Reconstructionist college tries to redo its outlook, live and online

By Bryan Schwartzman, JEWISH EXPONENT

WYNCOTE, Pa. — Hoping to engage Jews “where they are,” the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in suburban Philadelphia has adopted an ambitious — and expensive — plan to boost its presence in cyberspace.

The 42-year-old institution also has entered into talks with the two other branches of the Reconstructionist movement about the possibility of merging into a unified organization.

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One is the nearby Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, which works with congregations across the country and organizes an annual convention. The other is the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which is based at the college and has some 300 members.

Among the reasons behind the potential merger talks: a desire to cut costs and increase efficiency, and to find a new way to organize the movement as it confronts modern challenges.

“This is us being true to our mission,” said Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, the school’s president, referring to both the Web initiative and merger possibilities. “Our mission is to educate leaders, advance scholarship and create resources for contemporary Jewish life.”

The rabbinical college has added a social-justice component, is pushing the new Web initiative and instituted several high-level personnel changes.

The moves come as the college, which serves about 80 students and had a 2010 graduating class of 11, has been facing some fiscal woes. The school’s projected 2011 deficit tops $450,000 and accounts for about 8 percent of its $5 million budget.

In an interview at his office, Ehrenkrantz said it wasn’t the first time in the school’s history that the board has approved a budget deficit. But in the past, the school has managed to raise enough funds by year’s end to make up the difference, so the institution has not accrued any debt.

The school, as well as the other branches of Reconstructionism, also is contending with a general waning of interest among American Jews in specific religious movements and denominational labels.

While these issues are far from unique to the Reconstructionist movement, the brainchild of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and his disciples is far smaller and less well-funded than other non-Orthodox streams. But its leaders say that lack of size will allow the movement to react to the times in a far more nimble fashion than perhaps the other much larger movements.

On June 6, the board unanimously approved Ehrenkrantz’s plans for bolstering the school’s Web presence.

“We need to look to other avenues besides Reconstructionist synagogues to grow a constituency base that will be invested in our work,” Ehrenkrantz wrote in a May 24 memo to Reconstructionist leaders about the digital initiative. “Thanks to the advances in social networking, the Web provides apromising method to grow that constituency base.”

As to what the digital plan actually entails, Ehrenkrantz said he could not yet go into the details other than that it will focus on “community engagement.”

In recent years, there has been talk in certain circles about the potential of online congregations and online davening, and how that could add to Judaism’s appeal. But Ehrenkrantz said that wasn’t exactly what he had in mind.

To implement the digital program, the college has hired Blue State Digital, a Washington-based firm that did work for President Obama’s campaign, as well as for the Jewish Federations of North America.

According to Bob Goldfarb, a critic of the plan who writes widely on the influential site www.ejewishphilanthropy.com , the digital initiative is budgeted at $500,000 per year.

Ehrenkrantz, however, said he could not provide a dollar figure now, since the plan is still in the process of being worked out.

Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, questioned in a June 1 posting as to why the Reconstructionist college board was willing to allocate so much money to a digital strategy as it faces such financial uncertainty.

“If the administration is hoping to revitalize its mission and its finances simply by spending half-a-million dollars a year on social media in unspecified ways, that proposal calls for the closest scrutiny,” he wrote.

Goldfarb continued, saying that “with the RRC budget for the next year purportedly projecting a deficit almost as large as the expenditure on the digital initiative, there is no apparent way to maintain it without large cuts elsewhere.”

Asked about the issue, Ehrenkrantz acknowledged that “we do not think that we are going to recoup what we invest. The primary purpose is community engagement.”

But in the planning stage, he said, all things are possible.

“When we move out of the planning stage, we’ll be a little more focused,” added the rabbi.

He also denied that the Web initiative would result in any cuts to existing programs or academics.

Rabbi Avi Winokur, a member of the college’s board of governors and religious leader of Society Hill Synagogue, also defended the board’s decision.

“We really don’t have a choice in this climate but to go online and start taking cyberspace much more seriously — or we will be left behind,” Winokur said. “The Reconstructionist movement has always seen itself as a movement that pushes the envelope and tries to push the Jewish communityforward.”