I Don’t Like Labels

Recently, I was interviewed by a reporter who asked me: “What type of rabbi are you?”  Clearly, the reporter was looking for my Jewish “label”: Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Reform.  As a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the rabbi at Ramat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue, you would probably assume that my answer to the reporter’s question would be: “Reconstructionist”.  But, it wasn’t.  I explained to the reporter that I simply like to be referred to as a “rabbi” and told him that I do not like to be labeled.  I don’t think he really knew what to do with this.  Sadly, in the US, being a Jew without “label”, especially a rabbi without a “label” is difficult to comprehend.  The reporter needed an explanation – and I wanted to share with you what I told him.

The division of Judaism into movements is something that it is, for the most part, a Jewish-American phenomenon.  Reform Judaism, which was born in Europe, really took off and flourished here in America in the 1800s.  It was an attempt to create a Judaism that broke from the rigid traditional world (which would become the Orthodox world) and allowed the enlightened, emancipated, assimilated Jew to find a religious identity.  Conservative Judaism, born here in the U.S., was a response to Reform Judaism – an attempt to pull in the reigns on the liberal practices of Reform Jews and create a Judaism that fell somewhere in between the traditional world and the Reform world.   In the early 1900s, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, a Conservative Rabbi who grew up in the traditional world, was not content with the teachings of Conservative Judaism and did not feel that the Reform or traditional worlds were providing American Jews with a foundation that would allow them to fully embrace their faith.  Although Rabbi Kaplan did not feel there was a need for another movement, the theology that he began to create and develop would eventually become the Reconstructionist Movement.

Reconstructionist Judaism has, without a doubt, had a tremendous impact upon the development of modern Jewish practice and ritual.  Rabbi Kaplan himself constructed the now well-known concept of the bat mitzvah for his own daughter Judith.  The scholarship and theological wrestling of many of Rabbi Kaplan’s students (including  the famous Rabbi Harold Kushner) have challenged us to explore “why bad things happen to good people” and many other important  aspects of Jewish belief.   The Reconstructionist siddur has allowed countless Jews to reconnect to prayer in a meaningful way.  The courage of contemporary Reconstructionist rabbis and scholars to reconstruct Jewish ritual with the help of ancient sources has taught us all that Judaism requires us to take an active part in our evolving tradition.  Reconstructionism has indeed shaped the Judaism we know.

This being said, the other movements have also had a tremendous impact upon our Judaism.  Together with the Reconstructionist movement, they have all created the quilt that is American-Judaism.  This quilt has taken a beating recently.  The economic crisis has taken its toll on the liberal Jewish world which consists of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Movements.  (The Orthodox world is struggling too!)  As a result of the fact that there are no longer the resources that were available in previous years, we are watching as the Jewish movements are shrinking – cutting back staff, programs, and regional offices.  At the same time, synagogues that affiliate with movements and, therefore, pay a large membership fee to them, are questioning if affiliating is worth it during these tough economic times when every dollar counts.  As a result of the economic crisis, the Jewish community now finds herself in a position to question the role, purpose, and function of the movements.

As I have taken time to reflect during this my “sabbatical year”, I can’t help but think that perhaps the concept of Jewish “movements” is something we need to move away from.  When I sit at the monthly meetings of the Broward County Board of Rabbis with my Reform and Conservative colleagues, I find that we agree on most issues.  Sure there are disagreements – but, even among my Reconstructionist colleagues there are disagreements.  More and more I notice that the lines that divide the movements are becoming fuzzier and fuzzier.  In addition to this, I find that the typical synagogue “shopper” is not looking to join a “Conservative” or “Reconstructionist” or “Reform” synagogue.  They are looking for a spiritual home and that home is created by the people who belong to the synagogue, the synagogue staff, and the general feeling in the congregation. Most members of Ramat Shalom did not join our community because we are “Reconstructionist”.  Rather, you became a part of our family because of how we “felt”.  It was the right fit.  While you might argue that the movement with which a synagogue affiliates sets the tone in the congregation, if you were to attend five synagogues that affiliate with the same movement, I guarantee that you will experience five very different congregations.

As the American-Jewish world slowly tries to recover from the economic turmoil, picks up the pieces, and restructures herself, I certainly hope that we focus upon our commonalities – especially within the liberal Jewish world (Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform).  We could certainly spend our resources, energy, and creativity to rebuild our movements.  But, to what end?  To build walls that define how we are different from each other, when in actuality we are really not all that different?  What good does this do?  Why not combine our strengths and build together – creating a Jewish community that reflects the values and beliefs that we share and create resources that nurture and strengthen these values and beliefs?  Coming together as one community will not mean that our synagogues will look and sound the same.  We must embrace the Jewish concept of shalom bayit – peace within the house, or Jewish community and learn to embrace our diversity.  By breaking down the barriers that divide us and coming together as one community, our synagogues will be linked more closely together and we, in turn, will be stronger.

Am I a Reconstructionist rabbi?  My rabbinical school diploma says that I graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and I am proud of this.  But my views and opinions on many Jewish issues are pretty similar to those of many of my Conservative and Reform colleagues here in Broward County.  For the most part, the movements we were ordained by do not make us radically different from each other.  This is really no different from those of you who are lawyers or doctors – if you are asked, “what kind of lawyer or doctor are you?” – what would your answer be?  It would probably be something like: “I am a corporate attorney, a divorce attorney, a gastroenterologist, a surgeon?” It would not be: “I am a Harvard attorney” or “I am a University of Miami doctor”.  Likewise, I am a congregational rabbi who graduated from the Reconstructionist seminary.

I believe that the key to building a strong Jewish future lies in building non-denominational Judaism – a Judaism that celebrates our shared rituals, beliefs, and traditions while, at the same time, embraces the diversity that is already part of the liberal Jewish community here in America.  Instead of building walls that keep us apart, let’s focus our attention on how to build bridges that bring us together and which will ultimately lead us into the Jewish American future.

2 thoughts on “I Don’t Like Labels

  1. There certainly can be some divisiveness between movements and that is not a good thing, after all we’re all Jews under the skin. On the other hand, movements came about because those in the forefront of each one had a different idea about how to view theology and ritual practices. Members gravitate to a synagogue for a variety of reasons, often proximity, similarity to the places where they grew up, or following friends. The particular “brand” isn’t always the deciding factor.
    That being said, there are some of us who chose Ramat Shalom based at least in part on being affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. In my case, reading about Reconstructionism back in the late 1970’s, the lightbulb went off, that said, “Oh, so that’s who I am.” The basic premises that define the movement turned out to be the things I had grown to believe, before even knowing such a movement existed.
    To move now toward watering down the things that define each movement in the name of “liberal judaism” would do a disservice to each. That isn’t to say we can’t all work together and collaborate on our commonalities. Certainly we should work together, on social action, educational programming, and perhaps even occasionally pray together. But lets not give up our individuality to blend in with the crowd.

  2. Hi Anita!

    I am so glad you posted. You bring up great points.

    First let me say that I too found a home in Reconstructionism and got incredible rabbinic training in the movement’s college.

    In the 1970’s Reconstructionism was a radical concept. And it is a concept that has worked! It has influenced the other movements and encouraged Jews of all flavors to reconstruct Judaism. And other movements have influenced us. As the borders between movements become fuzzier, I don’t see us becoming a “crowd” – rather I see us becoming a more unified community. Look at our own Cantor, trained in the Reform Movement, my wife, Cheryl, trained in the Conservative Movement running a Reform Day School. In our South Florida community we have a Reconstructionist rabbi serving as the spiritual leader of a Conservative synagogue. Nationally, Reform rabbis and Conservative rabbis serve as spiritual leaders in Reconstructionist synagogues. And Reconstructionist rabbis lead Reform and Conservative congregations. And this is wonderful!

    In the rabbinic/cantorial community it is so common to find rabbis/cantors who embrace concepts that are “beyond their movement’s borders”. And the same is true for congregants. We have so many members with Conservative, Reform, even Orthodox backgrounds – yet they found a home at Ramat Shalom.

    Rabbi Kaplan, the founder of our movement, believed that a community’s character should be defined by the community – the actual synagogue and her members. Given that each community is different – synagogues (despite their movement affiliation) will always be unique.

    The question that is important for people to ask is not so much “what movement is your congregation affiliated with”…rather, “what does your congregation ‘feel’ like?” The labels only define us to a point. The true character of who we are is defined by the people who fill the congregation. This is what Rabbi Kaplan was trying to teach us.

    I am not advocating for a Jewish community that lacks character and diversity. On the contrary, I am advocating for a community that breaks down walls and works together despite different opinions. This is, I believe, what Rabbi Kaplan wanted us to do in the first place.

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