The Rise and Fall of the Reconstructionist Publishing Service House

(This is parody in case it’s not obvious.)

The Recon Publishing House’s 1998 resource book, Jewish, Alive & American was a smash hit that may have clouded the publishers’ ability to read the market landscape going forward.

Earlier this week, the Reconstructionist Publishing Service House (RPSH) announced the indefinite suspension of operations and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the district court of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The news sent shockwaves through the liberal Jewish world, as RPSH had built a reputation as an innovative progressive Jewish influencer. RPSH’s profits used to soar on reissues of the works of Reconstructionism’s founding thinker, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. The publishing house holds the copyrights to all of his works, including his classics, Judaism as a Civilization, The Future of the American Jew, and the surprisingly popular Not So Random Thoughts. But even Kaplan’s lesser known works have done well, especially the “Judaism as a…” pamphlet series that reshaped mid-20th century Jewish thought with editions such as “Judaism as a Hypervigilant Neurosis,” “Judaism as a Needle Nosed Pliers,” and the forever beloved “Judaism as a Confusing Morass – Parts 1, 2, and 3.”

But the major success came in 1998, when synagogues of many denominations bought massive numbers of Jewish, Alive & American, a brilliant curriculum for a 30-week course that was simultaneously part “Intro to Judaism,” part conversion-to-Judaism prep course, and part sociological history of Judaism. Accessible yet well-researched, and filled with exciting group activities, JA&A, as it became known, raised the profile of the smallest liberal movement of Judaism, and brought unexpected profits to RPSH.

Perhaps the dazzling success of JA&A fomented the subsequent overreach that appears to have sunk RPSH. At first, Chief Editor Bartenura Bartzilam sought to amplify JA&A’s success by creating multi-media editions. This was the turn of the 21st century, so RPSH released a CD-ROM version as well as a DVD lecture series. Neither did all that well, but Bartzilam doubled down, committing millions to the development of an audio book series in 16 languages that lost money. Bartzilam nearly was fired, reportedly, after having funded a traveling puppet theater company tasked with the mission of bringing JA&A to untapped audiences among interfaith families with children ages 3 to 8. It turned out that there was no interest in the program at all, and in the lone public performance offered at a Jewish day school in Denver several of the children reported having nightmares in reaction to some of the scarier-looking puppets.

Bartzilam was told he would get one last chance at redemption, and he chose fatefully. Convinced that JA&A’s success could be replicated in liberal Jewish communities in other countries, he committed the publishing house’s reserve funds to the 2010 release of Jewish, Alive, & Armenian, along with an initial run of 100,000 print copies.

Jewish, Alive, and Armenian sold a scant 12 copies, before the rest of the copies burned in a warehouse fire in Blintz, New Jersey that remains categorized by authorities as suspicious.

In what close associates of Bartzilam have described as a complete act of desperation and delusion, Bartzilam announced the publication of a breakthrough in Reconstructionist thought that would redefine liberal Judaism well into the 22nd century. As is now well-known, the high-profile 2014 release of Jewish, Alive & Amphibian left the rest of the Jewish world speechless, though one of the first GoFundMe funds to be created was established in order to help Bartzilam access mental health services.

For the next 8 years, RPSH plodded on without Bartzilam at the helm, looking to rebuild its reputation and returning to the old reliable stock of fan favorites by Kaplan. Sadly, as news has broken of the company’s demise, one can only wonder what will become of the future of Reconstructionist publishing.

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