Olympia’s Temple Beth Hatfiloh, unaffiliated since its founding in 1937, became Washington state’s only Reconstructionist synagogue on May 7, when its application for membership to the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation was unanimously approved by that organization’s board of directors.
“I think we have taken a really important step in our ‘growing up’ as a congregation,” said the temple’s Reconstructionist-trained rabbi, Marna Sapsowitz. “I think that we have made a statement that we are — and want to be — recognized as part of a larger Jewish world and to both benefit from the resources that that belonging has to offer as well as to contribute to that larger Jewish world. And I’m thrilled with the way this process was approached and the way it unfolded, and I think really good things are going to come of it.”
Temple president Mark Bean said that a survey of the congregation some three years ago revealed an interest in affiliating with a national movement. “We found that it was pretty well split down the middle, with a slight majority preferring to affiliate in general,” Bean recalled. As a result of this finding, the temple’s Ritual Committee was asked to come up with a plan to clarify to the temple membership the natures of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.
“What we decided was that, rather than invite in representatives of the two movements, we would find a community in each movement in the Northwest to come — and have several members of the community, leaders of the community, come — and spend a day with us and talk with us about what their experience has been in [their respective] movement,” said Ritual Committee chairman Sam Schrager. “And we wanted a congregation that was somewhat like ours in terms of size, or [one that] recently affiliated if possible.”
Members of a Reform congregation in Western Washington and a Reconstructionist congregation in Portland met with members of the Olympia synagogue.
At the temple’s annual meeting in June 2000, members voted on whether or not to affiliate, without choosing a movement. “That’s the crucial thing in terms of the way we approached this,” Schrager pointed out. “We weren’t making a choice between two movements [yet]: It was a question of whether affiliation would serve the congregation with either movement.”
This time, more than 80 percent of the Temple Beth Hatfiloh membership voted to pursue affiliation. The Ritual Committee “actually provided quite a model for a process of decision-making that people on many sides of issues or ideas found to be a good thing,” Mark Bean said. “There were plenty of opportunities to speak one’s mind, to learn, to discuss, to have input…for those that wanted to participate.”
Asked what he perceived to be the advantages of affiliation with a national movement, Bean mentioned that a national organization can offer a variety of resources to a growing congregation: “There’s a need for expertise, and movements can help with that. Movements can help with [a] curriculum for education for our children; they can help us with things for our administrative needs, models — all those things that movements have that come from a cumulative sharing of different congregations.”
However, Bean also emphasized that “It isn’t just about what we get, and I think that this is a very important fact that should be said: that when you affiliate with a movement, you’re also helping to underwrite the further establishment of new rabbis, furthering our Jewishness, our religion, our culture, our education, because you’re supporting organizations that help perpetuate [Jewish] training…So you’re giving back to the religion….”
Rabbi Sapsowitz elaborated: “What we’ve talked about so far is from the perspective of a consumer: What will we get out of it? Will we get our money’s worth? But we are part of a larger Jewish world; we in Temple Beth Hatfiloh over the years, even though we were not affiliated, nevertheless benefited from the fact that there are national movements. We use prayerbooks developed by national movements. The congregation uses a rabbi trained by the Reconstructionist movement. We use educational materials developed by different movements. And I think at some point there’s also a Jewish responsibility to support those institutions and those resources which in turn feed and nurture us.
“So I think we should look at it not only from the perspective of ‘What do we get from it?’ but also from the perspective of ‘What is our responsibility?’” Sapsowitz added.
After the June vote, members of the temple set to work examining and comparing Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism, with the goal of having the entire membership vote on affiliation after the first of the year.
In late November and early December, a rabbi from each movement visited Olympia to discuss perspectives on a range of subjects, including organizational development, the availability of rabbis and their salaries, rabbinical authority, interfaith marriages, participatory decision-making, opportunities for spiritual growth, teen involvement, relations between congregations, major issues within the movements and financial costs of affiliation.
Following a public meeting at which members of the community discussed what they had learned, the Ritual Committee unanimously recommended to the temple board that the congregation affiliate with the Reconstructionist movement.
A majority of the temple board agreed with the Ritual Committee that Reconstructionism would be the better fit. But the actual decision on which movement to affiliate with was made at a special meeting on January 21. The ballot included a question about whether members felt they could support the movement that got the majority of votes, even if it was not the movement they personally preferred. Eighty percent indicated that they could. With 135 of 195 eligible members participating, the congregation chose to become Reconstructionist by a vote of 55 percent to 43 percent.
Schrager said the fact that most members agreed to support the movement they were not voting for was “the sign of the community’s desire to be a community…That openness to the other movement was critical. And I think that’s something that changed in the course of the exploration.”
While Mark Bean said that some temple members were “very disappointed” with the vote, he doubted that anyone would quit the congregation over it.
There are 101 Reconstructionist congregations and havurot (communities of congregants) nationwide, comprising 16,000 households, or 65,000 dues-paying members. Including Temple Beth Hatfiloh, the West Coast is home to 13 Reconstructionist congregations and havurot, three of them in Oregon.
Temple Beth Hatfiloh, with 125 member households and 199 voting members, is the only Reconstructionist synagogue in the state of Washington. There was a Reconstructionist congregation in Western Washington in the 1990s but it has de-affiliated.
Why did congregation of Temple Beth Hatfiloh choose Reconstructionism? “We went through, I thought, a really thorough, wonderful process in examining the different movements and what they had to offer our congregation,” Rabbi Sapsowitz noted. “And I think that most people felt that in many ways we already are a Reconstructionist congregation in our approaches and the way we do things…”
“Both movements, we believed, would have served us well,” said Sam Schrager. “But we felt that there were distinct advantages of Reconstructionism for this community. One is that their practices and philosophy seem closer to our community, [especially] the emphasis on the building of community itself, on the spiritual dimension in Jewish experience and on democratic, inclusive processes for decisions. And none of these at all contradict what the Reform movement offers,” Schrager was quick to assert.
A member of the faculty of The Evergreen State College, Schrager also wondered if Olympia’s liberal atmosphere and its self-identification with democratic processes may have swayed some congregants. “You know Olympia: It has a kind of counter-cultural feel in some ways, and I think that tends to feed the grassroots orientation” that Reconstructionism appeals to.