Rabbi Bauer is first chaplain to lead | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Rabbi Bauer is first chaplain to lead 

In the post Oct. 7 era, a time of increased antisemitism, when being Jewish in America can at times feel like walking a tightrope, the first rabbi-chaplain president of a major rabbinical association could be perfect timing.  

Rabbi Renée Bauer, a Madison-based chaplain, is the new president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. The Association is the rabbinical arm of the Reconstructionist movement, serving 380 rabbis. Bauer started as president of the Association – with most members in the U.S., but some in Canada, Europe and Israel – in March.  

Bauer will be the first rabbi who works primarily as a chaplain to serve as president of any of the three largest non-Orthodox rabbinical associations in North America. The other rabbinical associations represent Reform and Conservative rabbis.  

A challenging time 

When not serving as president of her movement’s Association, Bauer’s role is director of spiritual care and outreach at Jewish Social Services in Madison. At the Association’s convention in March, when Bauer was installed as the group’s first rabbi-chaplain leader, the moment was not lost on her fellow rabbis. They said things to her like “this is a time [when] we need this,” or “it makes sense that right now we need a chaplain.” 

On her mind, she said, is “how do we listen to each other? And how do we come together and maintain community even when there’s difference of opinion …?” 

Bauer sees an arc of time, starting with the pandemic, when rabbis, and others outside the rabbinate, suddenly had to figure out how to serve in a new landscape. Then, as the pandemic ebbed, rabbis for small congregations worked to offer both live and Zoom options, while trying to get people back together in person.  

“That was just starting to get a little calmer,” she said, when the horrific attacks of Oct. 7 took place. To that, add the growth in antisemitism and the rise of Christian nationalism in elections, she said. Meanwhile, some Jews are feeling politically homeless. 

“And that’s why I feel like, in so many ways, how do we support rabbis in this really complicated moment, where I really think American Judaism is in a huge moment of change?” Bauer said. “What does it mean to be Jewish in America? I think that will look really different in 20 years. And I don’t think we know yet. But I think that the only way we can do it well is by staying together with each other.” 

Israel and differences 

Bauer believes in “modeling being together in difference, in community.” 

At the Association’s convention in Atlanta, with 130 rabbis present, the clergy engaged in collegial and nuanced conversations about Israel, Bauer said. 

“I hear it all the time that people think, ‘oh, Reconstructionist, it’s anti-Zionist,’ and that feels like some assumption that is out there in the media,” she said. But to characterize Reconstructionism as anti-Zionist would be “totally unfair,” she said.  

“There are rabbis who hold certain positions that are part of our Association, but that doesn’t make that the statement of our Association,” she said. 

“We need to be able to talk to each other. And I guess that’s the chaplain piece, too. I want to hear what people have to say. I don’t feel scared to hear difference,” she said. “We are holding each other together as people work through who they are in this new reality, and how they’re Jewish in this new reality. And we are trying to create a space where people can explore that change, be together and be committed to serving the Jewish people  ….” 

Bauer noted the movement’s connections with Israel. The Association always financially supports the attendance of Israeli colleagues at its convention, and it did so for two attendees to the March convention in Atlanta, she said.  

“They shared their stories,” she said. “They shared their work. They shared about their communities.” An Israeli, with a son in Israel Defense Forces, is on the Assocation’s executive board. “We hear tears,” Bauer said.  

Rabbis from Europe came to the convention, too. 

Bauer said there is a generational divide, but that doesn’t necessarily refer to Israel. She refers to “a spiritual crisis for our people of, who are we? What does it all mean to us? What does it mean to be Jewish in this country?” What does it mean, she asks rhetorically, when a door to a Jewish institution must be locked during the day? “The pain around that, both what’s happening in Israel and what’s happening here – let’s discuss that, because that’s where we are; that’s where we have commonality. I don’t think anybody’s feeling good about all this.” 

About the Association 

“We support initiatives and programs that help rabbis continue to learn, support them through challenging times, such as these are, and connect them with each other for support,” Bauer said. The Association offers a space where rabbis can spend time with other rabbis, including at conventions. For clergy who are knee-high in work for their communities, this can be an important chance to step away. The Association also helps rabbis connect with opportunities – many serve as congregational rabbis, but 65 percent of the Association’s members work in other roles 

Bauer sees this as part of a shift from a more congregation-focused rabbinate. “I don’t think it’s diminishing. I think it’s an expansive view of the rabbinate,” she said. “We serve in different places; we meet people in different places.” 

The executive director of the Association is stepping away from that role, and one of Bauer’s first tasks will be the search for a replacement. 

Reconstructionism may be less well-known than the Reform or Conservative denominations. Its hallmarks can be described as ties to tradition; the empowerment of community through democratic decision-making in a world that seems increasingly drawn to individualism; and a progressive emphasis.  

Along with the convention in Atlanta, she said: “There was an add-on trip to Montgomery, to the EJI (Equal Justice Initiative) Museum and the Lynching Memorial. That was really powerful. I had read about it a lot. But I think I was surprised how much it moved me and how much it keeps kind of playing in my head.” 

Rabbis and their family members took the two-hour bus trip to the site. This is her rabbinical family, which she serves and leads. 

“I feel excited and honored,” she said.