With an internal position paper by Reform rabbinic leadership describing the movement as in “disarray,” the nation’s largest branch this week selected Westchester Rabbi Richard (“Rick”) Jacobs, who helped draft the document, as its new congregational leader.
Rabbi Jacobs, 55, who is highly respected by colleagues and often described as dynamic and a visionary, will succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie as president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) in June 2012.
The senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale for 20 years will become only the fourth president of the URJ in the last 68 years.
Rabbi Jacobs is himself one of the 18 rabbis of the nation’s largest Reform congregations who formed the Rabbinic Vision Initiative in December 2009, and drafted a position paper this month that describes the state of the URJ in blunt and highly critical terms.
“Our movement has not responded effectively to the dramatic changes in the wider landscape of Jewish life,” states the paper, which is now circulating among rabbis for signatures and a copy of which was obtained by The Jewish Week.
It asserts that the URJ has a governance structure that is “large and unwieldy”; its fundraising has “underperformed for the last decade”; it is not in touch sufficiently with the “real-life needs and challenges of its member congregations”; its downsizing two years ago was “ineffectively executed”; it lacks a “culture of excellence” and “lags behind the cutting-edge organizations which are imagining the Jewish future.”
Speaking to several members of the press on Tuesday, just prior to the formal announcement of his selection by the URJ, Rabbi Jacobs said he was involved with the initiative from the outset and that he shared with his colleagues a deep love for Reform Judaism and a sense that the movement needed to be reinvigorated from within.
“I’m not defined by this initiative,” he said. “I want to take the best part of it and join with all of my colleagues and partner with them” to improve the situation.
“This is a very constructive moment,” Rabbi Jacobs said, adding that he was optimistic about the future, believing in “the strength of a renewed Jewish life.”
Peter Rubinstein, senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in Manhattan, who chaired the initiative, described Rabbi Jacobs as “an outstanding rabbi and leader, and he has our full support. We believe he will be an excellent advocate for rapidly bringing the necessary changes to the Reform movement.”
He said a primary goal for when Rabbi Jacobs takes the helm of the URJ next year is to align the congregational arm more closely with the movement’s educational and rabbinic arms, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
“We’ve got three very different organizations now,” Rabbi Rubinstein said, “and we’ve got to get them to work together,” with a primary focus on congregations, giving synagogues a greater voice.
Rabbi Jacobs was born in New York but raised in Southern California, the product, he said, of an “uninspired” Reform congregation. He said he thought he would never become the rabbi of a large suburban congregation. But he said he loved his work and that “the future of Jewish life depends on transforming the synagogue into a place of real spirituality and learning.”
He emphasized his desire to bring “excellence” to the URJ, and the fact that every stream of Judaism faces challenges at this moment of dramatic change.
Synagogues can no longer wait for young people to come back when they are married and have children, he said, but must be welcoming, inclusive and have substance.
“Only meaningful congregations will matter. People won’t join just because their grandparents did. We have to matter every day.”
Rabbi Jacobs’1,200-household Westchester congregation is considered a model for the kind of spiritual, educational and social justice transformation required to sustain Reform Jewry.
Lisa Messinger, president of the Westchester Reform Temple, said the rabbi excelled in formulating a mission for the congregation with its leadership, defining five pillars — Talmud Torah, Avodah, Clal Yisrael, Tikkun Olam and Tzedakah — and “helping us figure out how everything we do fits in” with at least one of those pillars, from determining how to set dues to doing away with assigned High Holy Day seats.
“Although we will experience a loss, the URJ could not have made a better choice,” she said. “This is a sad but proud moment for us and we celebrate with him.”
Rabbi Jacobs said his goal is to use the experience he gained in bringing creative change to his Westchester congregation, through his work with lay leadership and congregants, and “bring it to a wider circle” of congregations across the U.S. and Canada.
His biggest challenge, he said, will be to institute innovation without alienating traditionalists, describing the experience as “renovating your house while the previous owners are still living there.”
He will assume the leadership of North American Jewry’s largest denomination — with some 900 congregations and a membership of 1.5 million — at a time when younger Jews are less interested than their parents in denominational ideology, synagogue membership and communal support for Israel, and when nearly half of the children educated in Reform synagogues are being raised in families where one parent was not born Jewish.
What Rabbi Jacobs has in his favor is the respect and support of many colleagues who describe him as the ideal man for a very challenging job.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., said Rabbi Jacobs is “one of those exceptional congregational rabbis with the complete skills, cutting across every aspect of Jewish life.”
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, who has been a professor at Hebrew Union College for 38 years, said “I can count on one hand the students I’ve had who I know will change the face of Jewish life, and Rabbi Jacobs is one of them.
“He has the tremendous ability to listen, to learn, he has boundless energy, a visionary quality I’ve rarely seen, and has been at the cutting edge” of virtually every significant Jewish innovation.
Indeed, at the Tuesday press meeting, Rabbi Jacobs made reference to some of the many activities in his rabbinate that made him such an attractive candidate for the URJ’s top position.
He noted that he was deeply involved with the Synagogue3000 effort in congregational transformation; studies each summer in Jerusalem with his mentor, Rabbi David Hartman, and colleagues of all denominations at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is a senior rabbinic fellow; is active in the New Israel Fund and the American Jewish World Service and has been on missions to Chad and Haiti; is on the board of UJA-Federation of New York and helped gain a million dollar grant for Westchester synagogues; and helped his congregation create the largest “green” synagogue in North America.
A former dancer and choreographer with the Avodah Dance Ensemble, Rabbi Jacobs is pursuing a doctorate in ritual dance at New York University. He and his wife, Susan K. Freedman, have three children.