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.