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Some observers say that one key test will come next year, when the movement implements Ehrenkrantz’s radical plan for transforming how congregations pay dues to affiliate with it.
Until now, the national congregational groups of all the Jewish denominational streams required their affiliated congregations to pay a fixed annual fee. This has become a point of tension in several of the movements. As the congregations’ cash flows have tightened, large outlays to distant national bodies have become harder for synagogue rabbis and managers to justify.
“In my congregation there has been concern that we’re paying a significant amount of our operating expenses for dues to a movement and it’s not clear what we’re getting in return,” said Rosen.
Ehrenkrantz announced in the summer of 2012 that congregations could choose how much to pay to the Reconstructionist movement. Synagogues can give at one of three levels, and in return will get specific services.
For instance, synagogues giving more than 2% of their expenditures to the movement, the highest level, are eligible for 14 hours worth of “flexible consulting hours” each year from the RRC — in other words, access to synagogue consultants on the movement’s staff. Synagogues giving between .1% and .6% of their expenditures to the movement, the lowest level, get no such access.
The movement’s 25 largest congregations weren’t allowed to choose to give at a lower level during the first year of the new dues structure. It remains to be seen whether they will elect to drop to a lower level of membership when given the chance, slashing their outlay to the national movement and cutting its income.
Lingering voices in the movement still wonder whether the whole merger was a step in the wrong direction. Some worry that it will ultimately just worsen the oversupply of Reconstructionist rabbis and the undersupply of Reconstructionist congregations.
“If you produce lots of rabbis and if they’re rabbis of quality, other movements and other arms of the Jewish community will want them, and, well, that’s great for American Judaism,” said Rabbi Arnie Rachlis, spiritual leader of University Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation in Irvine, Calif. “But if you don’t have a movement that has lots of job opportunities as a rabbi in pulpit… the reality is the movement won’t grow.”
It will be up to whoever succeeds Ehrenkrantz to satisfy concerns of rabbis like Rachlis. Picking that successor, who will now head both the seminary and congregational arms, will be a particularly complex challenge for the search committee that has been formed for this purpose.
“It’s a challenge,” said Rabbi Jacob Staub, an RRC professor. “You definitely need someone who’s aware of movement stuff, who’s been a congregational rabbi, who’s out there in some way, knows how to bring the word to the people, and who… needs to understand the academic enterprise.”