I run the Reconstructionist movement. We believe in Israel’s right to exist but reject litmus tests on Zionism
OpinionGuest Columnist

I run the Reconstructionist movement. We believe in Israel’s right to exist but reject litmus tests on Zionism

Since Oct. 7, we have had conversations that made all our rabbinical students uncomfortable — which will make them better rabbis

Reconstructing Judaism's organizational headquarters in Wyncote, Pennsylvania (Photo b Mfessler, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)
Reconstructing Judaism's organizational headquarters in Wyncote, Pennsylvania (Photo b Mfessler, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

This story originally appeared in the Forward. To get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox, go to forward.com/newsletter-signup.

The terrible events of Oct. 7 and its aftermath have been at the forefront of the Reconstructionist movement, and especially at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, throughout this year. It has been incredibly challenging to lead a religious movement and a rabbinical school that includes people with a wide range of views, personal experiences and perspectives on Israel, Palestine and Zionism — as well as on our roles as Jews and as Americans in this moment.

Reconstructionism was founded on a commitment to diversity, and at the college we have incredible diversity across many dimensions. The stance of the Reconstructionist movement from the time of its founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, to this day is that Israel has a right to exist and is a vital center for Jewish life and the Jewish people.

We care deeply about the Jewish people across geography and we stand in solidarity with Israelis. We also hold a longstanding opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and support for Palestinian self-determination.

And, in contrast to the approach taken by many — if not most — Jewish institutions, we do not impose a litmus test around our positions on Israel.

At our rabbinical school, the boundaries we draw are behavioral rather than political. What matters is our students’ capacity to center relationships and to build covenantal community across differences. By covenantal community, we mean intentional, abiding, values-driven communities that can hold together through in hard conversations and in times of struggle.

The questions we ask ourselves include: How do we treat one another? How do we foster a sense of community? What do we do when we inevitably fail?

This approach is certainly more complicated than it would be to simply throw out anyone who isn’t 100% aligned with our movement on all things. It means everyone is uncomfortable at least some of the time.

This was a new experience for some students, many of whom were used to Jewish institutions that shut down any voices that dissented from a specific Zionist perspective. Other students brought their backgrounds from activist contexts in which Zionist perspectives are shunned. All of them — no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, no matter their relationship to Israel, Palestine or Zionism — have benefited from being in conversation and community with each other.

All our rabbinical students are required to engage and grapple with Israel as a central component of our curriculum, which includes a summer of study in Israel. There, we focus on providing knowledge and experience of the land as well as exposure to and relationships with representatives of the wide range of people who live there. Students also undertake significant coursework around Israel and Zionism in several required classes.

Since Oct. 7, we’ve provided additional resources to help our students navigate this heartbreaking time. In professionally facilitated workshops and story-sharing sessions, we’ve practiced speaking our truths to one another and engaged in reflective listening.

A two-day immersive program on Israel and Palestine, for example, included plenary panels on our school’s place within the larger Reconstructionist movement; reflections of Reconstructionist rabbis serving on campus, in a synagogue, and as a chaplain; and a presentation by me on the significance of RRC as the seminary of the Reconstructionist movement. Students also chose from a rich array of workshops, including how to prepare sermons on Israel and Palestine; race and Israel discourse in the U.S.; and trauma-informed pastoral care around Israel and Palestine.

These programs, and the dynamics in our classrooms and hallways, were frequently uncomfortable. Our students are learning the exceptional level of care and attention necessary to navigate these difficult conversations, including attending to the many power dynamics that make them even more fraught. They are learning that relationships require constant attention, continual recommitment, frequent repair.

For the vast majority of our students across the political spectrum, this has been an opportunity for deep self-examination and to develop the skills critical for the 21st century rabbinate. Not all of our students were able to rise to this challenge, and some decided to leave.

For most at the college, it has been a mixed experience — some acutely painful missteps, some moments full of beauty and hope, a lot of muddling through and, as we say, “opportunities to learn.” This hard work is what it means to create and re-create covenantal community. And I believe it is the only approach that is able to meet the urgency and complexity of this moment.

We aim to train rabbis who can lead with love and compassion so that they will be able to have the greatest possible impact in whatever settings they find or locate themselves — wherever they are, whoever they serve. We also aim to practice, however imperfectly, what we preach. We believe that in this holy work we are once again offering an important model for the greater Jewish community.

The cohort of Reconstructionist rabbis who were ordained this Sunday has been forged in the intensity of these last several years. Many of them enrolled during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic; studied when George Floyd was murdered and when the reckoning on systemic racism began and retreated; and learned while women, transgender and other queer Americans were vilified and stripped of rights.

They are graduating while bombs still fall in Gaza and families in Israel are displaced or await the return of their captive loved ones. These students know from complexity and suffering and sorrow. Together with other Reconstructionist rabbis, they will help to midwife a new reality, drawing deeply on Jewish wisdom and practice to confront and comfort, to make meaning and build community. PJC

Rabbi Deborah Waxman is president of Reconstructing Judaism.

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