Trailblazing Reconstructionist Deborah Waxman Relishes Challenges of Judaism

Lesbian Is First Woman To Lead Denomination

By Anne Cohen

Published October 09, 2013, issue of October 18, 2013.
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Born into a Conservative Jewish household in West Hartford, Conn., Waxman says she grew up “very much influenced by the Reconstructionist approach.” The middle child of a family of five, her father was a traveling salesman and her mother was president of the sisterhood of their synagogue in Bloomfield, Conn.

Waxman’s bat-mitzvah, in 1979, was one of the first in Connecticut to be celebrated on a Saturday morning.

In its half-century history, Reconstructionist ideas have had a deep impact on other denominations. The movement’s founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, was one of the first to articulate the idea of a Jewish cultural identity separate from religious observance. Reconstructionists were also the first to celebrate bat-mitvahs for women.

Yet, the newly released Pew Research Center study on Jewish Americans showed that only 1% of Jews identified as Reconstructionist. With just over 100 member congregations, Waxman will face an uphill battle to not only spread ideas, but also grow active membership.

“I think that the Reconstructionist approach has had a huge impact on people who don’t even know about it and it’s a success even as it’s a challenge,” she said. “ [But] if you want to attach yourself to a Reconstructionist synagogue [means] a lot of engagement. It’s not a good fit for everybody.”

Far from being disheartened by the numbers in the Pew study, Waxman is focusing on what she sees as the broader picture.

“The challenges we face are the ones that progressive Judaism faces across the board,” she said. “It was fascinating to me that the study itself begins with having a strong sense of belonging. The overwhelming interpretation of that response has been ‘Oh no!’ To me that’s a huge disconnect. The response that we’re going to put forward is ‘Great! Now what?’”


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