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About KI

About KI's Czech Holocaust Torah

History

KI was founded in 1970 by a small group of families who wished to create a fully participatory Jewish experience that would be rich in community and tradition, and to establish a superior religious school. In 1982, the congregation purchased and remodeled a Lansing public school building to house our growing membership. We are located in southeast Lansing, approximately two miles from Michigan State University. Our members, now numbering over one hundred twenty-five families, come from all around the greater Lansing area.

The KI Community

Members of KI are a diverse group, coming originally from every denomination. In our participatory congregation, the breadth of members' backgrounds and experience is a source of strength, and we encourage as much personal choice in our Jewish practices as possible. In this way we draw the best efforts from the women and men who lead our services, lead and participate in our committees, and teach our children and each other.

Our Jewish community encourages all its members to get actively involved and to make a difference, and there are many opportunities for members to join in the life of the community. These include weekly Shabbat morning services, holiday observances, festival celebrations, a religious school, adult education programs, and a variety of social and cultural programs throughout the year.

Reconstructionist Affiliation

After 25 years as an independent congregation using the Conservative liturgy, KI affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. Rabbi Michael Zimmerman has served our congregation since 2003. As Reconstructionist Jews, we have strong commitments both to tradition and to the search for contemporary meaning. We hope for a Judaism that serves as a rich source of spiritual self-expression and moral challenge in the way we live our lives. And we encourage all Jews to enhance their own lives by reclaiming our shared heritage and becoming active participants in the building of the Jewish future.

What is Reconstructionist Judaism, and What is Kehillat Israel’s Liturgical Approach?

Reconstructionism is the “fourth branch of Judaism.” With roots in the early twentieth century, its origins are more recent than those of the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. Reconstructionism has existed as a religious denomination since 1955, and fully coalesced as a distinct stream of Judaism with the establishment of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1968. The movement has been a pioneer in areas such as birth rituals for girls, the bat mitzvah, egalitarianism and acceptance of alternative life styles, and the synthesis of contemporary and traditional forms of ritual observance.

Reconstructionist Jews take their Jewish traditions seriously; they are willing to question conventional answers and challenge the belief in a supernatural or divine origin of the Torah. From a Reconstructionist perspective, just as Jewish civilization has adapted to changing circumstances throughout history, so must it adapt to North American society in our time. While the past, expressed in historical approaches to halakhah (Jewish law), has a vote, it does not have a veto in determining ritual practice and Jewish observance. Instead, one is engaged in constant exploration of one’s Jewish beliefs, values, and practices.

Every Reconstructionist synagogue or chavurah is unique, reflecting the values and concerns of its members. At Kehillat Israel we gravitate towards an intimate and informal style of worship in which everyone is involved and the rabbi (if present) does not dominate.

The father of Reconstructionist Judaism was Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, whose writings and philosophy led to the conceptual framework from which the movement grew. He felt that Judaism was an evolving religious civilization. Therefore, ritual decisions need to be made with an understanding of historical development and context, knowledge of rabbinical halakhah and how interpretations have varied over time, and respectful consideration for the values of contemporary society and our own personal beliefs. Although democratic processes are and should be involved in decision-making, it goes without saying that not everybody will agree with the ritual choices adopted by a community. We accept these differences of opinion and observance and make every effort to respect and accommodate different approaches to ritual practice.

Reconstructionists are sometimes perceived as not believing in God. This, of course, is inaccurate. Each Jew will have his or her own concept of what God is or is not. Kaplan felt that the Divine works through nature and through human beings; however, Divinity is neither restricted by the laws of science nor relegated to a supernatural realm. Instead, Kaplan posited a subtle, yet pervasive transnatural presence of Divinity in our lives. One of Kaplan’s many influential students, the prominent Conservative rabbi Harold Schulweis, has coined the term predicate theology to explicate Kaplan’s transnatural conception of God. According to Schulweis, relating to God as a predicate rather than as a subject frees us to go beyond a rigidly defined and often problematic conception of God and instead to embrace a myriad of possibilities for Divine manifestation in the world. Many Jews, Reconstructionists included, have trouble with this concept of God and would prefer a more traditional view, yet at the same time do not subscribe to the belief that the Torah and Talmud (oral Torah) are the literal word of God revealed to Moses.

Kaplan also questioned the concept of Jews as the “chosen people.” He believed that “chosenness” reflected chauvinism, ethnic superiority and self-righteousness. Kaplan therefore made the bold step of “reconstructing” Jewish prayer by eliminating from the prayer book references to the chosen people and to other concepts that he considered inappropriate for the values of a contemporary democratic society.

For a fuller understanding of Reconstructionist thought and practice, please see the reading list at the bottom of this section.

How do we put some of these ideas into practice at Kehillat Israel? We are a diverse community in observance and belief. Thus Kehillat Israel utilizes two different siddurim (prayer books) for Shabbat: the Conservative siddur Sim Shalom and the Reconstructionist siddur Kol Haneshamah. They are used for services on alternate Saturday mornings. Services using either siddur tend to be somewhat traditional, albeit informal in nature. Our services are conducted largely in Hebrew and are participatory in nature, with both men and women equally involved. Kol Haneshamah contains gender-neutral language, extensive transliteration, and a number of informative footnotes and commentaries. Sim Shalom, unlike Kol Haneshamah, concludes with a full musaf (supplemental service). In addition, there is a monthly Friday evening service that is more family oriented and the Kehillat Israel Religious School conducts periodic Shabbat morning services. Therefore, within the overarching framework of Reconstructionism, we accommodate a variety of liturgical approaches or practices in Judaism.  At the same time, many of our social and cultural activities are multigenerational, enabling our congregation to interact as a more cohesive community.

Reading List on Reconstructionist Thought and Practice

  • Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub, Exploring Judaism, second edition, Reconstructionist Press, 2000. (Get it here.)
  • Emanuel Goldsmith and Mel Scult, editors, Dynamic Judaism: The Essential Writings of Mordecai M. Kaplan, Fordham University Press, 1991. (Get it here.)
  • Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization, Jewish Publication Society, 1934 (reprint, 2010). (Get it here.)
  • Mordecai Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, Wayne State University Press, 1994. (Get it here.)
  • Mel Scult, Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan, Wayne State University Press, 1994. (Get it here.)
  • Jack Wertheimer, “The Reconstructionism of Kaplanian Reconstructionism,” in A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America, ch. 8, Brandeis, 1997. (Get it here.)
  • “Reconstruction: Denominationalism that Works?” Zeek, Fall 2010. Entire issue is devoted to the theme of Reconstructionism.

Our Czech Holocaust Torah

KI is the custodian of one of the Czech Holocaust Torah scrolls which is on loan from the Westminster Memorial Scrolls Trust in England. The Torah was sent to us by air from the Scrolls Trust in England on September 24, 1973.

Czech Holocaust Scroll, Deut. 5

Czech Holocaust Scroll from Německý Brod
Open to Deuteronomy 5 (The Decalogue) and Shema
Click to enlarge; especially notice tagginim on letters on bottom several lines.

We learned from the Scrolls Trust that they believed the scroll to have been written in 1840. There is a label on the back of a panel that shows that the scroll had been in Moses Hirschler's bookstore in Wien (Vienna) at some point in its history. Moses Hirschler lived from 1810–1896. We located a descendant of his who is an expert on scrolls in his own right who suggested that the Torah may actually have been in Hirschler's bookstore for repairs (in 1840?), and may have been 40 or 50 years old at the time.

Our Czech Torah, which was removed from a synagogue in Německý Brod during the Holocaust, has an amazing power to capture the imagination. When it is unrolled one can see that the calligraphy is unusual. There is something about the shapes of the letters; the proportions of the tagin, the little crowns that are on top of certain letters; and the line spacing that make it inviting to read. Apparently, according to one expert we consulted, some of the letters that are atypically written large were ones that were characteristic of “kabbalistic scrolls.” Learning this made us want to learn more about the Torah, the scribe who penned it, and the community that used it.

So even before its journeys from Německý Brod to the basement of a synagogue in Prague, to the Westminster Memorial Scrolls Trust in London, to Kehillat Israel in Michigan, this scroll has had a long life and was read from by many generations. It would have been a very sad day that it had to be left behind by its last owners in Německý Brod. We are honored to house it in our synagague, and researching its past has led to us learning about the Jewish community of Německý Brod during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We have posted the results of our research in a blog about the Torah, which can be found here: http://kehillatisrael.blogspot.com.

Donations in support of the repair of the scroll are always welcome. If you choose to assist in this worthwhile project in honor of the memory of those who were killed in the Holocaust, you can designate your contribution for the Czech Torah. Thank you to all who contribute.

Visit the Czech Torah blog or use this link for many additional details about the Czech Torah.

Contents copyright © 2004, 2017 Kehillat Israel

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