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July 2, 2010

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PAGE 20A Recon tries to redo its outlook, live and online By Bryan Schwartzman Jewish Exponent PHILADELPHIA--Hop- ing to engage Jews "where they are," the Reconstruc- tionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., has ad- opted an ambitious--and expensive--plan to boost its presence in cyberspace. Also, as part of the seminary's effort to, if not reformulate its mission, at least re-examine how it fulfills a myriad of roles, the 42-year-old institution has entered into talks with the two other branches of the movement about the possibility of merging into a unified organization. One is the Jenkintown- based Jewish Reconstruc- tionist Federation, which works with congregations across the country and organizes an annual con- vention. The other is the Reconstructionist Rabbini- cal Association, which is actually based at the col- lege and has roughly 300 members. Some of the reasons be- hind the potential merger talks include a desire to cut costs, increase efficiency and come up with a new way to organize the movement as it confronts modern challenges. "This is us being true to our mission," said Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, RRC's current president, referring to both the Web initiative and merger possibilities. "Our mission is to educate leaders, advance scholar- ship and create resources for contemporary Jewish life." Other changes are afoot at 1299 Church Road, a converted former Curtis mansion that the school has occupied since 1984. In the past few months, the institution has hired Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, the for- mer director of the JRF, to direct a new social-justice program that, according to RRC's Web site, will of- fer interested students the opportunity "to become uniquely effective, spiritu- ally strong leaders in the drive toward social justice and environmental sustain- ability." RRC has eliminated the position of dean of students, held by Rabbi Gall Glicks- man. In place of that post, it added two new positions. Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz Rabbi Mordechai Libeling Rabbi Amber Powers The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College One is called the director of student life, which has been filled by Rabbi Nathan Mar- tin, a 2006 RRC graduate. The other is assistant vice president for enrollment and rabbinic formation. In that job, Rabbi Amber Powers will oversee the development of rabbis out- side of the classroom, and ensure that they learn to respond like rabbis--some- thing that can't necessar- ily be taught by studying classical Jewish sources, according to Ehrenkrantz, 49, who took over as the college's president in 2002. All of these moves come as RRC itself--which serves about 80 students and had a 2010 graduating class of 11--has been facing certain fiscal woes. The school's projected 2011 deficit tops $450,000 and accounts for about 8 percent of its $5 million budget. In an interview at his office, Ehrenkrantz said it wasn't the first time in the school's history that the board has approved a budget deficit. But in the past, the school has managed to raise enough dollars by year's end to make up the difference, so the institution hasn't accrued any debt. The school, as well as the other branches of Re- constructionism, is also contending with a general waning of interest among American Jews in specific religious movements and denominational labels. While these issues are far from unique to the Reconstructionist move- ment, the brainchild of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and his disciples happens to be far smaller and less well-funded than other non-Orthodox streams. But its leaders says that its lack of size--about 3 percent of the Philadelphia Jewish population identify as Reconstructionist, ac- cording to the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia"--will allow it to react to the times in a far more nimble fashion than perhaps the other much larger movements. On June 6, the board unanimously approved Ehrenkrantz's plans for bolstering the school's Web presence. "We need to look to other avenues besides Recon- structionist synagogues to grow a constituency base that will be invested in our work," Ehrenkrantz wrote in a May 24 memo to Reconstructionist leaders about the digital initiative. "Thanks to the advances in social networking, the Web provides a promising method to grow that con- stituency base." As to what the digital plan actually entails, Ehren- krantz said that he couldn't yet go into the details, other than that it will focus on "community engagement." In recent years, there's been talk in certain circles about the potential of online congregations and online davening, and how that could add to Judaism's appeal. But Ehrenkrantz men- tioned that wasn't exactly what he had in mind. To implement the digi- tal program, the college has hired Blue State Digi- tal, a Washington, D.C.- based firm that's also done work for President Barack Obama's campaign, as well as for the Jewish Federa- tions of North America. According to Bob Gold- farb, a critic of the plan who writes widely on the influential site www.ejew-, the digital initiative is bud- geted at $500,000 per year. Ehrenkrantz, however, said that he could not pro- The rabbin/adcoae has ,n/da sot-ia/-jma'/ce mmnt and is pushing a ne Web . vide a dollar figure right now, since the plan is still in the process of being worked out. Goldfarb, who is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Cre- ativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, questioned in a June I posting as to why the RRC board was willing to allocate so much money to a digital strategy as it faces such financial uncertainty. "If the administration is hoping to revitalize its mis- sion and its finances simply by spending half-a-million dollars a year on social media in unspecified ways, that proposal calls for the closest scrutiny," he wrote. Goldfarb continued, say- ing that "with the RRC budget for the next year purportedly projecting a deficit almost as large as the expenditure on the digital initiative, there is no apparent way to main- tain it without large cuts elsewhere." In the interview, Ehren- krantz acknowledged that "we do not think that we are going to recoup what we invest. The primary purpose is community en- gagement." But in the planning stage, he said, all things are possible. "When we move out of the planning stage, we'll be a little more focused," added the rabbi. He also denied that the Web initiative would result in any cuts to existing pro- grams or academics. Rabbi Avi Winokur, a member of RRC's board of governors and religious leader of Society Hill Syna- gogue, also defended the board's decision. "We really don't have a choice in this climate but to go online and start tak- ing cyberspace much more seriously--or we will be left behind," declared Winokuro "The Reconstructionist movement has always seen itself as a movement that pushes the envelope and tries to push the Jewish community forward." Leaders at the RRA and the JRF confirmed high- level talks are in the works about creating one orga- nization, although again, they declined to go into details. Ostensibly, such an orga- nization would be involved in training rabbis and building congregational life, in addition to function- ing as a resource for the larger Jewish world. Carl Sheingoid, executive director of JRF, acknowl- edged that the desire to cut costs is one factor behind the talks. But another is to have the Reconstructionist move- merit--for the most part, envisioned as being a small denomination with outsized influence--serve as an example for how denomina- tions can reorganize them- selves to confront the new realities of the 21st century. Sheingold said that "there is absolutely no ques- tion that there are broad challenges to synagogues and the denominational movements," Rabbi Sial Schwartz-- who formerly edited the school's journal, and who served as a pulpit rabbi in the Philadelphia area before founding his own Washing- ton, D.C.-based organiza- tion called PANIM--said that many in the movement have been calling for such a reorganization. "From where I sit, it makes sense. The eco- nomic environment recom- mends consolidation," said Schwartz. "You've got to be leaner and meaner, and make your product more attractive in the market- place.  Bryan Schwartzman is a staff writer at the (Phila- delphia) Jewish Exponent from which this article was reprinted by permission. iiI HU:[;|]])i[i]1!H!B.i`ii!. lHilllI+lllllJ illll!;i J .,.'