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Reconstructionism didn’t fully establish itself as an independent Jewish denomination until the late 1960s with the founding of the RRC, at a moment when the Conservative and Reform movements were booming across America. The movement is based on the ideas of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a professor at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary who died in 1983. The movement grew slowly. Its thought, however — which understands Judaism as a religious civilization with secular attributes beyond religion itself — has had deep impact across the Jewish spectrum.
The first bat mitzvah in history, for example, was of Kaplan’s own daughter, Judith, in 1922, with Kaplan serving as rabbi for the ceremony. Traditionalists at the time denounced Kaplan furiously. Today, bat mitzvahs for girls are a commonplace even in Modern Orthodox congregations.
The Reconstructionists were the first to allow openly gay rabbinical candidates to attend their seminary. The Reconstructionist movement was at the forefront of ordaining women, as well — it ordained its first female rabbi in 1972, two years after the Reform movement and more than a decade before the Conservative movement. Today, even many Modern Orthodox congregations have greatly expanded the roles open to women.
Even more significantly, it was Kaplan who, through his writings, strongly pushed the concept of Jewish peoplehood — encompassing diverse aspects of Jewish life beyond religion — that is now central to much of Jewish institutional life. Jewish community centers and other cultural institutions owe their ideological framework to Reconstructionism.
Despite this movement’s outsized influence, Reconstructionism has remained tiny as an organized entity. The 106 affiliated Reconstructionist congregations have an estimated 65,000 members; its rabbinical association has 325 members, and its seminary has 20 faculty members and 53 students.
That’s small potatoes compared to the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox denominations. Today, its small size leaves the Reconstructionist movement even more vulnerable than the others to the shrinking membership rolls plaguing all non-Orthodox movements.
The Reform movement, for example, lost 42,000 members in New York’s five boroughs, suburban Westchester and Long Island between 2002 and 2011, according to a recent demographic survey of New York’s Jewish community—but that still left it with 303,000 members in 2011. The Reconstructionists lost 5,000, leaving them with just 14,000 members in that area.
Before last year, all of the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in North America had a roughly similar national structure. Each had an umbrella organization for congregations, a central rabbinical seminary, and a rabbinical association.