The following is an excerpt from the Installation Sermon of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the new president of the Union of Reform Judaism. It was delivered on June 9 at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The full sermon is available at www.urj.org/rabbijacobs.
I ask you today to join me in adopting a stance of hope for a better Jewish future. First, let me be absolutely clear that Jewish life isn’t about organizations or fundraising or buildings. It is not about survival for the sake of survival. It’s about living a life of depth, purpose and character.
Shelach Lecha, the portion we read this afternoon, echoes the parasha Lech Lecha, when God tells Abraham, “Leave your native land and go to a land that I will show you.” Both underscore that we are here for a deeper purpose — a mission — and that sometimes that mission requires us to explore uncharted territory, to take risks. Through Abraham, all of us have been given our charge: “Nivrechu becha kol mishpachot ha’adama — through you shall all of the families of the world be blessed.”
What we do together is meant to shape a world of holiness, dignity and equality for God’s children everywhere. Ethics is not only what we teach — but it informs how we spend our time. The meaning it bestows upon our lives informs everything from ritual to social activism.
A few years back, I traveled to Darfuri refugee camps in Eastern Chad, Africa with Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service and a small group of rabbis including David Saperstein, David Stern and Lee Bycel. In Chad, I stopped to shop for some African fabric in the open market of Ndjamena. I wanted to make a tallit out of a bright, multicolored cloth to remind me daily of our Darfurian brothers and sisters. Back home, my daughter Sarah and I tied the tzitzit onto the four corners, symbolizing our obligation to bring the four corners of the earth together in our hearts and deeds. I made a vow to wear this tallit until the genocide in Darfur is finally stopped. The fabric is almost worn out. Tragically, the slaughter continues, now in South Sudan.
Our obligation is to help repair the world, and by “our,” I mean everyone. We must turn outward, not inward. A few months after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I was invited to be part of a Jewish mission to assess the recovery and strategize how more could be done to help the people living in tent cities without clean water. I called my physician’s office to make sure I had all of the required shots. The friendly receptionist inquired where I was going. When I told her Haiti, she said, “Rabbi, you know that there are no Jewish people there!” “That may be true,” I replied, “but God’s children are suffering mightily, and I have a Jewish obligation to respond to those in need.”
Shelach Lecha — Send forth the people on a mission.
The sacred mission of our community transcends the walls of the synagogue. Our message is for all who want to join us on our journey of hope and healing in the world.
Our mission is inspired by, and grounded in, the wisdom of Jewish tradition, but it is not limited by what we have inherited, any more than our work is limited by the walls of our synagogue buildings. What we do together, as a congregation and as a people, how we spend our time, our obligation to improve the world — these ethical moments happen both inside and outside of our sacred places of worship.
I began my rabbinical career at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. I remember in my second year after Rosh HaShanah services, a congregant asked me what I was doing to help the homeless in NYC. I answered: what are we doing? Either way, the answer was nothing. Our small congregation was busy enough just trying to stay afloat, and I was only its part-time rabbi. Nevertheless, once the question was raised, our sense of obligation kicked in.
In short order, we opened one of the first NYC homeless shelters to be housed in a synagogue. Four nights a week throughout the winter, two members slept at the shelter with our eight homeless guests.
One blustery winter night one guest wrote a 10-digit number instead of his name in our log book. He said it was his processing number in the city homeless system. I was horrified. A person reduced to a number was a painful echo of the Holocaust. I told our guest that we wanted to know his name and that was the only identification required in our home. Now in its 25th year, the shelter has informed and inspired a second generation of the congregation to make the world more compassionate.
Our early Reform leaders, who laid the foundations for us to become the largest Jewish denomination in North America, defined our core mission largely in social justice terms: “to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by … the evils of the present organization of society.” That sacred mission still inspires commitment among Jews of all ages. It is our combined mission of justice, ethics and a ritual that speaks to the present while building on the future that carries us forward.