Say “Reconstructionist Judaism” and most people respond with a question – because they just don’t know what it is. However, University Synagogue and its spiritual leader, Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, are trying to change that. With monthly “Intro Nights” where people are invited to a congregant’s home to learn about Reconstructionism, University Synagogue in Irvine has been attracting affiliated and unaffiliated Jews since its beginning in 1987 with 10 households. Now, with 600 households, the programs are as diverse as the members of the congregation, and with its new building, and Synaplex programming, US expects to provide even more activities for its members.
With the opening of its 50,000-square-foot building on the corner of Harvard and Michelson in August, University Synagogue became the largest synagogue in Irvine and one of the largest in Orange County. “It was a lot of work, but I loved being part of making it happen,” commented Natalye Black, member for 15 years, “and making it possible for future generations to have this option in OC.”
The building houses a 500-seat sanctuary, which can expand to seat 1400 using the social hall, a gift shop, and administrative offices. One wing of the building is devoted entirely to the religious school and preschool programs. Just outside is the new playground opened in February. Plans are underway for a large children’s library/storytelling center.
The building was designed with the innovative approach to Judaism that Rabbi Rachlis believes is the hallmark of Reconstructionism. Design of the sanctuary is representative of Sarah and Abraham’s tent, in which all the flaps were open in every direction, so that people knew they were welcome. “And that is our philosophy,” said Rabbi Rachlis. ”All are welcome.” This is reflected in the synagogue’s welcoming approach to intermarried couples, singles, Jews on their own spiritual search, and people whose primary Jewish identity is cultural and through social action (tikkun olam). “We have about 20 social action programs going on at any one time – from building homes in Mexico to participating in fundraising walks to working at a local food bank,” said Rabbi Rachlis. The synagogue is also engaged in Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Members raised $65,000 to buy an ambulance in Israel. Another $10,000, from children as well as adults, was sent to Argentina to help establish a soup kitchen in a synagogue in Buenos Aires. The synagogue members also support a Christian righteous rescuer in Europe.
“A synagogue should be a laboratory of living Judaism, where people come to learn, explore, and experiment with the traditions of our ancestors, so they can integrate this tradition with who they are today,” said Rabbi Rachlis. “There is a full array of programs for every age, beginning with Torah tots for 18-month-olds and up, through Sunday and weekday religious school, and over 25 adult education courses. All members can engage in study that interests them, including the synagogue choir, which performs regularly throughout the year. Should a congregant wish to study a specific subject not normally offered, Rabbi Rachlis will set up an individual tutorial and meet with the congregant on a regular basis.
Another program that reflects the innovative approach University Synagogue offers is its Synaplex Shabbat. In 2002, University Synagogue was invited to submit an application to be considered for a grant from the STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal) Foundation, which helps renew Jewish life through congregational innovation and leadership development. University Synagogue was one of only twelve synagogues nationally to receive the three-year grant to implement the Synaplex initiative.
The University Synagogue Synaplex program attempts to offer something for every member. A typical Shabbat evening usually begins with the rabbi and cantor leading a Tot Shabbat Service at 5:30 with music and puppets, followed by Shabbat dinner for the whole congregation. “We even have small table and chairs for the children,” said Rabbi Rachlis. A jazz and pop Shabbat Alive Service, including a combo of musicians, follows at 7 p.m. Families then have their own Oneg, with fun foods and games, and time for parents to “shmooze.” Other adults remain in the sanctuary for such guest speakers as Daniel Pearl’s parents, Governor Michael Dukakis, and visiting Israeli and American scholars.
Other Synaplex services also feature Torah Study with the rabbi before services. Under the auspices of the Merage Foundation for U.S.-Israel Trade, 10 Israeli CEOs spoke at the synagogue in March. These Synaplex programs often draw between 400 and 500 congregants, though even regular services draw an impressive 200 to 250 participants.
Synaplex “creates excitement,” says Jessica Schroeter, religious school director. “One group of people settles in one Shabbat space in the building while others, families with young children, may be in the social hall enjoying a Shabbat Oneg activity, and still others attend a meditation session or study Torah.”
This is the kind of programming that suits the Reconstructionist approach very well. Based on the writings and philosophy of its founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, Reconstructionism was first perceived as an approach under which all movements could co-exist. However, its departure from some of the most firmly held traditions and strict interpretation of Halachah, ultimately led Reconstructionists to establish their own Rabbinical College in 1968.
Reconstructionists generally believe that God is that spirit within us that helps us become loving and caring people, and within the universe that animates life. “We find God by understanding ourselves, by being morally concerned, and by being motivated to study and live as Jews,” said Rabbi Rachlis. Some see God as a Divine force for growth and change in personal and mystical terms, others in more abstract ways.
“But for all of us,” added Rabbi Rachlis, “God becomes actualized through humanity and in the world. We believe in autonomy. Each person is actively urged to study Jewish tradition and then to select those elements of belief and observance that are meaningful and resonant with the individual.”
As Mordecai Kaplan wrote, “Tradition should have a vote, but, not a veto in people’s decision making.”
Innovative and sometimes even revolutionary in its approach to the traditional workings of synagogues, US also has another unusual approach to making membership available to anyone who is interested. While dues adjustments have always been a part of most synagogues’ operations, University Synagogue recently approved ”voluntary dues” for first-time members aged 45 or under. Recognizing the large financial commitment synagogue membership often means, these new members may set their own dues for the first year of membership. “A lot of people don’t want to take a chance on joining a synagogue and making such a financial commitment until they know that it’s the right match for them,” said Rabbi Rachlis.
It is this approach to Judaism that has attracted many of its members. “I realized that as a Jew living in two civilizations, University Synagogue reflected our lifestyle. It was stimulating, warm, democratic, and the services were actually enjoyable,” said Victor Klein, one of the earliest members.
“ I really love our prayer book,” says Jessica Schroeter. “ Whenever I read it, I am moved. The prayers and the analysis at the bottom of each page inspires me spiritually.”
“I am a Reconstructionist, and I can’t imagine belonging anywhere else,” said Ron Glickman, past president of the board of directors.
“It is always a challenge to meet the diverse needs of our growing community,” said Rabbi Rachlis, “but we are committed to doing just that – for anyone who comes through our doors.”
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