we are respectful and honoring each other,” says Dosick.

Like the other main players in the academy, Dosick also leads a small, spiritually centered congregation — the Elijah Minyan.

Robbins says it is this type of model that increasingly characterizes what American Jews are looking for. And as the structure of the synagogue changes to meets those needs, so will the role of the rabbi. He sees the rabbi as a personal guide and mentor to congregants.

“In addition to the very high level of rabbinic academics, we will focus on the spiritual traditions in Judaism, and psychology and health and healing, and knowing how to synergize all elements of familial and individual and communal life into a more unified whole,” says Robbins, who has a private practice that combines his work as a rabbi and psychologist. He is also completing his doctorate in natural medicine.

Robbins sees the West Coast, where many of these creative congregations have already sprung up organically, as a natural fit for the academy.

“There is an openness in structure that makes choice and change more possible here,” he says. “There is less divisiveness, less rigidity and boundaries between people and movements. That makes the creative possibilities more exciting.”

The opening of the Los Angeles branch is also another indication that the West Coast is taking its place as a center of national Jewish leadership. The Conservative movement’s University of Judaism and Reform’s Hebrew Union College also, in recent years, began ordaining rabbis in Los Angeles.

In fact, the demand for another rabbinic school is what prompted Levy and Robbins to even begin discussing this new seminary. When they approached Dosick about founding a new seminary, he put them in touch with the New York academy, which proved to be a natural match.

All three rabbis, in their 50s, had been approached by congregants and students who, though they had successful careers, were interested in becoming rabbis to deepen their own spiritual lives, and the lives of others. Because they already had careers and families, potential students couldn’t simply pick up and move back East.

The Los Angeles school’s schedule will be structured to meet the needs of students with careers and families, and organizers are looking for a location convenient for those commuting from other areas on the West Coast. Classes for the first group of 12 to 18 students will meet only three days a week, probably Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. Ordination will require about five or six years.

Levy, who is also a lawyer and co-founder of the Bet Tzedek legal fund, predicts that the students ordained at the academy will have little trouble finding jobs. In fact, Weiner, dean of the New York school, says the academy’s placement office can’t fill all the requests that come in for rabbis and cantors.

Dosick believes that the heightened demand for pluralistic, spiritual rabbis is a symptom of where American Jewry is headed.

“We Jews in postwar America have been good at creating community and doing mitzvahs and social justice and supporting Israel and oppressed Jewry. But we haven’t been good at what we’re supposed to do best, which is help create personal, intimate relationship with God,” he says. “Our young people are hungering for the sacred and are running to the Buddhist retreats and the ashrams seeking the sacred. And everything those people are looking for is in Judaism. But in this rational, intellectual age, no one told them.”