Responding to an ad from a small but vocal group of critics who insist that the president-designate of the Union of Reform Judaism is not sufficiently pro-Israel, the movement and its supporters pushed back hard this week with a series of statements and opinion pieces this week defending him.
The ad was signed by 40 Reform Jews from around the country and placed in several Jewish newspapers by a group calling itself Jews Against Divisive Leadership. It urged the URJ to reconsider appointing Rabbi Richard “Rick” Jacobs president next month. His involvement on the rabbinic cabinet of J Street and board of New Israel Fund, two dovish groups, “does not represent the pro-Israel policies cherished by Reform Jews” and “does not represent us,” the ad said.
In response, three Reform leaders, including Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, called the ad a “distortion” employing “tactics of witch-hunting and demagoguery.” The leaders asserted that Rabbi Jacobs is “a model of constructive engagement.”
The rabbi is spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple and describes himself as a passionate Zionist.
But a member of the temple’s Israel committee, Richard Aronow, said he believes Rabbi Jacobs “is not strongly pro-Israel and many of his decisions are not supportive of Israel.”
He declined to elaborate.
A statement organized and signed by another congregant, Harold Tanner, a former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, praised Rabbi Jacobs as “a visionary rabbi, a dynamic leader, a true ohev Yisrael (lover of Israel), a communal activist on Israel’s behalf and a passionate supporter of Israel.”
It noted that “the pro-Israel community, like the Jewish community, is diverse and eclectic” and expressed concern about the narrowing definition of “support for Israel.”
Nine prominent Jewish leaders, including former Conference of Presidents Chair Seymour Reich, Jewish Council for Public Affairs President Rabbi Steve Gutow, and Rabbis Steven Wernick and Julie Schonfeld, leaders in the Conservative movement, signed the pro-Jacobs statement.
In addition, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote an article for JTA in which he called Rabbi Jacobs a “lover of Israel” who “not only supports Israel in words but in deeds and has made Israel and living here an integral part of his Jewish life.”
Rabbi Jacobs is a senior fellow at the Hartman Institute and has a home in Jerusalem.
Addressing the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC) on Monday, Rabbi Jacobs did not address his critics directly but said leaders of the movement “must never be defined by membership in outside organizations but rather by the longstanding policies of our movement — policies that are fully in consonance with those I have held for decades.”
Ironically, the woman behind the ad campaign, Carol Greenwald, of suburban Maryland, said she did not sign the ad because she is not a member of a Reform congregation.
She identified herself as a “pro-Israel activist and a refugee from the Reform movement” who belongs to a Conservative congregation in Potomac, Md.
Greenwald is treasurer of a small group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, which has protested performances of the theater connected with the Washington JCC, saying they are highly critical of Israel. She says she also founded Holocaust Museum Watch, which opposes some of the national museum’s policies.
The one rabbi who signed the ad criticizing Rabbi Jacobs is Joshua Segal of Congregation Betenu in Amherst, N.H.
He said his efforts to learn Rabbi Jacobs’ views on Israel went unanswered by URJ.
After the ad was published, Rabbi Segal said a board member of the URJ, Alan Warshaw, wrote to the sponsors of the ad calling it “unfair and divisive.”
“Your ad and your names won’t be forgotten by myself and others,” Warshaw wrote. “Your words will reflect on your reputation and will be remembered when you write a paper, present a lecture or look for a position on a committee or employment.”
Rabbi Segal said he believes those words were directed at him, and he added that other rabbis who have concerns similar to his refused to sign for fear that it could hurt their careers.
The rabbi said his synagogue of about 85 families might withdraw from the URJ if Rabbi Jacobs is appointed president at the June meeting.
At his Monday address to the RAC in Washington, Rabbi Jacobs said he would continue to speak out on issues he holds dear.
“I believe that Israel’s security and well-being require that Israel must become a more tolerant and pluralistic society. … Working for the rights of Israeli Arabs makes Israel more secure. Working for the rights of Russian-speaking immigrants to convert to Judaism without coercing them to ultra-Orthodoxy makes Israel a home for all Jews.”
Rabbi Jacobs added: “I will not back away from my commitment to a two-state solution, living side-by-side in peace and security. As the leader of the largest movement in Jewish life, I intend to work every single day to build up the ranks of those who share my Zionist passion.”
Carol Greenwald did not seem swayed, saying her group now has about 100 people to sign on and that there is a “high probability there is going to be another ad.”