On the ‘cutting edge’ of Judaism

David Roberts speaks at the 2016 graduation ceremony of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). For 11 years, Roberts has served as board chair of the RRC. 

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

In the mid-80s, David Roberts and his wife, Sue Fischlowitz, walked into a Reconstructionist synagogue in Boston and saw the female rabbi holding a siddur with her left hand and her 2-year-old on her right hip.

“We thought, ‘This may be a place worth considering,’ ” said Roberts, who relocated to St. Louis in 1992.  

They were members of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel, a Conservative synagogue, for some time but ultimately decided that they wanted to bring Reconstructionism to St. Louis. So in 1998, the Reconstructionist Minyan of St. Louis started renting space at the Hillel at Washington University. Around the same time, Roberts joined the board of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which is based near Philadelphia. And in 2005, he helped found Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community, which meets on the Millstone Campus near Creve Coeur and has about 50 members.  

He was attracted to Reconstructionism by its “openness and progressive nature.”

“We were the first movement to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis,” said Roberts. “Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, had his daughter called to the Torah” for a bat mitzvah in 1922, “and it was just not done in those days.”

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Reconstructionism has been “at the cutting edge of things,” Roberts added.

But in recent decades, the Conservative and Reform movements have also worked to provide people of various genders and sexual orientations with the same opportunities to become bar or bat mitzvahs, rabbis or marry whomever they like — Jewish or non-Jewish. The question now is what does Reconstructionism need to do distinguish itself and grow? 

Meanwhile, despite Reconstructionism’s relatively small presence in St. Louis, Roberts has served as chairman of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College for 11 years. As he prepares to step down this fall, Roberts stopped at Meshuggah Cafe in University City to reflect on his time helping lead the movement and offered his thoughts on the future of the movement and the Jewish community at large. 

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has made a number of significant changes since Roberts became chairman. In 2012, the boards of the seminary and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, which represents congregations, voted to merge in part because dues to the federation had decreased significantly, Roberts said.

“We had two choices. We could either let the [JRF] go out of business in a couple years or we would negotiate a merger that both organizations could live with,” said Roberts. The new organization has since had to pay off JRF’s debts and focused on “engaging congregations on progressive Jewish life in the 21st century. How do we handle dialogue and discussion around Israel? How do we deal with intermarriage and interfaith relationships?”

Five years later, Roberts said the organization is now in better financial shape but he admits “the jury is still out.”

To try and build a unified, strong movement, Reconstructionist leaders are reconsidering how congregations should approach Israel and have hired staff specifically for that purpose, Roberts said. 

“The younger members of our congregations are much more open to a progressive view on Israel and older members feel that Israel can do no wrong. In many of our congregations, Israel is off the table; they don’t discuss it because it splits the congregation,” said Roberts, who is traveling to Israel on a Reconstructionist mission next March. The trip “will look at the issues of the occupation; it’s going to look at Muslim-Jewish relations; it’s going to look at the issue of asylum seekers in Israel. These are all kinds of things that I think the American Jewish community wants to weigh in on.”

Reconstructionism does not officially support or oppose the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Roberts says that Reconstructionist leaders have spoken out against it. But, for example, Rabbi Linda Holtzman works at the rabbinical school and is a board member of Jewish Voice for Peace, a nonprofit that supports the BDS movement. 

“Our response is, ‘Yes, and?’ We don’t have a veto right there. People are going to have different views and let’s really delve into why people feel that way, as opposed to just saying you are automatically wrong,” said Roberts, a father of three.

He also hired Rabbi Deborah Waxman as the first woman to lead a major Jewish movement. She supported a 2016 faculty vote at the rabbinical college to allow rabbinical students with non-Jewish partners to become rabbis. 

“We have had to turn away wonderful students who would have made wonderful rabbis,” Waxman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the time.

In response, 19 Reconstructionist rabbis formed a separate group and released a statement saying that the new policy “muddled the definition of what it means for a rabbi to have a Jewish family.”

Roberts points to the drop in the number of applicants to non-Orthodox rabbinical schools and predicts that the Reform movement will adopt the same policy.   

“There’s a Reconstructionist saying that the past has a vote but not a veto. It’s that openness and flexibility which I think deserves a chance,” said Roberts. 

After Roberts steps down, he will likely have more time — and perhaps money. He estimates that he has made 70 trips to Philadelphia and New York for board meetings and other occasions connected to the movement on his own dime. 

Amidst the turbulence, Roberts remained board chair for more than a decade, he said, because “I loved being able to facilitate conversations about important issues that affected the Jewish community.

“I liked the intellectual challenges,” he said. “I loved meeting with students who are now rabbis in the field. You don’t do this for 11 years if you don’t feel that you are making a difference and that the institution you are working with is also making a difference. I think in that larger picture, we are making a difference.”