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.
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
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.
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 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:
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.