Kaplan analyzed the span of Jewish history in terms of successive civilizations: the biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and modern (the curriculum of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College today includes as the fifth civilization, the Contemporary). As time passed, the self-image of the Jewish people changed, as did their sense of their destiny. Each civilization, in its own time, had to be understood as an organic whole that was then transformed in the passage from one civilization to another. Such passages were precipitated when the conditions of life for Jews underwent drastic change, and demonstrated the incredible resilience of the Jewish people in overcoming potentially fatal challenges by creating renewed forms of thought and practice.
As engaged as he was by Jewish history, it was his own period, the modern, that was Kaplan's principal focus. For this period, he identified the double challenge of naturalism (vs. supernaturalism) and democratic nationalism as posing the newest and perhaps most serious challenge to the survival of the Jewish people, the challenge to which he responded with his life's work. Democratic nationalism in America offered Jews both the possibility of living as equal citizens, a right they had rarely if ever had as minorities before the modern period, and the opportunity-or temptation-of being part of the American national collectivity with its own quasireligious rites, its heroes, flag days, and family celebrations. From our vantage point in this postmodern, pluralist age, Kaplan's challenge to the Jews of his day remains relevant: the challenge to evolve the rich and complex identities that would allow them to live fully both as Americans and as Jews, an invitation to live vibrantly "in two civilizations."
Finally, Kaplan was a Zionist, convinced that the highest cultural and spiritual aspirations of the Jewish people would be lived out in Israel. Contrary to many of the Zionists of his day, however, but completely in accord with his approach to peoplehood and Jewish history, Kaplan did not devalue the lives and heritage of Jews living outside of Israel. Diaspora Jews also had rich, millennial histories and cultures to be proud of, to draw upon, and to renew in dialogue with the new Jewish society being constructed in Israel.
IRA EISENSTEIN AND THE BUILDING OF THE RECONSTRUCTIONIST MOVEMENT
Kaplan's hope and belief was that the power of his ideas would be enough to transform the thinking of Jewry the world over, but those in his circle saw that this was not about to happen. One man in particular, Ira Eisenstein, Kaplan's student, disciple, and later son-in-law, insisted that an institutional framework was essential if Reconstructionist ideas were to have an ongoing place in American Jewish life. Eisenstein's life and work constitute the bridge between Kaplan's ideas and the Reconstructionist movement as it is today.
It was Eisenstein's determination that eventually drove the construction of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, a move designed to disseminate Kaplan's ideas to succeeding generations of rabbis and to be the decisive gesture in establishing Reconstructionism as an official denomination rather than simply a school of thought or philosophy. As its first President, Eisenstein shepherded the College through the exciting and perilous years from when it opened its doors in 1968 through to 1981 and remained a commanding presence in the movement until his death on June 28, 2001, at the age of 94.
THE MOVEMENT TODAY
The Reconstructionist movement today is vital, engaged, and growing. It has continued to evolve and change, though it remains very much informed by Kaplan's central insights and values. The institutional structure of the movement consists of three bodies: The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA), serving and supporting Reconstructionist rabbis and acting as their public voice; the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF), providing a range of services to the more than 100 affiliated Reconstructionist congregations; and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), which is home to a number of centers of excellence and innovation in addition to its training course for Reconstructionist rabbis. In addition, following the inauguration in 2002 of a summer camp and youth movement, Reconstructionism is paying increasing attention to young voices and young lives.
The work of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation is supported by its more than 100 affiliated communities. Central to the work of the Federation are the values of belonging and community. These values are expressed in the characteristic informal, friendly, and welcoming style of Reconstructionist synagogues and havurot (smaller, informal groupings). Helping member groups to feel "comfortable, recognized, and supported" is also the Federation's goal in reaching out to its member congregations and in building community within the movement. It is characteristic of the Reconstructionist movement that the background work it does on issues of interest to its members, on matters such as homosexuality, the role of the non- Jew, disabilities, or the rabbi-congregational relationship are offered as guidelines rather than directives. The Reconstructionist style is not to offer "pronouncements, policies, procedures."