Hundreds of us – Jews of all ages, nationalities, sexual orientations, and backgrounds – moved in unison. Our right arms reached backwards towards the past, then we each moved both hand, reaching forward toward the future, grasping at it, and bringing it close to our hearts. Choreographer Liz Lerman led the group in a symbolic dance that expressed many of the feelings of the group as we celebrated the installation of incoming URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.
Dancing together was just one of the unique ways in which we marked the start of Rabbi Jacobs’ presidency inside the stunning sanctuary at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn. As only the fourth president in the history of the Union for Reform Judaism (following Rabbis Maurice Eisendrath, Alexander Schindler, and Eric Yoffie), Rabbi Jacobs was already blazing a new path. The installation took place in the context of a dynamic worship service, led beautifully by many leading Reform clergy, including Rabbi Judith Schindler (daughter of Alexander) and Cantor Angela Buchdahl. The liturgy was accompanied by a full band under the leadership of Jewish singer-songwriter Josh Nelson.
Our worship began with the singing of “Ashrei,” in a setting written by Peri Smilow. “Happy are those who dwell in Your house…” we sang, and our voices resonated off the walls of the 151-year-old sanctuary. We had a renewed sense that every voice mattered, and every person was necessary to add to the beautiful harmonies. On the bimah, we could see the joy in the faces of Rabbi Andy Bachman, Cantor Joshua Breitzer, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, and URJ Chairman of the Board, Stephen Sacks. At one point, a choir made up of Rabbis, Cantors, and laypeople ascended the bimah to lead a song. The presence of such a mixed group of singers subtly symbolized a new model for synagogue leadership, and for partnership between clergy.
Rabbi Jacobs, in tallit and kippah, invited his good friend, Reverend Dr. W. Darin Moore, Pastor of the Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church (Mt. Vernon, NY), and his 100-person gospel choir, to participate in the festivities. The congregation swayed, clapped, and even felt compelled to stand as they sang with passion and spirit.
What could have been a very dry, dull event was instead filled with inspiration, music, movement, laughter, diversity, and hope. What might have once been a stuffy afternoon populated solely with men older than a certain age was instead open to all. Just as our dance symbolically had us reach into the past and then into the future, so did the mood in the room seem to pay tribute to both. Longtime members of the HUC-JIR Board of Governors sat alongside members of the national Reform youth group, NFTY. Retired rabbis sat near newly ordained colleagues. Pieces of liturgy by classic Reform composer Lewandowski were performed back-to-back with pieces by Josh Nelson and Debbie Friedman.
I, personally, was so proud to be a part of a movement that is inclusive, creative, and ready to think in new, ground-breaking ways about Judaism. My good friend, Rabbi Elizabeth Wood, and I, sat in the sanctuary with a feeling of excitement and readiness. We live-tweeted the event, as many of us “tech-savvy rabbis” tend to do at events like this. As we represent the rabbis who will be in the next generation of the movement’s leaders, and who will truly help take congregations into the 21st century, it is heartening to know that we are part of something thriving and blooming, rather than something shrinking and dying.
There was a sense of forward motion. As Rev. Dr. Moore said, “God never opened the Red Sea for anyone going back into Egypt.” Building on the wisdom, experiences, and lessons of the past, he reminded us to stay focused on the future. “Be bold! Be brave! Push forward!” he implored us. Rev. Dr. Moore then said that, one of the risks of both African American and of Jewish communities is to become stuck in our troubled pasts. We must hold onto our legacies, but we must also refuse to be imprisoned by them. This was a particularly meaningful statement, as we ready ourselves for a new chapter of Reform Jewish history.
Our Shabbat afternoon worship included a reading from Torah, chanted beautifully by Evan Traylor, the incoming NFTY president. The Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha, seemed especially poignant. 12 scouts are sent into the Land of Israel to evaluate it for the Israelites. 10 come back with terrifying reports about the land’s resident giants, and 2 come back with hope, optimism, and reassurance. During a time of change, a rise in the number of unaffiliated Jews , and with a need for re-envisioned synagogues, a “scout” with optimism and hope is what the Reform Movement needs now.
Following the reading, Rabbi Yoffie approached the lectern to pass the Torah, and all that it embodies, to Rabbi Jacobs. Rabbi Jacobs accepted the Torah, and then began a moving speech. He spoke of a Judaism that was dynamic, inclusive, relevant, and passionate. Reform Judaism is not “Judaism Lite;” rather, it represents an embrace of autonomy, community, depth, and outreach. We will be more powerful as we continue to warmly welcome LGBTQ Jews, Interfaith families, Jews of all origins, and more. We will continue to teach that all must live lives of courage and conviction, with a focus on relationships, family, and community.
Rabbi Jacobs reiterated one of my most favorite points – that it is actually rather challenging being a Reform Jew. We are not a group that follows rules and laws unquestioningly, and that goes with the status quo. Instead, we must learn our heritage and tradition, wrestle with it, and make informed choices about what is meaningful to us. We must be open to change, growth, and adaptation. Saying that “this isn’t what Reform Judaism used to be” is actually the antithesis of Reform Judaism – the movement should always be open to morphing into something current, relevant, and new.
We were then reminded of the recent victory for Progressive Judaism in Israel – that of Rabbi Miri Gold’s recognition as a rabbi by the State. Rabbi Jacobs expressed hope for a peaceful two-state solution, as well as for an Israel that protects and supports all expressions of Judaism. He reminded us that Israel represents a reminded that we are a part of something much larger and greater than ourselves.
As a Reform rabbi, I can’t wait to see what is coming up the pike. I loved the focus on spiritual, creative worship. I loved the emphasis on inclusion of all. I loved hearing quotes from text, mentions of God, and celebration of each individual’s own contributions. I know that while some of my congregants are also excited to see what’s next, others are reluctant to accept the changes that may come. And, yet, in order for Judaism to survive and thrive, I am confident that we will continue to keep our eyes open to the needs of all our people.
It is clear, at least to me, that the best is yet to come. Mazel tov, Rabbi Jacobs, and good luck!