by Jordana Horn and Rebecca Anna Stoil
Heading into a new year under new leadership, the Reform Movement plans to emphasize broadening community involvement with incoming president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, at the helm. Speaking with The Jerusalem Post after a star-studded biennial conference weekend in Washington, Jacobs talked up his plans to reach out to a broad swath of Jews by both birth and choice – and to make those community members feel more connected to their Judaism.
“This is a new moment with new opportunities,” Jacobs said in a telephone interview with the Post from his home in New York. “Those who came were really wanting this to catapult ourselves into this next chapter of Reform Judaism.”
In a well-received speech to the Union for Reform Judaism on Sunday, Jacobs said his leadership of the movement would depend upon three things: catalyzing congregational change, engaging the next generation and extending circles of responsibility.
Jacobs, the fourth person to hold the URJ’s top position since the organization was founded in 1943, applauded Chabad for its outreach.
“I admire and want to learn from anyone doing something effective,” Jacobs said, noting that Chabad’s adherents do not immediately approach people to get them to become “members,” unlike synagogue practices in Reform and Conservative Judaism, but rather, they create opportunities for individuals to have meaningful Jewish experiences.
“Whether it’s putting on tefillin or building a succa, they bring you in to a Jewish connection and build a relationship,” he said of Chabad.
“That’s an obvious thing to do, and yet it is not the way most congregations think. Very often, synagogues of all stripes immediately ask, ‘Do you want to join?’ Without having a whole experience, would you want to join?” Jacobs asked rhetorically.
Relationship-building, Jacobs said, informs much of his hopes for the movement, as he believes that it is only within built relationships that communities can flourish. As such, he said the Campaign for Youth Engagement will be a focus of his tenure.
“The bureaucratic world of institutions gets hung up on the stuff as opposed to the people,” Jacobs said. “We’re trying to forge connections not just between professionals, but the individuals themselves.
Jacobs cited Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s insights on the nature of the relationship as a crossroads opportunity for holiness as support for his views.
“Martin Buber was building on the core – it’s the essence of not just Hassidism but Jewish tradition,” Jacobs said. “In the Bible, relationships are the most sacred and holy dimensions of our lives.”
Jacobs said he hopes to defuse the bar or bat mitzva as “the revolving door moment”: that is, where children opt not to continue exploring their Jewish heritage, but rather, to stray from it.
Rather than seeing their synagogue as a “gas station” – a place to fuel up on identity and then hit the road – Jacobs highlighted the importance of outreach, a pivotal component of the Reform movement, which has been open to concepts of patrilineal descent. Jews by choice, those who have converted to Judaism, have proven to be “among our most devoted and committed, raising Jewish families,” Jacobs said.
“I don’t make presumptions about what everybody knows,” Jacobs said, pointing out that many unaffiliated Jews, as well as Jews by choice, opt to join the Reform movement, and that those who come from completely secular worlds are often those who are the most curious, open and non-judgmental about Judaism.
“To be honest, I’ve been a rabbi working for 30 years, and in my experience, you bring people closer and the light goes on and then they want to learn and grow,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs saluted his predecessor, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, for his great work for the URJ, and for acknowledging that we live in a world where we need to embrace and meet our doubts rather than contenting ourselves with certainties.
“This is the dilemma of modernity and I wouldn’t trade it for medieval life for a moment,” Jacobs laughed.
“We live in this world and feel the challenge of it.”
With regard to Israel, Jacobs said he feels his challenge is “to help people experience Israel in all its dimensions, not simply a political problem to be solved.”
“There are secular folks who wouldn’t get near a prayer experience before who are creating Kabbalat Shabbat communities,” Jacobs said, adding that the Reform movement in Israel is “growing by leaps and bounds.”
“To be the president of the URJ means, with regard to Israel, to build bridges and to bring people closer, and to help people who have been connected with Israel to deepen that connection,” Jacobs said, calling it extremely important for Reform Jews to forge that bond.
Saying that there is a “deep part of [his] core that is bound to what happens in Israel,” Jacobs said he believes pluralistic Judaism in Israel is “going through a renaissance.”
“Our goal as a movement is to connect our congregations to all that is completely inspiring about Israel, and to grow and deepen that connection,” Jacobs said. “It has to start from a place of connection – in my mind, a place of love.”
While Jacobs acknowledges that in the ultra-orthodox world, Reform Judaism really isn’t “on the map,” he does believe that the tide in Israel is changing to an acknowledgement that “no one owns the Jewish bookshelf – it’s for everyone.”
“The change has let people see Reform, and other expressions of non-Orthodox Judaism, as having some possibility,” Jacobs said. “There is more openness right now to the tradition and bringing the tradition into the modern world. A lot of Israelis are challenged by the ultra-Orthodox monopoly and they have their own battle with that political side of Judaism, but what we’re seeing is a searching and longing for spiritual grounding.”
“Jewish identity is not assured because you live in Tel Aviv,” Jacobs said. “How do you deepen Jewish identities? Non-Orthodox Israelis do not have a real core Jewish identity all the time – so in some ways, we are sharing the challenge of how you cultivate Jewish identity.”
Jacobs was welcomed in to his new position at the URJ’s biennial conference, which concluded Sunday.
In line with Jacob’s goals, conference delegates passed a major resolution on engaging youth that included lowering the financial burden on families in paying for early childhood education, day school, Israel trips, Mitzvah Corps and summer camps.
The resolution committed to subsidizing full-time youth professionals throughout North America, and it was announced that the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Machon Kaplan program for post-secondary students will be free of charge, funded by a grant from the Crown Family Foundation.
According to the URJ, the organization’s Campaign for Youth Engagement has already secured over $1 million in seed money. The Reform movement also plans to provide congregations with incubator grants as well as access to new capacity building resources including a new platform for websites.
Yoffie told the approximately 6,000 biennial attendees that “if you want a restless, optimistic, risk-taking Judaism, come to us; if you want a touch of chaos, come to us.”
“We are young enough to have the courage of our doubts in a world of dangerous certainties. And what we have done before we will do again: we will touch and awaken that Reform gusto that, for most of our short history, spoke to the hearts of young and old alike, and blew like a fresh wind around the Jewish world.”
Yoffie led the URJ, the congregational arm of the North American Reform Jewish Movement for the past 16 years.
The URJ represents an estimated 1.5 million Jews in nearly 1,000 synagogues in both the United States and Canada.