Trail-blazing leader visits the Northwest to inspire, learn

By Emily K. Alhadeff, Associate Editor, The Jewish Sound

In 1935, Lithuania-born Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote “Judaism as a Civilization,” a book that reimagined the religion as a way of living and became the foundation for the Reconstructionist Movement.

Rabbi Deborah Waxman

Rabbi Deborah Waxman (Photo: Jordan Cassway)

Many of Kaplan’s ideas are taken for granted today, but they were radical for Kaplan’s Orthodox world back then. The movement that sprung from his vision is now the most progressive in North America.

In keeping with that progress is Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the Reconstructionist movement’s president. The first female (and lesbian) president of the Reconstructionist movement, Waxman is also the first leader of the organization since its restructuring in 2012, which saw the merger of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the congregational wing, Reconstructionist Jewish Communities.

Waxman was in Olympia visiting Temple Beth Hatfiloh on Monday, February 23, and in Seattle the next day to visit with Kadima, as part of a Northwest tour to a total of five congregations. Since taking her post a year ago, she’s visited some 35 congregations around the country to introduce herself and understand their needs.

“The Reconstructionist movement has been significantly influential on North American Jewish life,” Waxman told The Jewish Sound during her Seattle stop.

The movement is the leader in gender and sexuality issues and the inclusion of non-Jews, Waxman said. Kaplan, who grew disenchanted with Orthodoxy and sought to build a Jewish identity on more American values, is credited with inventing the Bat Mitzvah.

“The values that have created this optimistic and embracing, inclusive vision push us to continue to be on the cutting edge,” said Waxman. “I see a real need for what the Reconstructionist approach has to offer.”

Rabbi Seth Goldstein of Temple Beth Hatfiloh welcomed Waxman’s visit.

“It was really positive when she came to Temple Beth Hatfiloh, because people are able to make a more direct connection with the movement, with Rabbi Waxman, with the ideology we’re connected to,” he said. “The fact that she visited the Northwest, which is so far from the center of the Reconstructionist movement, says a lot.”

TBH has been affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement for about 15 years, according to Goldstein, who was ordained at the RRC in Wyncote, Penn.

“Reconstructionism takes an approach that Judaism is the evolving religious expression of the Jewish people,” he said. “It’s more bottom-up and democratic, and continually evolving with the idea of making Judaism more meaningful.”

Goldstein hopes that the five Northwest congregations will put together a Shabbaton in the near future.

In addition to pluralism, social activism, and the evolving American Jewish identity, Waxman explained that the movement is also active in Israel’s Jewish “renaissance” — the growing interest of secular Israelis in Jewish study. The movement is formalizing that relationship, starting with a Facebook page called “Gateways to Israeli-Jewish Renaissance.” Waxman hopes the liberal American Jewish community can promote a more pluralistic Jewish society in Israel.

Yet she’s hesitant to speculate on the future of the Reconstructionist movement in America and beyond.

“I deeply hope the Jewish community will develop the preservation of difference while being open to other faith traditions,” she said. “[But] I have no idea what that Jewish community is going to look like, because were living in this time of unprecedented change.”

The economic downturn, the explosion of digital technology, and the effects of these events on media, education, and society could greatly impact a vision of Judaism based on people and evolution.

“I focus on a lot of values that will help us through the change,” she said. “That will help us build a self-aware and affirmative Jewish community.”

For Waxman, the essence of Judaism is asking the hard questions.

“I often joke that I’m the chief evangelizer for Reconstructionism,” she said. “Part of that means evangelizing for progressive Judaism and progressive religion…. I am not interested in being Jewish for the sake of being Jewish. I think that being Jewish is a means to several ends, that I aim to be a good Jew because it helps me be fully human. With the Divine, to try to work through these perpetual questions: Why am I here? And what am I supposed to be doing?”