1. A Rabbinical School Like No Other
1. A Rabbinical School Like No Other
For this first episode, we asked alumni what led them to rabbinical school and why they chose RRC. For some, RRC offered a new and radical approach based on Reconstructionist ideology. For others, enrolling in RRC felt like coming home. And for many, RRC’s radically egalitarian founding principles made it the only path to becoming a rabbi.
Transcript of Episode 1
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: Hi, I’m Rabbi Deborah Waxman, President of Reconstructing Judaism. I’d like to welcome you to episode one of our special audio series celebrating the first 50 years of our rabbinical seminary. It’s known as the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, or, as we often call it, RRC.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: The seminary was founded in 1968 to meet the Jewish people where they are. Drawing on the powerful texts, rich practices, and magnificent Jewish history we have inherited, RRC trains rabbis in shaping a Judaism relevant to the unfolding challenges and blessings of the current moment.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: In this series, you’ll hear from a chorus of voices of RRC alumni, spanning 50 years, as they share the central role RRC played in their Jewish, spiritual, and rabbinic journeys, and the effect RRC has had on the wider world. Episode One: A Rabbinical School Like No Other.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: For this first episode, we asked alumni what led them to rabbinical school and why they chose RRC. For some, RRC offered a new and radical approach based on Reconstructionist ideology. For others, enrolling in RRC felt like coming home. And for many, including myself, RRC’s radically egalitarian founding principles made it the only path to becoming a rabbi. To begin, let’s hear from Rabbi Elliot Skiddell.
Rabbi Elliot Skiddell: I was a very bad student in Hebrew school, got thrown out, had to work with a private tutor to become bar mitzvah and didn’t really learn anything. And the day after bar mitzvah, I hung up my tallis and said that’s it. Nothing more to do with Judaism. But through BBYO, which I got involved with because of the sports and the parties, I actually learned that there’s more to Judaism than what I had seen.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit: I am told when I was 13 and my parents sent me to a modern Orthodox Hebrew day school, that I was called the little rabbi. Even though I have no memory of that, but evidently some of the teaching sunk in and I was raising questions like “How come we don’t keep kosher in the house?”
Rabbi Dennis Sasso: I was committed to becoming a rabbi from the time that I was a teenager. Actually I think I made the commitment when I became bar mitzvah.
Rabbi Rachel Gartner: So I had a very positive experience of Judaism as a child, but then as a teenager, I found my feminism. And all things Judaism I pushed at arm’s length. After college, I had the sense that the pushing away wasn’t really working for me. So I went and I spent some time in Israel and I was on Mount Meron one day on Lag B’Omer, and that’s a time when people come, and they light bonfires, and the men dance and sing, and the women daven into their prayer books, and you do this for three days. And I fell asleep one of these days. We’re all camping out and I fell asleep and I woke up one morning. It was sunrise and I found myself surrounded by all these Orthodox Haredi men, wrapped in their tefillin, holding their Torahs, wrapped in their tallitot in prayer, facing the sunrise and it was really beautiful to me and I was intensely jealous of the faith that I projected onto them, that I imagined they had. And in that moment I thought, “Whoa. Apparently Judaism has a strong claim on me and I want to come off this mountain and go reclaim it for myself.”
Rabbi Jacob Staub: I was looking for a way to reinterpret and understand in a new way, a Judaism that I had been taught in an Orthodox context as a child.
Rabbi Brian Field: I discovered that if I was going to have a shot at being a successful and effective rabbi I needed to embody a Judaism that makes sense to me. And during that time, that’s when I discovered the writings of Mordecai Kaplan.
Rabbi Sandy E. Sasso: I knew about Reconstructionism … I had read. I’m very sympathetic to the philosophy of Mordecai Kaplan. As a teenager, I used to go around saying “Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.”
Rabbi David Brusin: Just before Pesach, I couldn’t get home and Hillel was awful so I never really went to brunch at Hillel. but I went to sign up for the seders. And they told me to go to the bulletin board and I’d find the sheets there and I did. And while I was doing that, I noticed a bulletin that was posted and half covered, but I could see it said, “New” then it looked like “rabbinical.”
Rabbi David Brusin: So I took the other things off and sure enough, it was from Rabbi Eisenstein and Rabbi Kaplan who were going to be interviewing students who might be interested in going to this new school that was about to open the following fall. So I wrote down all the information. I went to the interview and told them why I’m not in rabbinical school already. I would have been, but I couldn’t last year.
Rabbi David Brusin: So here I am at UMass in a program that’s just not what I’m looking for. And they told me, we’re not this kind of school that’s going to require you to do anything ritualistic from the tradition. That’s for you to figure out. Our role is to give you the background, the education, the wherewithal to make those kinds of decisions yourself, and that was just perfect. That’s what I was looking for. Both of them looked at each other and one of them says, “You’re the kind of person we’re opening this school for. This is the place where you need to be.” And they were right.
Rabbi Gail Diamond: Well, the truth is that when I was a kid, I went to a Reconstructionist congregation, Dor Hadash in Pittsburgh. We met in the Hebrew Institute of Pittsburgh and we had visiting rabbis, rabbinical students who came to visit the congregation. Two of them were Dennis and Sandy Sasso and I think maybe one of them was Kenny Berger zichrono livracha (of blessed memory) and so those rabbinical students greatly impressed me when I was about nine years old and it was when women were just starting to be rabbis. And I said that when I grew up I was going to go to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman: I grew up in Philadelphia … I grew up in the Conservative movement and the synagogue that I went to had a rabbi who quoted Mordecai Kaplan all the time. And then I went to Temple for college and RRC, at the time, was right up the block from Temple. So I started getting more and more and more involved in the Jewish community and realized that I wanted my life to be centered in the Jewish community and there were not a lot of options for women to be rabbis at that time. There really were two possible places, Hebrew Union College and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and I already knew a lot about Reconstructionism and I really was not a Reform Jew and from Temple, it meant that I could walk up the block to RRC and take a look. And it was a very sweet school.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman: And in 1973, got a lot of press because Sandy Eisenberg Sasso became the second woman rabbi, but the first woman rabbi to graduate from there. And I realized then that it really was an option for me to be a rabbi and that this school in Philadelphia, which was where I wanted to stay, would be a terrific possibility for me.
Rabbi Sandy E. Sasso: I was very interested in the dual program RRC had at the time. Before I applied to the college I had already been accepted for an advanced degree at Temple University’s religion department. I was also advised that since no one knew if women rabbis would be accepted, if they weren’t, then at least I could fall back on an academic degree.
Rabbi David Mivasair: I wanted to be a rabbi from the time I was in high school. I didn’t grow up in the Reconstructionist movement. I grew up in the Reform movement, which inspired me, drew me into Judaism and Jewish life and then I started feeling that that was actually rather limited. So I gave up. I just gave up the idea.
Rabbi David Mivasair: And then in 1982, Arthur Waskow organized a conference for Jews working in the peace movement and I was a Jewish person working in the peace movement. And this conference was held at this thing I’d never heard of before, called the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. And I thought, “Whatever. I want to go to this conference. I want to be there for that.”
Rabbi David Mivasair: So I went to Philadelphia and I walked in the door and I was just flabbergasted that this exists, the whole orientation of it and what it was about and what the people there had done in their lives, what they wanted to be doing in their life. It was amazing. It was like my vision, that I didn’t know that anyone else had, manifested.
Rabbi Maurice Harris: I graduated from college in 1992 and had developed a pretty strong interest in liberal Jewish life and I had a wonderful experience at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. My last year of college, when the Jewish chaplain there was an RRC student, who is now Rabbi Ilyse Kramer. And that was my first exposure in my final year of college to Reconstructionist thought and to a Reconstructionist approach to liberal Jewish life and I had the experience of reading these materials and thinking, “Oh my gosh, somebody finally wrote what I’ve been thinking for such a long time.”
Rabbi Elliot Skiddell: The bottom line is I came to RRC. I became a rabbi because of BBYO and Rabbi Ira Eisenstein. At B’nai B’rith, Rabbi Ira was our scholar in residence, I guess you would say, for the summer and one Shabbat afternoon when we had these electives, the people on the staff could just talk about anything they wanted to talk about or discuss, and Rabbi Ira said, “I’ll be under that tree over there and I’d like to talk about new ways of training rabbis.”
Rabbi Elliot Skiddell: I said, “Oh, that sounds interesting, and I really like everything that Rabbi Ira talks about so I’ll go and sit there.” And I was one of three or four of the participants in the summer program that came and sat with him and he started talking about this vision of a rabbinical school that was like no other rabbinical school that existed at that time and how it would incorporate rabbinical studies along with a masters and doctoral program at Temple University. I started to say to myself, “Boy, that sounds like the combination of all the things that I’m interested in, the philosophy and the psychology and the sociology and the teaching and the Jewish component. And I set my sights on going to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College on that Shabbat afternoon in Starlight, Pennsylvania.
Rabbi Jodie Siff: I ran in college, cross country and track. And after my sophomore year of school, I ran in the Maccabiah Pan Am Games in Uruguay, South America, and then when I came back, I decided I want to study more about Judaism. I actually grew up in a Reconstructionist synagogue and I decided when I was graduating that I wanted to do something more in the Jewish world and I was only 22 when I applied. I was one of the babies of the movement.
Rabbi Jodie Siff: I knew I was not a halachic Jew, so I wasn’t going to JTS or really that was the only option at the time. So I looked at HUC and RRC and I felt that HUC, literally, was a camp experience that I wasn’t a member of, like the NFTY world, and I felt that RRC, even with me feeling like I was very young, was the place where I felt was more like home.
Rabbi Jodie Siff: I do have to say, I was 22 years old. It was not, for me, an ideological search. It was more of just like this feels comfortable and it was more of that I knew I wanted to get further education and an advanced degree in the Jewish world and I felt like this would open doors. So that’s the real reason I went there.
Rabbi Brian Field: So Art Green once wrote an article in which he described Reconstructionist Judaism as Jewish religious humanism. So I’m someone who was raised in a humanist, Yiddishist household and RRC offered me a Jewish spiritual language that allowed me to fully integrate my humanist Jewish roots into a spiritual rabbinic Judaism.
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik: I knew that I wanted to go to rabbinical school, primarily because I wanted the education and I wanted the experience, and knew, for me, that camp work was likely where I wanted to go, but that having a rabbinic education in my pocket allowed me to do all sorts of interesting Jewish education and Jewish experiential work with kids. And RRC, for me, did two things.
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik: One was the curriculum so clearly spoke to me in terms of a civilizational approach and really understanding Judaism through the course of history. And for me, frankly, it felt like coming home. I had grown up in a Reconstructionist synagogue and I walked into the building and walked into my interview and just said, “This is the place where I belong.”
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman: Someone handed me a book and it was “Exploring Judaism” by Jacob Staub and Rebecca Alpert. The book, “Exploring Judaism,” really put an emphasis on that level of empowered Judaism, of coming together as a community, as people, as interested learners and really figuring things out together, possibly with the help of the rabbi, but really not from the top down. And as soon as I started reading it, I recognized myself on the pages, immediately.
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman: I thought, “Wow, that’s who I am and that’s who I’ve been all along. I just didn’t have a word for it.” So once I discovered Reconstructionism, it became pretty clear that if I was going to be a rabbi, this was the kind of rabbi I needed to be. And once I pursued that journey, I didn’t even think about any other school. It was RRC or nothing.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: I’m Rabbi Deborah Waxman. Thank you so much for listening.
Sam Wachs: This episode was produced and edited by Sam Wachs with narration by Rabbi Deborah Waxman. For more information on the 50th anniversary of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, you can visit RRC.edu/50th.
2. Context Matters
2. Context Matters
For this episode we invited alumni to share a memorable lesson, whether from inside the classroom or outside, through field work or from their peers. From such seemingly mundane matters as handing in assignments on time to answering the question “What is the essence of religion?” the learning that happens at RRC stays with graduates for a lifetime.
Episode 2 Transcript
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: Hi, I’m Rabbi Deborah Waxman president of Reconstructing Judaism. I’d like to welcome you to episode two of our special audio series, celebrating the 50th anniversary of our rabbinical seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College or RRC.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: In case you missed it, be sure to listen to episode one where we heard some of the amazing journeys that brought future rabbis to the college.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: Episode 2: Context Matters. For this episode we invited alumni to share a memorable lesson, whether from inside the classroom or outside, through field work or from their peers. From such seemingly mundane matters as handing in assignments on time to answering the question “What is the essence of religion?” the learning that happens at RRC stays with graduates for a lifetime. Let’s begin with Rabbi Isaac Saposnik.
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik: I have this really clear memory of during my Mekhina year, a month in, having an “aha” moment of…I had been so worried about how was I going to learn everything I needed to know during the 6 years of school, and I had to know everything when I graduated. And I had this “Aha!” moment of “Oh … I’m not going to know everything, I’m going just know enough to get started and I’m going to keep learning.”
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik: And I have found moments in the last ten years where I will be in a conversation and either something will fall out of my mouth where I go “Ah! I learned that in school,” or something will fall out of my mouth and I’ll say “Oh, I learned how to think about this in school,” and so it continues to be part of my everyday life and work in ways that I wouldn’t have expected ten years ago, but continues to be really, really exciting.
Rabbi Rachael Gartner: So many learnings from my time that have stuck with me. Countless, and to this day in my rabbinate I graduated in 2002 so it’s been 16 years, I will still have moments where teachers’ words or even sometimes their faces come to mind while I’m sitting with a person in pastoral care, while I’m teaching a course, while I’m leading a ritual … and sometimes I hear their teachings in my own head in ways that help me get through a day when I’m having a really hard time.
Rabbi Rachael Gartner: A teaching that I received at RRC in different ways started with Rabbi David Teutsch at orientation who said “Just remember you are replaceable.” That was maybe day one of rabbinical school, and I thought “What? You know, here we are thinking we’re so special, we’re going to be rabbis in Israel and teachers in Israel — ‘You’re replaceable!’” And he was right.
Rabbi Jodie Siff: Our professor for Talmud who was Marjorie Lehman, she’s now at JTS, she said something that was always the most poignant thing that I learned. She said, she would “never take incomplete.” Everyone in my classes always took incomplete for a lot of their stuff and held them over and everything. She would never take an incomplete. She was like , “You’re studying to be rabbis, and Shabbat comes every Friday, Saturday. You have to be finished with whatever you’re doing to be able to prepare for those days.
Rabbi Jodie Siff: So I will not take incomplete. I am preparing you partially for the scholar[ship] of it but partially for the structure of how you’re going to have to learn how to live your life.”
Rabbi Shawn Zevit: First of all the shared learning, and particularly the professors. And their openness to working with people and also, allowing for and even nurturing. The neshamah, the soul, and the interests of the individual student, while also saying “OK, it’s not just about you individually, we are also having this experience as a group.”
Rabbi Shawn Zevit: So that process and philosophy for me resonated deeply — the understanding that in my life at the College that the content and process were equally important, and were in fact, a Reconstructionist approach to both the material we were learning and growing into but also who we were growing into — what we would call now with the language of the arc of spiritual development and growth.
Rabbi Jacob Staub: One of the most important things I learned at RRC: Understanding the historical context in which texts were produced.
Rabbi Lewis Eron: Basically it is to try to understand things within their context. Then everything, you know, can make sense but you have to know where it’s coming from, you can’t deal with it until you understand it.
Rabbi Lewis Eron: I found that the skills that I learned in reading texts at the RRC is that to listen to the text first, before one responds, was really important for any type of interpersonal reaction.
Rabbi Jacob Staub: When I know their social, economic, historical context, I can listen to them empathically and as human beings dealing with real live issues of their time rather than as bearded hoary elders who speak with authority and speak timelessly out of context.
Rabbi Rachael Gartner: Rabbi Linda Holtzman once said “The congregant in the room who has given you the most tzuris is almost always the congregant who needs you the most.” And I can’t tell you, countless times when I enter into a 1 on 1 situation with someone from our community on campus, or when I was a pulpit rabbi who, you know, rubs me in a little bit of an odd way…
Rabbi Rachael Gartner: I channel that moment with Linda Holtzman and because of that I am able to throughout my time 1 on 1 with them, it opens into something really beautiful. And over and over again I am able to see what’s remarkable about this human being before me.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman: So Ira Eisenstein was trying to teach us what peoplehood meant. And he described it by — he and Judith were in a city in Italy, and they realized that they were lost and they weren’t sure what to do. And they were just walking along and they were getting more and more worried that they were really lost in this foreign city and then, they saw a mezuzah on a door and they knocked on the door and they said “We’re lost ,could you help us?” Then they got the help they needed and they felt comfortable asking for help because of the mezuzah.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman: And that for them — for him, represented a sense of Jewish peoplehood — that he didn’t know anything about the people, and he knew that they didn’t know anything about him. He didn’t know their beliefs, he didn’t know their anything, but he knew that they had a mezuzah up, and he felt as if there was a connection among Jews and that for him mattered, that for him made a difference.
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso: People want to ask me many years later, “What was the most influential text in your rabbinate?” I thought for a long time, and I answered the question this way: “The absence of text.” Because what struck me the most as we were opening up all these sacred texts was that my voice wasn’t there, that women’s voices weren’t there, that we were missing women’s names and women’s stories, and that helped shape the direction of a lot of my creative writing and work.
Rabbi Brian Field: I watched how RRC managed a conversation about taking next steps in the fuller and fuller inclusion and full recognition of GLBTQ rabbinical students. And just watching how the people in power made sure that the people who didn’t have power were included in the conversation, was not just inspiring to me but also taught me a lot about how to be a leader of a community that — where everybody’s voice is listened to and has a voice. That ultimately leads to what I would call a far deeper more sustainable collective wisdom.
Rabbi David Mivasair: It’s kind of a broad generality, but it’s something that is actually important to me as a rabbi. It’s about the evolution of Jewish civilization. People ask, “What does Judaism say?” And I really learned at RRC how that is very evolving and depends so much on which person you listen to, which rabbi in the Talmud, who said this, who said that, and the very, very, very clear sense of Judaism as really an evolving religious civilization, believe it or not. I think somebody said that once.
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso: So we also have this incredible experience that not many classes after us had. We had Mordecai Kaplan come and teach. He was a very exacting professor.
Rabbi Dennis Sasso: You’d better be sitting with the class when the class begins. Because if the class was not fully assembled and ready to go when he arrived and sat, he would get up and leave the classroom.
Rabbi Elliot Skiddell: He didn’t like to just start talking. He liked you to write down your questions on a card, and he would shuffle through the cards and he would pick questions that he wanted to deal with. But he wants you to concentrate, and if he thought that you were drifting off, or that your mind was wandering, he would give you a little zetz with his foot.
Rabbi Dennis Sasso: He quizzed the class once on “what is the English word that most appropriately translates the term ‘religion’?”We of course all wanted to show our wisdom and insights, and quoted Eliade and Rudolph Otto, et cetera, et cetera.
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso: He began the class by saying “What is the essence of religion?” And of course everybody’s trying to come up with some wonderfully profound answer, and he’s going “No, that is incorrect” and “How can you be rabbis if you don’t know the answer to that question?” And finally he said, “The essence of religion is responsibility.”
Rabbi Dennis Sasso: I once…Kaplan said something in class, something that to me seemed to counter what he had said the week before. And then quietly after class I told him that “You know, Doctor Kaplan, it appears to be that what you said today about this and this, contradicted what you said last week about this subject.”
Rabbi Dennis Sasso: And he looked at me, deep blue eyes, and smiled and he says “Well of course, I also am evolving.”
Rabbi Gail Diamond: But I remember this time that Neil Danzig was our teacher for rabbinics. Doctor Neil Danizig, who was really a fabulous teacher, but he came into our classroom with a cart of books from the library. And he went through it sort of, it was all different midrashim, and Mishnah, and Talmud, and I don’t know, all kinds of books from the rabbinic period.
Rabbi Gail Diamond: But when he was explaining to us what each one was, and it all just went right over my head. And I thought, “There’s no way that I will ever know what these things are.” And I don’t know at the end of that year, or even the necessarily the end of rabbinical school that I really grasped everything that he had taught us.
Rabbi Gail Diamond: But years later, when I was working at the Conservative Yeshiva, I started to feel like I actually knew what those books were, and I just remembered that sort of the contrast of even that year, between the beginning of the year and the end of the year, how when he brought that cart in it all just seemed like a such a mystery. By the end of the year, it seemed like something that I might actually grasp some of and be able to continue to learn and find out about.
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman: I remember being invited to the homes of faculty members for Shabbat dinner and being welcomed in warmly in a way that I certainly never experienced as a college student or any time before that. There was always a separation between faculty and students. And the fact that we were here as a community together remains, for me, the biggest teaching that I took away, and the model that I wanted to create in the community that I then sought to build.
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman: So it wasn’t so much a particular learning in the classroom, but the style of community building, in the building.
Rabbi Elliot Skiddell: I would say that the most important learning was that saying about watching a rabbi tie her shoes, or his shoes and that’s how you can learn best, my best learning was just from the examples of the people that I saw around me. Faculty of course, administrators, and most of all other students.
Rabbi Maurice Harris: I’m not even sure where to start, I mean I had so many superb teachers. I mean I learned how to read Biblical and rabbinic texts, and kind of get inside their worlds. And I also learned how to work with boards, and how to work with congregants, and how to help people pastorally during terrible personal crises.
Rabbi Maurice Harris: And it was so much long and hard work to learn those things, it was coursework and internships and supervision classes for the internships, and repeated trial and error, and mistakes, and reviewing, and by the time this place spit me out, I was surprised at how well trained I’d been.
Rabbi David Brusin: I think what I realized at RRC, it seemed to all of us, the nature of the synagogue, the role of the synagogue and of Judaism itself was changing. And we all felt and talked about how we needed to be proactive about what those changes would be and how they’d be implemented and what role we would play.
Rabbi David Brusin: And I think we were right.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: I’m Rabbi Deborah Waxman, thank you so much for listening.
Sam Wachs: This episode was produced and edited by Sam Wachs, with narration by Rabbi Deborah Waxman. For more information on the 50th anniversary of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College you can visit https://www.rrc.edu/50th.
3. Third Shelf Down, the Fourth Book from the Right
3. Third Shelf Down, the Fourth Book from the Right
In this episode, we asked alumni to share some of their favorite memories from their time at RRC. Their answers ranged from enlightening anecdotes about Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, our movement’s intellectual founder, to stories of newly minted rabbis navigating a boisterous crowd celebrating the Philadelphia Flyers’ first Stanley Cup victory.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: Hi, I’m Rabbi Deborah Waxman, President of Reconstructing Judaism, and I’d like to welcome you to Episode 3 of our special audio series celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, or RRC.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: In Episodes 1 and 2 we followed the journeys of future rabbis to RRC, and the lessons that they learned along the way.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: Episode Three — Third Shelf Down, the Fourth Book From the Right. In this episode, we asked alumni to share some of their favorite memories from their time at RRC. Their answers ranged from enlightening anecdotes about Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, our movement’s intellectual founder, to stories of newly minted rabbis navigating a boisterous crowd celebrating the Philadelphia Flyers’ first Stanley Cup victory. Let’s hear from Rabbi David Mivasair.
Rabbi David Mivasair: RRC was great for me. Without RRC, I would not have become a rabbi. There was no other rabbinical school that I could have considered going to.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit: This is not a memory that would have occurred to me before this moment. It’s in the gestalt of our conversation here, but I actually remember the student orientation Shabbaton.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit: Because here was this moment where we were coming— and actually Rabbi Deborah Waxman and I were in the same entry year. Rabbi Elyse Wechterman and I, same entry year — and here, both those amazing rabbis, dynamic Jewish women in leading the Jewish world. We all started at the same time there and just being at that retreat center altogether and that sense of, “Oh, it’s not just me. There are other people here coming with their passions, their differences, their similar interests.” We’re singing these songs, the zemirot… I remember when I heard the Sloop John B/Deror Yikra for the first time and it was like, oh wow. You mean, that’s part of it, that mashup of popular music and culture with our Yiddishkeit and that sense of being part of something larger, I think. Even with our own wide eyedness and somewhat shock and awe and dislocation or whatever else was going on at the time. That was a very, very powerful moment.
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman: One of the things that was amazing about coming to RRC was the atmosphere of partnership and collegiality between students and faculty. I remember being shocked that it was okay to call people like Jacob Staub, “Jacob,” and David Teutsch, “David.” But on the other hand, so excited that these would be, not just my teachers, but my community members. People who were invested in my learning and in a way I’d never experienced before.
Rabbi Lewis Eron: I actually enjoyed my time at the RRC. We were on Broad Street, Broad and Dauphin a few blocks north of Temple University, because at that time when the college was young we had a joint program with Temple University.
Rabbi Elliot Skiddell: The college at that time was located in the former funeral home at the corner of Broad and Dauphin. The first day we got there, there was still some coffins in the basement… empty ones.
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso: You know there were stories. I can’t corroborate them, but there were stories of finding things in closets. I don’t have much information on that.
Rabbi Jacob Staub: The building itself was accommodating to the kind of small group, intimate learning, that was happening. I never worried about running into ghosts or walking caskets or anything like that.
Rabbi Elliot Skiddell: You could park on Dauphin Street. There were a few times when we wanted to get in extra studying, extra time. We would meet Rabbi Caine, Rabbi Ivan Caine, of course, who was an amazing teacher, early. It was before the building would be open. And so we would sit in Sid Schwarz’s old Nash Rambler parked on Dauphin Street, just outside the college. We would do our early morning class sitting in Sid’s car and of course, since Rabbi Caine was our teacher, he would go into the driver’s seat. It was Sid’s car so he would sit in the front seat and Herb and I would sit in the back. Rabbi Caine would tilt the mirror so that he could see us sitting in the back. That’s how we would do our early morning class because the building wasn’t open yet. I have just such a fond memory of that. Of the three of us studying with Rabbi Caine, sitting in that car.
Rabbi David Brusin: Well the Flyers, in my day, they won the Stanley Cup. At my ordination ceremony we had to devise some kind of system with people who had radios and were out there in the congregation. So we did. When whoever was in charge of this, if he lifted one finger on his right hand, that meant the Flyers got a goal. The best part of it was that when our ceremony ended and then there was some kind of refreshment thing after that, and then we all set out for home. The streets were filled with fans screaming.
Rabbi Dennis Sasso: Yeah. I thought they were all out there to celebrate the graduating class of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Rabbi David Brusin: We all joked and said they’re cheering for us. Say, the whole city is happy for us.
Rabbi David Mivasair: I think my fondest memories probably were classesWith people like Art Green and Reb Zalman Schachter, zichrono livracha [of blessed memory], and I mentioned Arthur Waskow was on the faculty, and its kind of a general thing to say, but the classes were great and so much stuff learning through the historical perspective, you know, the Biblical year, the rabbinic year. That was it.
Rabbi Jodie Siff: The best part of RRC for me was the intergenerational learning that went on. The daily grind of being involved with a community of people who are invested in the self exploration of Jewish identity.
Rabbi Lewis Eron: Some of the teachers were just wonderful. Most particularly Ivan Caine. We had a fellow named Steve Pople who was a historian. I think he left the academic world to become, go into finance and investing, but he gave a very good seminar in the modern year that really puts things in perspective – that was always helpful. And also the opportunity to study with Norbert Samuelson, who taught both at the RRC and at Temple. Studying with him really gave me a good way of understanding and working through philosophical texts.
Rabbi Jacob Staub: One of my fondest memories was how fluent I became in the corpus of the writings of Gersonides, Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon, 14th century, so that I think I may have known him better than anyone else alive at that time and maybe better than anybody who lived in his time. I could answer any question that you would pose to him, even if he had never addressed that question, because I, I just knew everything about the way he thought of things. So the opportunity that I had to study the work of Gersonides, the work of Maimonides, work of midrash that was all inclusive and all immersive and gave me a sense of ownership over the texts and traditions of Judaism was really important to me.
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso: Denis and I, I think it was at the end of our first, probably in 1972, created a covenantal birth ceremony for daughters that had never existed before. We did that because one of our fellow students, Kenny Berger — he and his wife Aviva had a baby girl and we turned to each other and say “Well, what are we supposed to do? What’s the ritual?” And when it wasn’t very much, we decided we should create something new, and that new creation has now really become tradition.
Rabbi Rachael Gartner: It was a very exciting time for me at RRC when we were growing the Jewish women’s studies project. That students, I think it was called JWSP. Students had started before my time and we were transforming it into Kolot. We were looking to figure out who to hire and how to do this thing of feminist and gender studies at RRC. It was just such an exciting time because we were asking really deep questions about what it meant to do gender and Judaism, what it meant to do that in, not a purely academic setting, a somewhat academic setting, but also a pastoral setting. Right? It’s, these are hard things to negotiate when you’re breaking tradition down. How do you figure out how to build it back up for people? The set of questions we were asking was really stimulating, and thinking through how to set up an institute, really, of the school to own that space was tremendously exciting.
Rabbi Rachael Gartner: I remember interviewing when Lori Lefkowitz was interviewing. I remember some of my mentors now saying things like, “Oh we’re just babies at this whole thing. We don’t know what we’re doing. Let’s figure this out together. “And then as part of the process of figuring out Kolot and JWSP and the future of gender and feminist women’s studies at the school. We started a project called “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing.” Which was really, I feel the brainchild and heart child of Rabbi Mychal Copeland, who had done some Rosh Hodesh programming with girls in her work. This idea came to all of us through her and we just built on it. That was the early, early days of it’s a girl thing. I just remember sitting with Barbara Burleigh Melitz, who is a social worker and still works on the project. We used to say we would sit tuchus to tuchus. Time to figure out what we were doing.
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman: We were writing this curriculum and we’re saying, “Wait, hold on, is it ‘fabulous females’?” and what are we, what do we want to empower young women with as feminist Jews and as rabbis and the social worker. It was just a thrilling time, a lot of work. I’m so proud that that project then grew and how many people’s hands were in this project to make it what it became. And then of course transformed into Moving Traditions.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman: We had the opportunity to meet Kaplan. He was living in Israel at the time. When we spent a year in Israel, my classmates and I went to meet Mordecai Kaplan. He was in his mid to late nineties at the time. He was extraordinary. I remember him sitting in a room talking to us, respectfully, but talking to us and teaching us and determined to get his message across. When we had a question and he didn’t have the exact answer offhand. He would say, wait a minute. His room was lined with books right on every wall. He would say, “Wait a minute, could you go to the third shelf down? You see that purple book?”
Rabbi Elliot Skiddell: “On the third shelf down, on the right hand side. The fourth book from the right.”
Rabbi Linda Holtzman: “Open it up. Turn to page 57 and read the second paragraph. That’s where, you know, rabbi so and so says whatever.” He was extraordinary.
Rabbi Dennis Sasso: I had the special privilege of having weekly person to person conversations with Mordecai Kaplan. He came in once a week from New York. After he would teach a seminar on Reconstructionism he would take a nap, in my room, at the college when it was located in North Broad Street. He would take an hour snooze, and it would be my privilege, once a week to walk Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan from the College to the train station, which was located about 8 blocks from the College. He was 90 years of age at that time and we would do the walk together. Those moments afforded me an opportunity to get to know the person, who in my opinion, is the most significant influence and shaper of 20th century American Judaism.
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman: I don’t think that you can really remember RRC without mentioning RRC Purim. I had never seen such a joyful fun Purim celebration before in my life. But the fact, again, that students and faculty could join together for a celebration and that we were permitted to make fun of each other, was really extraordinary. That level of trust and confidence in ourselves to allow people to make fun of us was really fantastic. The last Purim that I was here, I actually dressed up as Jacob Staub, and that was actually something to really, the fact that that could be okay is itself unique I think.
Rabbi Gail Diamond: We did a parody of the Rocky Horror Show. We talked about how tired we were because we had so many jobs and were working so hard on our schoolwork and stuff like that.
Rabbi Brian Field: We did a whole take off on the Rocky Horror Picture Show. A couple of innocent students walk into RRC and you can imagine the rest.
Rabbi Gail Diamond: I will sing you the song that I was talking about. You can see if you can fit it in. Okay. It goes like this:
Rabbi Gail Diamond: I’m so tired for jobs that I’m still broke. I’m so tired, my social life’s a joke. I should call up my advisor, but nothing has changed since we last spoke.
Rabbi Brian Field: Basically anything was fair game. Art Green had made a very provocative presentation on how God is best known face to face and kind of the sexual implications for that. Well, that year on Purim there were a series of Purim spiels, all kind of making fun of Art Green’s privileging of face to face sex. So after all the Purim spiels, classes were scheduled. So he came to our class, clearly schnockered, put his head on the table and sighed poor misunderstood me, poor misunderstood me.
Rabbi Gail Diamond: One memory I have is a session that we did in honor of Art Green when he was stepping down as president of the College. So we had a learning session. I remember I had taught some Midrash and we had a number of different students who taught really in honor of Art. Which is funny because there’s this whole thing about melamed Torah lifnei rabo. (Teaching Torah in the presence of one’s rabbi/teacher) But Art was very, it was the kind of thing that really meant a lot to him, that several of the students taught texts in his honor.
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik: So certainly for me, part of what really stands out from my experience as a student are the friends and the colleagues that I made during that time. So people who in the course of six years, you become really close to them and their families and those friendships last far beyond the years here. So for me there are moments of learning and moments of life with friends who have become so much part of my life. That for me really sticks.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: I’m Rabbi Deborah Waxman. Thank you so much for listening.
Sam Wachs: This episode was produced and edited by Sam Wachs with narration by Rabbi Deborah Waxman. For more information on the 50th anniversary of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College you can visit our RRC.edu/50th.
4. Think Tank of American Judaism
4. Think Tank of American Judaism
In this episode, we look outward. In just 50 years, RRC has produced hundreds of rabbis who are serving in an ever-growing number of roles, including in congregations, on campus, as educators, an organizational leaders, as chaplains, and social entrepreneurs. Let’s hear from alumni as they consider the impact the College has made on Judaism and on the wider world.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: Hi, I’m Rabbi Deborah Waxman, President of Reconstructing Judaism. I’d like to welcome you to the final episode of our special audio series celebrating the 50th anniversary of our rabbinical seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, or RRC. Be sure to listen to episodes one, two, and three, where we explored some of the journeys that brought future rabbis to RRC, lessons they learned in school, and their favorite memories.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: Episode Four: The Think Tank of American Judaism. In this episode, we look outward. In just 50 years, RRC has produced hundreds of rabbis who are serving in an ever-growing number of roles, including in congregations, on campus, as educators, an organizational leaders, as chaplains, and social entrepreneurs. Let’s hear from alumni as they consider the impact the college has made on Judaism and on the wider world. Here’s Rabbi Linda Holtzman.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman: The first is that sense that I got from Mordecai Kaplan that I think permeates the Reconstructionist movement at its best, which is the ability to question everything, and to try new things, and to jump in. Even if you’re not completely sure something’s going to be accepted, to just try it.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman: Second, that ethics matter. They are really at the heart of decision making about Jewish laws and Jewish ritual, that tradition, as Kaplan said, has a vote but not a veto and it really does not have a veto ever. I believe that fully and that’s something that the Reconstructionist movement has been at the forefront of, of not saying let’s just get rid of all Jewish tradition, of saying we have to take Jewish tradition seriously, explore it fully, look at the values that underlie it and make decisions about how it can be meaningful in our lives and in our community.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman: The last is creativity, that we are a creative movement by our very nature. When we do a service we take seriously the underpinnings of that service and what they’re about. That for me is what the Reconstructionist does and brings to the world.
Rabbi David Mivasair: I think the college is a source of inspiration and learning for people who want Judaism to be very relevant to life in this world today.
Rabbi Brian Field: In my experience, the college over the years has produced a disproportionate number of the must creative rabbis of the last two generations, from inclusion of GLBTQ rabbis to inclusive of intermarried rabbis, from the integration of reevaluation counseling and spiritual direction into rabbinic education, the disproportionate number of rabbis who are the founders of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, from its willingness to reconstruct over and over again the very assumptions that go into educating rabbis. My experience is the College is providing the spiritual leadership, the very Jewish spiritual vocabulary that will keep Judaism as a vital resource in addressing the challenges facing human thriving on this planet.
Rabbi Elliot Skiddell: I think that what the college specifically has to offer is indeed that approach to the questions that are on the minds of Jews today, the ability to look at those questions that everybody is asking and to reframe them, rephrase them, look at them from a different angle, and come up with answers that I think many Jews are longing for and do want to hear. That’s what makes the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College an important institution in the Jewish community, because there are other rabbinical schools, but there’s only one Rabbinical College that is using the tools of Reconstructionist philosophy.
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman: This is where the ideas get born. This is where creativity happens and spreads out from here. There’s a way in which I think the diversity of our student body, the diversity of the way we think and approach texts, and approach our stories, and then create models for bringing that out into the world is really still vibrant and still one of the most amazing things that we do. It’s incredibly relevant, incredibly important to the Jewish world. We wouldn’t have so much of the Jewish world that we have today if it wasn’t for the creative minds that have been through the building here at 1299. I think of the music, and the rituals, and the stories that we tell, and that’s because of the students here who have created it.
Rabbi Lewis Eron: I think the college has become a really important part at least of the rabbinic world. I think that our graduates have taken leadership positions across the board in the American Jewish community and have done some very effective work. I think we were probably very influential particularly in Hillel and college chaplaincy. We’ve taken some very important positions in secular chaplaincy, in Jewish institutions. Some of it we’ve had people come up to leadership. I think that now that we’re going into a period in which institutional loyalty isn’t all that great, the fact that we’re providing a way of understanding Judaism, restructuring the Jewish world I think is very important so we give a foundational way of looking at things, how to not be afraid of science, both the social sciences and the hard sciences and to look critically at that and at the tradition. I think we teach bravery, I think that’s important, and hopefully we also teach some humility.
Rabbi Gail Diamond: So first of all, I don’t know. That’s just such a huge question. That would sort of be hubris to say I know what it means to Judaism or the wider world. But I will say this, what then and now characterizes RRC is training rabbis who meet Jews where they are. The sense I had coming out of RRC was that I really had the ability to connect with congregants, to find out what was meaningful to them, to bring Judaism to them in a way that would have meaning in their lives. I felt like I got training to really deeply listen to people, to engage with them, and to find ways to help them engage with Jewish tradition. I think that was as true when I graduated as it is today.
Rabbi Jodie Siff: I can say from my perspective in the past, I believe that it offered people to really have the exploration of a Jewish identity combined with wrestling with Jewish observance and didn’t place a judgment on where you fell in it. I would say “spectrum,” but “spectrum” gives you a concept of that something’s better or something’s worse, but really just saying that I feel that Reconstructionist Judaism, my experience especially through the rabbinic education, was about trying different things on for size and allowing myself to have that self-exploration in the midst of a community that would be supportive.
Rabbi Rachael Gartner: We ask about RRC’s impact…in my experience, we have these opportunities to really probe, and think, and feel our way through challenging Jewish issues and texts, and see the exciting, the potential aspects of Judaism that maybe we ourselves as students hadn’t learned before, and then to begin to create rituals, and materials, and ultimately rabbinates that spun out from that place of investigation and experimentation to hopefully have created some really impactful and innovative sancta of Jewish life in the 20th and 21st century.
Rabbi Jacob Staub: I think Reconstructionism, Reconstructing Judaism, the Rabbinical College, are critical to the healthy and flourishing future of Judaism and the Jewish people, because we are fearless in addressing new and complicated issues.
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik: Reconstructing Judaism continues to set the standard for living our best values in a way that also connects deeply to Judaism. We often say about camps, not that there aren’t other camps that are diverse and are thinking about a lot of these issues, there aren’t many other camps that are doing it as proactively as we are. I think the same in many ways can be said about the movement, that we continue to be proactive about diversity, and inclusion, and welcoming, and again, living our best values in a way that continues to set course for the rest of the Jewish community, sometimes in ways that are obvious and forward, and sometimes in ways that are much quieter, but no less important.
Rabbi Jacob Staub: We seem almost always to be the first to deal with new challenges. I think the reason that we are first, the reason that we lead is that it is in our philosophy and approach that Jewish civilization is evolving. The state of North American Jewry is in flux and things are changing ever more rapidly. It’s hard to keep up and I think the Jewish world needs us because we are pretty good about keeping up with the cutting edge issues.
Rabbi David Brusin: We’re still a footnote I would say, but individual Recon rabbis in cities, communities all around the world, but all around North America, are amazing, and are making a difference, and Judaism is better for it, and that’s a good thing.
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik: I think that part of what RRC continues to do is to create and provide a program that is really thoughtful about its pedagogy and about its view of Jewish education. It’s not about, “We have to learn some Talmud and we have to learn some Bible, and we have to learn some Hebrew, and we have to do homiletics,” but it’s “How does that happen in a way that is going to give students the best understanding of what it means to be a rabbi and the best understanding of Jewish history through the generations?” The thought behind that and the intention behind that continues to be, from what I can see, really unique in the Jewish world.
Rabbi Jodie Siff: The work that I do, I’m in a Reconstructionist congregation…. what I say to everyone about ‘why would you send you kid to our synagogue school?” “I don’t care what they learn at the end of this.” I care, but I’m saying that’s not my major concern. My major concern is about putting a child in a community that allows them to explore their Jewish identity and hopefully come out with a positive Jewish identity to continue to seek and learn.
Rabbi Sandy Sasso: There was a sociologist many years ago who said, “Most American Jews are Reconstructionist but don’t know it,” and I think over 50 years more Jews know it. Every time I talk about Reconstructionist theology, people will say, “Well I get that. That’s what I really believe.” I think it has given people language to express what it is they that really do believe and how they understand what is sacred and what is holy. I think it has led to great creativity and Biblical interpretation, created midrash. I think it’s made a strong impact on Jewish life even if it’s not identified as Reconstructionism.
Rabbi Dennis Sasso: Everybody talks about Judaism as an evolving religious civilization and they don’t know where this term comes from. They talk about Jewish peoplehood. They don’t know where it comes from, but there it is.
Rabbi Jacob Staub: Often there’s complaints about how we don’t get credit…it would be nice to get acknowledged, but really, the influence that we have is really important whether we get credit or not.
Rabbi Dennis Sasso: Many times I see Reconstructionist ideas everywhere, but they’re not always identified with the movement.
Rabbi Sandy Sasso: I think the movement has made an extraordinary impact and in part because now we have so many people who have graduated and who are teaching across the country, in fact, across the world, so those ideas get disseminated more broadly.
Rabbi Maurice Harris: I’m going to go even bigger — I’m going to say what does Reconstructionism have to offer religion in general? I feel very strongly that religion of any sort can be evaluated on a scale of health or pathology. I think that the success of our species depends in part on whether or not we’re able to learn how to do religion in a healthy way — that pathologically-done religion could easily be the way that we do ourselves in. When I talk about healthy religion, a lot of the criteria that I believe make for a healthy approach to any religion are basically the building blocks of Reconstructionist Judaism, or a Reconstructionist approach to Judaism. Some of those blocks include balancing respect and reverence for the wisdom of traditions and teachings that have been received, along with intellectual honesty and an absolute willingness to question everything and scrutinize everything.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit: I think that aspect of being able to not just be a place that says, “Here’s what this is and what it was,” but “here’s what this Judaism and the religious civilization of the Jewish people is continuing to be.” We’re also noticing the trends and being a place that gets ahead of them, or that empowers students in the ideas of networked organizations, or independent innovation projects, or justice aspects, or the Me Too generation, or looking at gender definitions and multiracial identities and so on. We are still a place that has moved with those times, as well as being ahead of some of them, or see what’s necessary now to serve the Jewish people and acknowledging that continuum of spirituality and religion, as well as culture and identity. I feel it when I go into Reconstructionist communities and I still have that sense of RRC as well, that the way we do things, the “who we are,” not just the “what we do,” is a particularly important contribution to the Jewish people in our ongoing evolution and I would say the world at large now.
Rabbi Dennis Sasso: For me, I got the sense that even though small in number, Reconstructionism was the think tank of American Judaism. Reconstructionist rabbis and supporters were the people who seriously thought about the issues that impacted upon and helped to shape American Judaism religiously and socially. That was the impact of Reconstructionism, kind of the intellectual elite of American Judaism. As the movement became a movement we continued to make significant contributions. The whole concept of the civilizational curriculum at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College I think helped not only Reconstructionist students, but was latter adopted and adapted by other seminaries. I think that Reconstructionism helped to provide the vocabulary of American Jewish life from terms like “peoplehood,” and “organic Jewish community,” and “vocation” rather than “chosenness,” and “non-supernaturalist understanding of religion.” All of those words, significant contributions of a vocabulary and a way of thinking that was not in vogue before Kaplan and early Reconstructionism. I think that remains the contribution, aside from institutional contributions, the concept of the Jewish Community Center and the inauguration of the bat mitzvah ceremony, and other concepts that were created, ideated, by Reconstructionism that have become part and parcel of American Jewish life.
Rabbi Rachael Gartner: There were no limits on what we could think of, and do, and try out with each other. When I graduated and went into the Jewish world I was in some pretty well known spaces that were considered innovative, and cutting edge, and super vibrant and I thought to myself, “Yeah, these places are innovative, and cutting edge, and super vibrant, but at RRC we were beyond the cutting edge.” We were over the … I don’t know. I wish I had a good metaphor.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: As Reconstructionists we understand that we’re often out on the edge. We’re not being chased to the edge. We’re running toward it as it moves. The edge is always in front of us as it has been for the past 50 years, as it was before that when Mordecai Kaplan began to articulate a Reconstructionist approach and to imagine how to train leaders out of it.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: As the source for rabbis for the Reconstructionist movement, our beloved educational center will continue to push to the edge. We do this in partnership with our caring Reconstructionist communities, our inspiring camps, and the amazing rabbis of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. We do this so that our current and future generations can participate in a thriving, vibrant Jewish future.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: I’m Rabbi Deborah Waxman and I thank you so much for listening.
Sam Wachs: This episode was produced and edited by Sam Wachs with narration by Rabbi Deborah Waxman. For more information on the 50th anniversary of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College you can visit RRC.edu/50th.
More 50th Anniversary Features
More 50th Anniversary Features