The Union for Reform Judaism’s new president Rabbi Rick Jacobs reflects on his formative experiences, the lessons he has learned about personal and synagogue transformation, his vision for the future of the URJ and the Reform Movement, and his determination to surmount the monumental challenges on the road ahead.
On June 12, 2011, the URJ Board of Trustees elected Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which serves 900 member congregations throughout North America. Ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York in 1982, Rabbi Jacobs is the first Union president to have served most of his career as a congregational rabbi—nine years at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue and then for 20 years at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York.
On the Movement-wide level he is a former member of the URJ Board of Trustees, the Joint Commission on Religious Living, the Joint Commission on Worship, the CCAR Executive Committee, the ARZA and WUPJ Boards, and the Reform Judaism Magazine Advisory Board. He has also been active on the boards of the American Jewish World Service, UJA-Federation of New York, the New Israel Fund, and Synagogue 2000, and is a senior rabbinic fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
Dedicated to social justice, Rabbi Jacobs traveled to the Chad-Darfur border area in 2005 to bring attention to the refugees’ plight, and, upon his return, raised $250,000 to aid genocide victims and delivered the opening prayer at the 2006 Darfur rally in Washington, DC (see “On the Edge of Life,” RJ magazine, Summer 2006). He was the only rabbi to participate in the 2009 Brookings U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Quatar, dedicated to building bridges of understanding between the West and the Muslim world.
He lives in Scarsdale, New York with his wife, Susan K. Freedman, sons Aaron and David, and daughter Sarah.
You are the Union’s first bi-coastal president, having grown up in both New York and Orange County, CA, home of the radical John Birch Society. How did these experiences shape you?
When I was 10, my family moved from New York to Southern California, where my parents opened a retail furniture business. Leaving a densely populated Jewish community to live in one with few Jews took some getting used to, but didn’t stop me from becoming active in student government as a teenager in the 1970s. One experience in particular crystallized for me what it meant to be a leader. When I was a high school junior serving as commissioner of activities, I curated a series of student assemblies and wanted to broaden our offerings to include a lecture on transcendental meditation, which the Beatles had popularized, as well as political events addressing Earth Day and the Vietnam War. To proceed, I had to argue my case before the five members of the school board, three of whom belonged to the John Birch Society. Even though I knew my chances for success were remote, I went before the board, spoke as convincingly as I could—and got permission to do the series! The message I took away—that leadership means standing up for what you believe in, allowing you to achieve more than you can imagine—has informed me ever since.
In a 2000 Reform Judaism magazine article on synagogue transformation you wrote: “To tell you the truth, the Judaism I had experienced as a youth growing up in a large suburban Reform synagogue seemed shallow and uninspiring.” If that was the case, why didn’t you just drop out after bar mitzvah or Confirmation? What led you to the rabbinate?
My Jewish identity might have hit a dead end had it not been for the three summers I spent at the URJ's Camp Swig in Northern California. I found Jewish community there with a circle of friends, including members of a rock band I was part of—I was the drummer. Swig also opened me up to issues like civil rights. Labor leader Cesar Chavez spoke to us about our obligations to the migrant farm workers, and many of us, me included, stopped eating non-union grapes or lettuce. Protest folksinger Joan Baez showed up, impressing upon us that Judaism had something to say about the critical social issues of the day. We also sat in the redwoods with guitars, praying in ways that I’d never experienced in a synagogue.
How did your college years have an impact upon your Jewish identity?
While I entered the University of California, Santa Barbara as a political science major, I took some religious studies classes. I needed to determine if Judaism really meant anything to me, so I could decide what part, if any, it should play in my life. A comparative religion course awakened in me a deep curiosity to probe the deeper questions of life and led to taking my junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem—my first Israel experience. It was eye-opening and exhilarating. Rabbi David Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi and philosopher, was teaching a class on Maimonides, Halevi, and Spinoza, and I walked in thinking, This Orthodox rabbi is a world apart from me. There’s no way he’s going to say anything that I’m going to agree with or be interested in. Well, he turned out to be the most spectacular teacher I ever had. I decided to experience Judaism through his eyes by living for six weeks on an Orthodox kibbutz in the north of Israel. Again, my presuppositions were quickly upended. Since it was Passover, I thought, Here with this Orthodox kibbutz family I’m going to celebrate the most authentic Pesach of my whole life. During the seder one of my kibbutz “brothers” had a sour expression on his face, and when I asked him, “What’s the matter?” he replied, “It’s boring. It’s the same every year.” I said, “You’re not supposed to think that. You’re an Orthodox Jew!” At that moment I realized that inspiring religious life can be found in any place, just as uninspired religious life can be found in any place.
How did these experiences lead you to become a Reform rabbi?
After I returned from Israel I wanted to pursue a degree in religious studies and thought that a seminary would be the best place to learn. Rabbi Leonard Thal, who had been on the Camp Swig faculty, encouraged me to consider HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, and when I walked into Rabbi Harold Schulweis’ Talmud class I thought, This is where I belong. Frankly, I was also put off by the other seminaries, which required that I first sign a document declaring my level of Jewish observance. That, I felt, was between me and a much higher authority.
During most of my years at HUC-JIR, I told anyone who would listen, “I’m not going to be a congregational rabbi. There is no way I’m going to be part of an institution that didn’t serve me well in my youth. That’s not going to be a career for me.” My classmates would roll their eyes, thinking, Shut up already, Jacobs. We’re all going to be congregational rabbis, and we don’t want to hear it.
So what caused you to change your mind about becoming a congregational rabbi?
While at HUC-JIR I interned for Rabbi Jack Stern, of blessed memory, at Westchester Reform Temple. I watched him lead that community, thinking, This is an unbelievably compelling way to spend a professional career. As I followed him around, listening to him, observing him, I saw how he shined the light of his humanity on every person he encountered, no matter how tough the situation. I’ll never forget the time when Jack was rehearsing consecration students for their formal processional to the bimah. The kindergarteners were distracted and walking aimlessly, so he called out, “Kids, watch me and do exactly as I do.” Now, Jack had a bad leg, so he limped down the center aisle—and then all 50 kids followed, limping just like him. What did Jack do in this uncomfortable situation? He burst out laughing. He spontaneously and lovingly turned what might have been, on reflection, one of the most embarrassing moments in some of these young people’s lives into a funny moment of connection. He made me look at the role of a congregational rabbi in a new light.
Before going to rabbinical school, you had also considered becoming a professional dancer. How did dance enter your life, what is it about dance intrigues you, and are there any parallels for you in the dance and rabbinic worlds?
I grew up in an area of Southern California where boys didn’t dance. Basketball, yes, track, yes, dance, unthinkable. In college, on a whim, a friend and I entered a dance contest sponsored by the Black Student Union. We came in second, and it almost started a race riot at school. The whole experience intrigued me, and I decided to take a modern dance class, which I loved, and then ballet, which I tolerated, but it helped me catch up to those who had spent their youth in dance class.
Interestingly, my exploration of dance came at exactly the same time as my deepening interest in religion. Dance and religion have exciting commonalities; both explore non-rational, non-verbal, artful dimensions of reality.
Once I was accepted at HUC, I thought I’d have to defer dance, but a chance encounter with the man sitting next to me on the El Al flight to Jerusalem for my first year of HUC study intervened. He asked me what I was planning to do in Israel.
“I’m going to study; what about you?” I replied.
“I’m going to teach.”
“Oh,” I said, “maybe you’re going to be one of my teachers.”
“Well, I’m a ballet master. I’ve got a studio here in New York City, and I’ll be at the Ruben Academy in Jerusalem.”
“That’s funny. I dance.”
“Really? Let’s see what you got.”
“Well, we’re on an airplane….”
The ballet master then asked one of the flight attendants for a food cart, which I used as a ballet barre as he led me through dance barre exercises with all of the El Al passengers watching. When I finished, the man said, “Okay, you’re in. You just got a scholarship to the Ruben Academy. I’ll let them know you are eligible to take classes. Mention my name—Don Farnsworth.”
That’s how I ended up spending my first year as a rabbinical student rushing between Jewish studies at HUC and Martha Graham technique at the Ruben Academy.
From that point on, dance was part of what I did. When I was back at HUC in LA, I performed my sermon in dance. And when I was completing my rabbinic studies in New York, I danced with the Avodah Dance Ensemble, a Jewish modern dance company.
Did you gain insights about Judaism from dancing in a Jewish dance company?
Absolutely. For example, I danced the role of the biblical Abraham in a piece about the relationship between Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and Hagar, his mistress with whom he is about to have a child. As I lifted Hagar onto my shoulders, causing Sarah to quickly exit the stage, I found myself stunned, for at that moment I could feel the depth of Sarah’s pain as never before. Dancing this role gave me a much deeper understanding of the biblical narrative than I’d absorbed from reading any midrash.
You founded and directed one of the first homeless shelters at a synagogue in New York City, played an instrumental role in a city-wide interfaith effort to provide affordable community housing, and have taken the Food Stamp Challenge, living for one week on the $31.50 budget of a food stamp recipient to bring attention to hunger in America. Why is social justice so central in your rabbinate?
Jewish spirituality is not only about meditation, prayer, and study. It is also about engaging in social justice, whether that’s building affordable housing, cooking in a soup kitchen, or otherwise modeling what it means to be a person of conscience and commitment. Pursuing social justice is a real-world, authentic spiritual practice.
What have you learned from your predecessors who have served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism?
At 6'4" I may be the tallest president in the history of our URJ, but I’m following in the footsteps of giants.
In my mind’s eye, I see Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath carrying a Torah scroll alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He knew what too many of us have forgotten—that the Torah should never be sequestered in our synagogues. Rather, we must carry our prophetic mantel beyond the walls of our praying places to shape a more just and compassionate world for all of God’s children.
I sense, too, the poetic presence of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who boldly challenged us to share our Torah with the many interfaith families who felt barred from taking hold of our sacred inheritance, and to embrace our LGBT brothers and sisters. Our congregations are stronger thanks to the many Jews-by-choice, non-Jews, and Jews of all kinds who have joined us.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s vision of Torah at the center has inspired my rabbinate and our Reform Movement. Eric has taught us to engage deeply with our sacred texts through serious, lifelong study.
At the 2011 Biennial outside Washington, DC, you spoke of our Movement’s three most pressing tasks. The first is catalyzing congregational change.
Yes, in this new era in which people have multiple Jewish options, synagogues must transform themselves to speak to the human soul. They must also keep up with the best of human thought, by which I mean the expanding frontiers of science and philosophy, which are sources of truth for us. They need to become great congregations, exuding excellence and always searching for new ways to do their holy work better. The URJ must do the same—being a catalyst and convener of best practices, sharing tools, methods, and models—so that all our congregations can flourish by raising themselves up the ladder from ok to good, from good to great, and from great to phenomenal. Only then will our synagogues be the central address for modern Jews who wish to cultivate a deep, nourishing Jewish life.
At Westchester Reform Temple, you initiated and presided over several transformation processes that encompassed the religious school, youth work, worship, and more. What have you learned from that experience that synagogue leaders can apply in their own communities?
First, when embarking on a transformation process, be careful not to make longtime members feel like strangers in their own spiritual home. At WRT each task force and worship group included veteran members who were often skeptical if not resistant to the change process. Second, involve “nay-sayers,” for they are essential to ethical decision-making. Third, make it a priority to develop a dynamic partnership between the professional and lay leadership. Fourth, know that transformation takes time. When someone says, “You can’t do it,” my answer is, “Really? Did you try? Did you try hard for 20 years?” If you try for a day, a week, a month, a year—that’s not trying. Finally, like lifelong Jewish learning and spiritual growth, transformation is a process that never ends.
Your second most pressing task is engaging the next generation. You’ve warned that if we do not do it right, the rest will not matter.
A staggering 80% of our b’nei mitzvah drop out before confirmation. Stemming this exodus is the impetus for a Movement-wide transformation of how we interact with our youth. That is why Rabbi Yoffie initiated, and I have endorsed as one of my top priorities, the Campaign for Youth Engagement—a long-term effort to transform and strengthen relationships between Jewish teens, their peers, their families, and their congregations. We will fortify NFTY, expand our camps and Israel programs, invest in training adults who connect with youth, and allocate significant funding and programmatic support for innovative initiatives on the local level. Only by creating closer and more enduring relationships with our youth can we hope to reverse this trend.
I saw this happen at Westchester Reform Temple. During my first week as rabbi there, the educator called me aside and said, “A boy in our religious school is a holy terror. He’s not just badly behaved; he is literally a threat to this place.” We didn’t kick him out of our school; we held him close. I saw him pretty regularly in my office. He kept acting out and we kept taking him back in. It paid off. Eventually he became president of our youth group and president of his college Hillel. Years later I saw him and he said, “You hung in there with me.” Just a few months ago he emailed me from London, where he was transferred by his firm, and asked if I could recommend a synagogue for the High Holy Days. By forging strong relationships with our youth, we can help them find their way through the often bewildering world of adolescence. There is a place for each one of our kids in the engaging web of offerings we must create.
You’ve defined the third pressing task as extending circles of responsibility.
A few years ago, I had dinner with Pastor Rick Warren, founder of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church and author of the mega bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. He said something that has not stopped resonating for me. Most people, he observed, seek congregations for their services. Makes sense. But service often becomes “serve us without service,” as in “pander to all my spiritual needs and desires.”
Most of us join synagogues hoping to receive something: a religious education for ourselves or our children, holiday observances, support during times of trial. And there is nothing wrong with this. Members have a right to receive all this and more. But “serve US without service” runs contrary to all that makes us Jewish, and it is a journey down a dead-end street. As long as we focus on programs that serve the members without also summoning them to serve others, we will perpetuate our woes.
Service to others might start close to home by helping our neighbors who are struggling mightily during these tough economic times. It might be visits to patients in hospitals or nursing homes, teaching in our congregation’s religious school, or staffing its soup kitchen. Our service might move us far from home as well—to spend our vacation helping out in south Tel Aviv’s slums or treating patients in one of Haiti’s tent cities.
By making this a Movement-wide initiative, we will proclaim to the world that congregations are not ends in themselves or clubs that cater to our members. More than anything else, synagogues are places where serious Jewish commitment is ignited. This shift in focus will be a magnet for Jews seeking purpose and meaning in their lives.
A recent survey found that only 60% of Jews under 35 believe that caring about Israel is a key part of their Jewish identity. What can we do to reverse this trend?
It is up to all of us to foster a deep love for and engagement with Israel among Reform Jews of North America, young and old.
This past summer I had the privilege of welcoming a few busloads of our NFTY teens to Jerusalem. Blindfolded, they stepped off their buses holding hands, moving slowly toward the edge of the Haas Promenade that overlooks the Temple Mount in the center of Jerusalem. They were about to have their first glimpse of the City of Gold. You cannot imagine the look of amazement and wonder on their faces as they opened their eyes to the setting sun over Jerusalem. Watching these Reform teens fall in love with Israel, I remembered my own love affair with Israel that was sparked during my junior year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Ever since, I have spent much of my rabbinate working to strengthen Israel’s security and well-being. I hope that every Jew can come to see Israel the way those teenagers did, with the sparkle of its promise searing our souls.
You were among the Rabbinic Vision Initiative (RVI), a group of 18 influential congregational rabbis who resolved to shake up the URJ. Now that you are URJ president, how do you propose to address RVI concerns?
Their concerns are mine as well, and I’m confident that they are widely shared within the Union’s leadership and staff. For the past 40 years, Reform Judaism’s religious ingenuity has made us the fastest-growing theologically liberal denomination in North America. And yet, we’ve become bogged down, trapped in fear about the future. This is not the time for staying the course. This moment in Jewish history demands bold thinking with big ideas.
A major restructuring of the URJ is required to meet these new realities of Jewish life.
What will this restructuring process entail?
I see five overarching imperatives. First, we need to create a URJ culture of excellence. There are many effective professionals and cutting-edge offerings within the present URJ, but we need to shape and commit to a culture of excellence throughout.
Second, we must think and act like a Movement, instead of functioning as separate silos. The very serious challenges facing the URJ require partnering with our affiliates, such as HUC-JIR and the CCAR, and committing to shared Movement solutions.
Third, we need a covenantal partnership between the URJ’s lay leaders and staff. A renewed sense of partnership between our lay and professional leaders will allow us to successfully navigate the inevitable disequilibrium that the transformation of the URJ will provoke, and ultimately serve as a leadership model for our congregations.
Fourth, the URJ needs to see itself and be seen in the context of a relational culture instead of an all-knowing big brother. A good example of this is Just Congregations, a congregation-based community organizing model in which leaders are trained to think strategically about how to engage significant numbers of others by conducting intentional relationship-building campaigns. Through house meetings and one-on-one conversations, issues of shared concern emerge, and leaders conduct significant actions that engage their members to shape a more just world. These same approaches can transform the URJ’s work by reaching into and across congregations to develop leadership, build networks of relationships, identify and create platforms to share best practices, identify areas of shared concern, and call us to collective action. Sometimes those actions may relate to matters of public policy, such as marriage equality, support of Israel, or economic justice, but just as often they will enable synagogues to accomplish goals that require greater scale, such as coordinating collective Jewish learning or shared purchasing for common services.
When the URJ models a “relational culture” of shared purpose and effective collective action, the URJ will no longer be seen as a fee-for-service provider of expertise, and we will stop pretending that all the answers rest in our central office. Instead, everyone will become part of the Movement that we organize, facilitate, and nurture.
Fifth, we need to understand and harness the power of new technologies. This requires rethinking our current programs, not just “pushing” our established programs with social media tools. And we need to have a much stronger presence on search engines. Googling “Shabbat” currently brings you a slew of Orthodox websites but hardly any progressive ones, when we’re what most Googlers truly seek.
What do you anticipate will be the most difficult part of your new job, and the most gratifying?
The most difficult part will be transformation. Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie advised me to do what his predecessor, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, advised him: “Change everything.” This doesn’t mean we have to literally change everything, but most of us stop well before we change what needs changing. Tweaking is not transformation.
I anticipate the most exhilarating part of this job will be getting down that road with all of our Movement partners and feeling us moving together on our collective journey. This is going to be like climbing Mount Everest barefoot, but we’ll get there.