Rabbi Deborah Waxman, PhD, president of Reconstructionist Judaism, recently released a statement about rebranding. Instead of calling the rabbinical college and umbrella congregational movement the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, the header now is “Reconstructing Judaism.” The tag line below it reads, “Deeply rooted. Boldly relevant.”
Why do this? Well, in Rabbi Waxman’s statement, this sentence jumped out: “A critical path forward is shifting from a focus on ‘being’ Jewish – important but insufficient for providing substance and structure – to a focus on ‘doing’ Jewish.”
This is of central importance as we reshape 21st-century Jewish life. If you’re modifying Jewish by saying Reconstructionist, or Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, etc., you define your Jewish identity as a state of being. That is, “this is who I am.” It is akin to saying “I have brown eyes” or “I have freckles.”
However, in an era when people aren’t participating in group or congregational activities as often, it’s useful to go back to our tradition itself. We practise Judaism. Judaism doesn’t rely on a theological belief system as do some evangelical Christians. Or, as my husband jokes, when somebody needs a 10th body for a minyan, no one asks what you believe. There’s no extended questioning or exam. In that moment, we’re defined by what we do – the person showed up when needed, ready to “do Jewish” in a Jewish space.
If you’re wondering why anyone should care about this, it’s because Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founding thinker of Reconstructionism, significantly affected North American Judaism as a whole. His concept of Jewish peoplehood affected every form of 20th- and 21st-century Judaism. Kaplan, while raised Orthodox, was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative movement) until he retired. His son-in-law founded the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. So, even if you don’t consider yourself a Reconstructionist, many aspects of how North American Jews understand their belonging to the Jewish people stem from Kaplan’s mid-20th century work, which was conceived of as “radical” at the time.
Around the same time that I read about rebranding Judaism, I had a strange “blast” from the past. I was contacted by someone who had once been a dear close friend. How close? I’d lived with her for a year on a kibbutz in Israel. I ate dinner with her the night I got engaged. She stood up for me under the chuppah at my wedding – we were friends for 15 years. We often saw each other on a weekly basis, if not more often. This person was an essential part of my life.
As an aside, I’ll stop to say it’s just not in my nature to ditch a longtime friend or, as some say, ghosting. I wouldn’t disappear or ignore someone on purpose. I take to heart the part of Pirkei Avot (Sayings of Our Fathers) 1:6 – “Find yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend.” While learning opportunities are a lifelong interest, I also understood the rabbis’ interpretation of “acquiring” a friend. You have to invest and work on friendship. It takes time and effort. You have to show interest and concern about friends, and try to “pay them” that attention so that they will like you back.
What happened with my dear friend? In 2003, she was going through some life changes, as was I. We had a disagreement. Instead of discussing it and resolving things, or even fighting, she just dumped me. She wouldn’t respond to me at all. For many years, it tore me apart. I missed her terribly, but, what’s more, I felt as though if I’d just done something differently or been a better friend, this wouldn’t have happened.
I sought her forgiveness several times. I tried to contact her on holidays and wish her well. I even emailed her brother to make sure she was healthy and OK, because the absolute silence and rejection seemed so unlike the previous 15 years of our friendship. In short, I tried hard to be her friend, to invest in repairing any wrongs, long after she’d left the partnership.
This was a painful life lesson. I eventually learned that no matter how hard I tried to fix things, friendships take two people. I couldn’t do it on my own.
At first, I was thrilled to hear from this person again. I showed my husband the note I’d received, and I responded eagerly. My husband was more dispassionate and worried about me. He showed me something I’d overlooked. While clearly she’d laboured over the note’s wording, it didn’t look like it was personally sent to me. It might have been sent to multiple people she’d wronged over the years. While a group teshuvah (apology) is sometimes necessary, it’s not the personal reconnection and friendship I’d craved.
My old friend is professionally affiliated with Jewish Reconstructionism. The rebranding of Reconstructing Judaism pushed me to reflect. One of her online statements says she embraces rachamim (compassion), gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness) and ethical living – but there’s sometimes a distance between what we “believe in” and what we do. I’m impressed that Reconstructing Judaism has taken a strong, active step. They’re doing Jewish in an era when North America Judaism needs this leadership.
Corporations rebrand all the time. It boosts sales and changes their public images. It might be time that Judaism does the same. As for me, I’ve had an internal emotional rollercoaster – the loss of a long friendship perhaps made me a more cautious, distant person when it came to building new connections. I don’t throw myself into friendships with the joie de vivre that I did as a teenager. In my rush to respond, my note to this old friend was still wary, with clichés. “Life is long. It’s good to have friends.”
Relearning this Jewish notion of acquiring friendship helped me put this episode in perspective. I wish I’d included it in my note. Could we learn together, invest in each other, do right by people, and create a rooted and relevant future? If that’s what she’s up for, I hope she writes back.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.