The Reconstructionist movement was never supposed to be one.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism in the 1920’s, actually considered himself a Conservative Jew and taught at that movement’s seminary for more than fifty years. (He was also a co-founder of the Modern Orthodox Young Israel movement and the inspiration for the secular JCC movement–so much for denominational labels!)

In his thought and writings, Kaplan was not trying to establish a new movement–far from it. Instead, he tried to chart a path to the revitalization of Jewish life in America that was based in a recognition that Judaism was the always-evolving product of the Jewish people in its never-ending quest to live in covenantal relationship with God. All Jews were supposed to recognize this core truth about how Judaism had evolved and must continue to evolve. In other words, Reconstructionism was–-and, in many ways, still is–-first and foremost a framework to describe what Judaism is, and only then a path to discovering what it should be.

For decades Kaplan wrote and lectured, gaining adherents to the approach he (naively) hoped would unify all Jews. It was only in the late 1960’s that Reconstructionism slowly began to take on the institutional elements that would lead to its becoming a movement.

Kaplan’s bold approach still reverberates today. Instead of becoming bogged down in issues of dogma or institution-building, Kaplan tried to focus on the core questions that underlie Jewish life: how has Judaism come to be as it is today? what must happen for it to continue to remain relevant and organic? how do we create meaningful and engaging Jewish communities? how do we write the next chapter in the ongoing sacred story of the relationship between the Jewish people and God?

The fact that so many of these questions have been taken up by other movements-–albeit with differing answers-–is testimony to the wisdom of his approach. We are, after all, Jews first and foremost, and the concept of Klal Yisrael (the unity of the Jewish people) is one that was dear to Kaplan.

While there is no question that real–-and important–-differences exist between Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews, I think the focus on labels often tends to emphasize those differences, focusing us more on what separates us than binds us together.

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