WYNCOTE, Pa. – The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) announced on Oct. 9 that Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., is the organization’s new president-elect. Waxman will take office on Jan. 1, 2014. Waxman is believed to be the first woman rabbi to head a Jewish congregational union and to lead a Jewish seminary. The RRC is the primary organization of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement.
A native of West Hartford, Waxman is an historian of American Judaism. “Reconstructionist Judaism brought to the forefront of Jewish thinking the concept of Jewish peoplehood, and our approach continues to offer pathways for non-religious Jews – inviting them to explore and ideally deepen their experience of Judaism and Jewishness,” said Waxman.
Referring to the recent study by the Religion and Public Life Project of Pew Research, which found that three quarters of U.S. Jews feel “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people,” although 42 percent of those say they have no religion, she noted, “The Pew Study confirms core elements of the original Reconstructionist analysis, which centered on the conviction that we need not choose between being Jewish and being modern and American—that Jews can craft multifaceted identities that are vibrantly, sustainably Jewish. What became apparent in the 20th century is even more relevant in the 21st: We now choose from a vast banquet of spiritual, religious and cultural sources. Reconstructionist Judaism offers a distinctive way for Jews – and the people who make their lives with us – to find meaning and connection,” she said.
“We recognize that there are many entryways into Jewish identity beyond religion, and we believe that the Jewish people are strengthened through this diversity.”
Waxman said she also intends to make it a priority to help progressive religion across the board gain a stronger presence in the public square. “I strongly believe that a pluralistic understanding of religion has much to contribute to constructive dialogue in public life,” she said.
In her previous role as vice president for governance at RRC, she staffed the organization’s board of more than 40 members and 13 committees and was key in the successful integration of the rabbinical college and the congregational union. She played a central role in creating RRC’s first-ever strategic planning initiative. Now, along with a team of Reconstructionist movement leaders, she is moving forward another first – a strategic plan for RRC as a combined organization.
“I’m very happy to know that RRC will be in talented and capable hands,” said Board Chair David Roberts in announcing Waxman’s appointment. “Deborah has been an important driver of our organizational restructuring as well as our strategic planning and assessment efforts. Her expert knowledge of American Jewish history adds invaluable depth and dimension to her vision for the future of the movement.”
Waxman will take office at a momentous time for the Reconstructionist community, which in the last year has celebrated RRC’s conclusion of a $50 million comprehensive campaign, the largest in its history. The College is also in the process of reshaping its rabbinical-education curriculum.
Growing up in Connecticut, Waxman’s family belonged to Beth Hillel Synagogue in Bloomfield, where her mother served as sisterhood president and Waxman celebrated her bat mitzvah in 1979 – one of the first to do so at a Shabbat morning service, according to Waxman. They moved when Waxman was 16 and became members of Congregation Beth El in Fairfield. Though she grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, says Waxman, she was “very much influenced by the Reconstructionist approach.”
Waxman earned a Ph.D. in American Jewish History from Temple University and her M.A. in Hebrew Letters and her title of rabbi from RRC. She has received a number of academic honors, including the Ruth Fein Prize given by the American Jewish Historical Society. Her publications include “A Lady Sometimes Blows the Shofar: Women’s Religious Equality in the Postwar Reconstructionist Movement,” in A Jewish Feminine Mystique and “Distinctiveness and Universalism: How to Remain Jewish if Jewish Isn’t Better” in Zeek; both published in 2010.
Waxman lives in suburban Philadelphia with her partner, Christina Ager, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA, and a Jew by choice.