The 2015 decision of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College to ordain rabbis with non-Jewish partners was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” for Rabbi Carol Harris-Shapiro.
“I formally left the RRA (Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association) after that decision came out,” said Harris-Shapiro, a professor at Temple University who was ordained by the RRC in 1988. “I immediately resigned.”
Harris-Shapiro is not the only Reconstructionist rabbi who disagrees with the RRC’s decision to admit and graduate a “student married to, or in a committed relationship with, a non-Jew.”
About three dozen members and former members of the RRA who are opposed to that new policy — and are further opposed to the vocal anti-Israel views espoused by a number of rabbis in their movement — have formed Beit Kaplan: The Rabbinic Partnership for Jewish Peoplehood, with the hope of broadening the discussion of issues that its members view as core to the philosophy of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism.
The creation of Beit Kaplan does not indicate a split from the Reconstructionist movement, emphasized Rabbi Shoshana Hantman, a spokeswoman for the fledgling organization, but instead will serve as a “think tank.” The majority of Beit Kaplan’s members continue to be affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement.
“We started as a small group of rabbis who thought there was room for another organization,” Hantman said.
Apparently, they are right. Since the announcement of Beit Kaplan’s launch earlier this month, the group is being contacted almost daily by other rabbis interested in becoming part of the coalition, some of whom are not Reconstructionist, Hantman said.
“We want to be a resource to synagogues, rabbis — anyone who wants to engage in discussion of Kaplan’s philosophy,” Hantman said. “We want to be a place for rigorous discussion.”
There are several issues within the movement that could benefit from a rigorous discussion, according to Hantman, including the non-Jewish partner policy, and support for Israel.
“The non-Jewish partner policy was too much for some of the rabbis,” Hantman said. “We are to a great extent concerned about the identity boundaries of the Jewish people. We think those boundaries ought to be celebrated rather than condemned.”
Kaplan himself celebrated the concept of “Jewish peoplehood,” Hantman said.
“There is a distinctiveness to being Jewish, and it’s a wonderful distinctiveness,” she said.
For Rabbi David Osachy, who was raised in Pittsburgh and now serves as a bereavement counselor in Jacksonville, Fla., the decision of the RRC to ordain rabbis with non-Jewish partners was “going too far.”
“We have to be intentional about boundaries,” said Osachy. “That is the nature of belonging to a group.”
But there are some “strong voices” in the Reconstructionist movement that advocate being “on the cutting edge of Jewish life,” he said.
“I think we have a more responsible role to play — a responsibility to the last 5,000 years of Jewish tradition and a responsibility to the next 5,000 years,” Osachy explained. “I hope it will continue; it can’t be based on the whims of the moment.”
Kaplan, Osachy noted, was a strong Zionist, and a proponent of Jews having their own state in Israel.
“There has been a retreat from that (Zionism) in the Reconstructionist movement,” he said. “That has been painful for me personally. There are non-Zionists in the movement with loud voices that can now be called anti-Zionists. There is lots of leadership also that support the BDS movement. I feel that is not a responsible position for leaders to take. For me, that is out of bounds.”
Rabbi Yocheved Heiligman, spiritual leader of Sholom Aleichem in Columbia, Md., also resigned from the RRA following the non-Jewish partner decision. Heiligman, who grew up in Pittsburgh, is the newly elected president of Beit Kaplan.
“I cannot wrap my head around the idea of an intermarried rabbi,” she said. “People tend to marry across religious lines, but to people who are similarly committed [religiously]. I could imagine a Christian pastor married to a Jewish rabbi, and them having an agreement to raise their children in the Christian religion. So, the rabbi takes his kid to church, then comes to the synagogue to teach my children?”
To be a “seriously committed Jew,” Heiligman said, a rabbi needs a Jewish home.
“When I have people come to my home, there is no question as to what kind of home it is,” she said. “How would it be for Sunday school kids to come to a rabbi’s house and see both Christian art and Jewish art on the walls?”
Being a rabbi requires “a very, very deep passion,” which would be contradicted by an interfaith marriage, Heiligman said.
“It just doesn’t work for my world view,” she said. “ I just can’t see it.”
Heiligman is also dismayed by the anti-Israel stance of so many of her former colleagues, calling the boycott of Israeli academics “absurd.”
“This doesn’t mean I love Netanyahu, because I don’t,” said Heiligman, who describes herself as “well left of center.”
“But there has to be a better way to answer this than bringing Israel to its knees and comparing it to something like South Africa.”
Heiligam said she hopes Beit Kaplan will help move the discussion about contemporary Jewish life back to the importance of being one united community, such as the one she remembers in the Squirrel Hill of her youth, where Jews of different denominations learned and celebrated together.
“I grew up with the idea that we were one people,” she said. “That’s the peoplehood part of Beit Kaplan.”
Rabbi Larry Pinsker, spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Tikvah in Baltimore, has joined Beit Kaplan, but is maintaining his affiliation with the RRA. He expressed concern about the process in which decisions are being made in the Reconstructionist movement.
“It’s not supposed to be hierarchical and top down,” he said, adding that several of the rabbis who founded Beit Kaplan had issues with the “sliding” or “ignoring” of what is supposed to be a democratic process.
“The checks and balances seem to have vanished,” he said in regard to the policy change regarding the ordination of rabbis with non-Jewish partners.
“There was a consultation with rabbis and congregations, but it was made clear that that what they had to say would make no difference,” said Pinsker. “That’s how it was presented.”
Of the more than 300 rabbis in the Reconstructionist movement, there are scores who probably will not be joining Beit Kaplan. One of them is Rabbi Doris Dyen, spiritual leader of Minyan Makom-Ha-Lev in Pittsburgh.
“I respect their motivations, but I don’t agree with them,” Dyen said.
Kaplan’s approach to Judaism was that of “an evolving Jewish civilization,” Dyen pointed out. “My sense is that he would have listened carefully to the proposals being made and we don’t know what he would have said.
“What the rabbis taught us is that you go out and see what the people are doing,” Dyen continued. “Reconstructionism offers a very large tent for many attitudes.”
The RRA is taking the position that it welcomes the formation of Beit Kaplan, and is stressing that the creation of the new group does not represent a split in the movement.
“We hope to be partners with them,” said Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, executive director of the RRA.
“I don’t think we’re so far off on Israel as some of the members [of Beit Kaplan] might think,” she continued, adding that 110 members of the RRA are also on the J Street rabbinic cabinet. Only a minority of RRA members are “fairly outspoken on a very left version,” when it comes to Israel, she said.
As for the decision permitting ordination of rabbis with non-Jewish partners, Wechterman said that it was the faculty of the rabbinical college that “makes the decision on who is accepted and graduates.
“The RRA has diverse views,” she said. “There was no unanimity on that opinion.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.