Like a man without a country, Barry Krieger is a rabbi without a congregation.
Ordained in the Reconstructionist movement of Judaism, Krieger and his family came to Maine in May. His wife, Dr. Alice Passer, is a cardiologist with a practice in Bangor.
Although he is not leading a synagogue full time, Krieger, 42, has been conducting services for Bangor’s Conservative temple, Beth Israel, which has been without a rabbi for almost 18 months. He conducts services there once or twice a month and teaches a class in the synagogue’s Hebrew school program, according to Bill Miller, a member of Beth Israel’s board.
The rabbi, who served at Ahavas Achim, an unaffiliated congregation in Keene, N.H., for nine years, was raised in a Conservative synagogue in Providence, R.I. It wasn’t until he was attending college at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, that he learned about the Reconstructionist movement.
“I never really had a rabbinical model that I felt was really approachable until I got to college,” Krieger said during an interview at his home. “Then, I met a Reconstructionist rabbi and I found that this movement embraced all aspects of Judaism. He encouraged me to continue my studies, and after teaching grade school for a year, I entered the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia.”
The Reconstructionist movement was founded in 1922 by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in New York City. He had immigrated with his family to the United States from Lithuania at the age of 12. Reconstructionism was an attempt to adapt Judaism to modern-day realities that Kaplan believed created the necessity for a new conception of God, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Reconstructionists define Judaism as an “evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people,” according to information on the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation’s Web site, www.shamash.com/jrf/. There are more than 100 Reconstructionist congregations in the United States with approximately 60,000 members, representing about 3 percent of American Jewry.
“The starting point of the Reconstructionist movement is our quest to understand the historical and spiritual experience of the Jewish People,” the JRF states. “We believe the past has a vote, but the past does not have a veto.
“When a particular Jewish value or custom is found wanting, it is our obligation as Jews to find a means to reconstruct it — to find new meanings in old forms or to develop more meaningful, innovative practices,” according to the JRF. “A vital, contemporary Judaism must respond fully to changes in modern Jewish history: the Holocaust, renewed Jewish statehood, new and different family structures, the evolving relationships of men and women, as well as the role of religion in a universe threatened by both ecological and nuclear disaster.”
“Rabbi Kaplan opposed the idea of Jewish chosenness,” Krieger explained. “Reconstructionists don’t accept that concept. We understand all people to be chosen for their own particular chosenness. All approaches offer something to the universal chosen concept. It is a chauvinistic and exclusive concept. We want to be inclusive and integrated.”
While the Reconstructionist movement is closer to the Conservative movement in its liturgical practices, it is closer to the Reform movement in many of its social principles. Services are conducted mostly in Hebrew and it is common for adult members of the congregation to wear yarmulkes and prayer shawls at services, said Krieger. Reconstructionists have always allowed women, as well as gays and lesbians, to become rabbis and cantors, and for women to fully participate in all aspects of services.
“The Reconstructionist movement is more traditionally based than the Reform,” he said. “For example, we encourage Jews to consciously keep the dietary laws, but not necessarily keep Kosher to the letter. We encourage Jews to observe the Sabbath as family time and community time. … We maintain our connection to all aspects of Jewish history. We affirm the value of Jewish law. The past has a vote, but not a veto.”
The Reconstructionist movement works actively on many of the social action issues often associated with the Reform movement. These include international conflict resolution, hunger, civil rights and the environment, according to the JRF Web site. Krieger said one of the things that attracted him to the movement was that combination of the traditional and the progressive.
It also determines who is a Jew through patrilineal and matrilineal lines as do Reform Jews, but conversion practices are closer to those of Conservatism and Orthodoxy, Krieger said. However, each synagogue has the autonomy to make its own decisions through a democratic process, unlike the other movements.
“As I was growing up, society was changing and politics became very important in my life,” Krieger said. “The anti-war movement, civil rights, feminist concerns, the environment — the way I felt about these issues coalesced with the beliefs of the Reconstructionists.
“I found the movement to be egalitarian, warm, embracing and encouraging,” he added. “It gave me a sense of belonging and inclusivity in the context of a much larger world. Reconstructionists are on the cutting edge of exploring new models of prayer; new approaches to Jewish spirituality, such as using Buddhist meditative techniques.”
Laurence Milder, rabbi of Reform Congregation Beth El, said that it was “nice to have colleagues in town to study, consult and discuss issues with. It’s important for rabbis to get together with their colleagues for professional growth, like other professionals. It’s very stimulating and rewarding. He brings his own talents and experiences to Bangor, which will enrich the community.”
Miller said that Krieger had been “well received by the congregation,” which is searching for a full-time rabbi ordained in the Conservative movement. “He has helped us out for life cycle events like a funeral. He is very compassionate in that situation. He conducted our High Holiday (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), services, with a cantor from Israel. The two of them together were just great. Many people remarked that it was the best service we’d had in many years.”
Bernard Kubetz, president of the synagogue board, called Krieger “thoughtful, energetic and creative. He engages people, and brings a new perspective and dimension to Bangor’s Jewish community.
Krieger said he is “exploring a way to carve out a professional niche” for himself in Bangor. Not only are he and his two sons, ages 10 and 12, settling into a new community, Krieger and Presser are settling into a new marriage. They were married six months ago in their new, but still empty, home a few hours after the closing. Krieger’s first wife, the boys’ mother, died of breast cancer in 1995 at the age of 39.
Although Krieger said he did not undergo a crisis of faith then, “it was a very, very difficult time,” partly because a congregation usually looks to its spiritual leader for comfort when a family members dies. Krieger turned to his parents and brother, who is a Conservative cantor, for support.
“I am still learning to be a fuller, more nurturing parent,” he said. “Alice has been wonderfully supportive of what I am doing. On a personal level, there’s been a lot of growth because of what we’ve been through as a family. I’m grateful for today.
“My ultimate dream would be to be with a community of spiritual seekers and explorers who want to integrate Jewish life and practice into their hearts and minds; people who aren’t afraid to quest. … I think being in a community of like-minded Jews would be very sweet for me.”
Krieger will next conduct services at Beth Israel, 144 York St., Bangor, at 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 23. He can be reached through the synagogue, 945-3233.