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Reconstructionists Press Effort for Greater Jewish Recognition

June 13, 1987|JOHN DART | 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."

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