Reconstructionist Judaism is suddenly leaderless, six months into a dramatic effort to save the movement through a reorganization of its key institutions.
In the sweeping membership crisis that has rocked North America’s non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in the past decade, perhaps no denomination has faced greater peril than the Reconstructionists.
During its half century of existence, Reconstuctionism and its ideas have deeply influenced the three other, larger streams of Judaism in ways both profound and subtle. Yet ideological influence doesn’t pay the bills. Reconstructionism itself, a movement of just over 100 congregations, doesn’t have many members to lose, or many dollars to waste. So while the institutions of the Reform and Conservative movements have shaved staff to stay afloat, the Reconstructionists took a more radical step, merging its seminary with its congregational arm.
The ink on that agreement is hardly dry. The legal papers to make it official have yet to go through. So it came as a shock when the leader of the newly unified movement, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College president Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, announced in late February that he was leaving his job.
There’s no indication that Ehrenkrantz’s decision to leave was anyone’s but his own. Ehrenkrantz had been involved in a dispute over a personnel matter with an RRC professor, though a spokesman for the RRC and other insiders denied the dispute had anything to do with his departure.
But even unforced, Ehrenkrantz’s surprise resignation leaves the movement in an uncertain spot. After pushing the two organizations into the merger, with its inevitable rough edges, Ehrenkrantz isn’t sticking around to see how it ends. And it’s still far from clear whether the institutional reorganization will be enough to rescue the movement.
“I was shocked that Dan resigned sort of abruptly… None of us expected it,” said Rabbi Brant Rosen, spiritual leader of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, a large synagogue in Evanston, Ill.
One prominent lay leader in the movement, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on behalf of the movement, termed Ehrenkrantz’s departure at this juncture, “really odd… given that he was setting the strategic direction” of the merger.
Ehrenkrantz, who will stay on until his successor is chosen, has led the RRC since 2002. He was previously a congregational rabbi. Ehrenkrantz was traveling to a convention of Reconstructionist rabbis and unavailable to speak with the Forward for this story. In response to written questions, he defended his decision to resign.
“[W]e are at an excellent point for a change in leadership,” Ehrenkrantz wrote. “The movement has successfully restructured. The foundation has been laid, and a new leadership will be able to build on it.”