Rabbi Rick Jacobs at his installation ceremony
Rabbi Rick Jacobs at his installation ceremony at Brooklyn's Congregation Beth Elohim. Photo by Clark Jones / URJ
Text size

A buffet table is often conjured up when traditional Orthodox Jews want to dismiss or disparage the Reform movement as “cafeteria-style” Judaism. “You can’t just go and pick and choose what aspects of being Jewish you want — adopt the things that appeal to you and dismiss the rest,” they say. “It’s not a cafeteria, after all.”

One look at the program of the Union for Reform Judaism North American Biennial shows that at their big gathering, the Reform movement is laying out a major smorgasbord for the estimated 5000 participants expected to attend. Not only are attendees being encouraged to pick and choose their favorites from a table laden with every cuisine imaginable, but the organizers are clearly hoping they will taste some new dishes for the first time.

The event is held in the San Diego Convention Center, alongside the Women of Reform Judaism 49th Assembly and Centennial Celebration.

In a conversation with the movement’s president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, during a visit to Jerusalem last month as preparations for the Biennial were underway, he promised the event would include “the most interesting and creative” developments in the Jewish world — both inside the movement and outside, that he hoped to inspire Reform communities to experiment with different ideas. “It is a moment to reinvent Jewish life,” he told me. “We need to make it more attractive, spiritual and affordable.”

This Biennial is the first one to be shaped by Jacobs’ style of leadership after taking the helm of the organization in the spring of 2012. His keynote speech on Thursday night has been billed as his statement on the direction in which he plans to lead the movement. The gathering bears his stamp: thinking that is out-of-the-box — and often even out-of-the-synagogue, with an eagerness to cross-pollinate with other streams of Judaism. When we spoke in Jerusalem, Jacobs told me he believes he was plucked for the top job after successful stints as a congregational rabbi at the Westchester Reform Temple, in Scarsdale, New York, and at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue because, at a time when change was felt to be necessary, “I was a communal agitator, trying to reinvent synagogues — an innovator, trying to rethink how synagogues learn and how we make spiritual practice relevant, sacred community and social justice.”

Reform under Jacobs is all about change, adaptation and growth. The movement has already launched a “B’nai Mitzvah revolution,” that challenges Reform congregations to rethink the traditional coming-of-age ritual, and he seems determined to make sure the only thing certain about what Reform Judaism will look like in the future is that nothing is certain.

“We are the largest movement because we allow the Jewish tradition to be invigorated,” says Jacobs. “That is how we are going to stay at the cutting edge of Jewish life.”

The Biennial is Jacobs’ chance to bring his brand of disruptive thinking to the national level on a large scale for the first time. Featured speakers billed to address the event include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, The New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center and chairwoman of Women of the Wall Anat Hoffman, Knesset Member Ruth Calderon and the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Ilyse Hogue.

It has already been pointed out that the open-tent approach that Jacobs advocates is very trendy for Jewish gatherings at the moment. As Uriel Heilman of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has noted: “First there was the Conservative movement’s October Biennial conference, billed as ‘The conversation of the century’ and opened up to presenters from outside the movement. Then came the November General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which featured a ‘Global Jewish Shuk: a marketplace of dialogue and debate’ led by young Israelis and Americans from outside the federation world. Now comes the Biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism, which will be distinguished from past years by — you guessed it — opening up to outsiders.”

All of these events have clearly been heavily influenced by the spirit and success of the ever-mushrooming Limmud conferences, created in Great Britain but now popping up all over the world, which offer an immersive Jewish experience with a diversity of presentations and forms of worship, letting everyone choose for themselves from among forms of Jewish expression that are familiar or new to them.

The 140 learning sessions offered at the Biennial include “All Jewish, Half Jewish, or Not Jewish At All,” “Intergenerational Judaism: How Do We Welcome LGBT Families Into Our Homes, Our Temples, and Our Lives” and “I Don’t Roll on Shabbos: An Exploration of Shabbat Through Text, Pop Culture, and The Big Lebowski,” alongside more conventional discussions of synagogue life, Israel advocacy and much more.

The theme of “openness” goes beyond welcoming attendees who may not be Reform Jews: The convention is going out on the town. On Thursday night there’ll be a music festival in local bars and restaurants, and comedy clubs in the San Diego Gaslamp entertainment district.

The descriptions of the various types of Shabbat services available over the weekend, before and after what is being billed as “the largest Shabbat dinner in the world,” sound like the ultimate prayer buffet table. There’s everything from very traditional worship to meditation-style chanting and worship through yoga. Shabbat activities will include everything from drum circles and poetry slams to paper cutting and Israeli dance.

Mark Pelavin, Jacobs’ senior advisor, who planned the event and appeared alongside him at an online press briefing on the upcoming event promised “a wide variety of different choices for everything, for worship and study … a tremendous mix of things — openness, choice, diversity and energy.” He said the focus will be on “cutting-edge best practices” for Reform synagogues that will allow attendees to “think inside and outside our congregations what is happening in the landscape of Jewish life and make an honest assessment of where we are and what is on the road ahead.”

In order for Reform to expand, said Pelavin, the focus should be on “removing barriers” to participation, be they financial or feelings of being an outsider. “There are people who don’t feel included — who don’t think that organized American Jewish life is thinking about them, the message to them is that our arms are wide open.”

Jacobs chimed in, saying, “it is time to think boldly … catalyzing congregational change — even the best congregations have to be in a constant state of renewal, and have to show that the barriers to congregational life are not high.”

As the two men spoke about removing barriers and lowering the threshold of entry to community life, I recalled the appearance Jacobs made at Chabad's most recent annual conference of international emissaries, held in Brooklyn, New York on November 3. Much was made at the time of the lanky, 6-foot-4, clean-shaven Reform rabbi sitting among all of the bearded dignitaries. When I asked him why he went, he gave two reasons: his longtime friendship with some of their leadership, but also because “there are a lot of things we can learn from them.” The lessons he said that could be learned is their low threshold of entry and approachability without judgement, coupled with the ability, once inside community life, to quickly ramp up to a high level of spirituality and depth.

What Chabad does so well — continually invite new recruits inside their fold — is the trick that the rest of Jewish community needs to learn if they are to turn around the numbers in the now-infamous Pew study on Jewish life. When asked about Pew, Jacobs said that no one in Jewish life, certainly not in the Reform movement, had needed a survey to tell them about the “shock waves of change” going through the Jewish community.

While the kippa-wearing Jacobs is probably the most Orthodox-friendly leader Reform Judaism has ever had — his mentor is Rabbi David Hartman, who will be receiving a posthumous award at the Biennial — he does not see the Pew numbers as a rebuke to the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. Quite the opposite: He believes firmly that in order to engage Jews in the modern world a diverse buffet needs to be served up, because different things appeal to different groups of Jews and offering the same old menu just won’t do the trick.

Reacting to Pew in Haaretz, Jacobs wrote: "There seems to be a rush to 'write off' what the Pew survey terms 'Jews of no religion' … These 'Nones' consider themselves Jewish, without embracing any of the traditional denominational labels. Rather, they are searching for their own portal into Jewish identity, which may or may not include religious practice. We know that young Jews, especially, are searching for new and creative ways to feel connected. Jews who don’t feel bound by the commands of Orthodox Judaism must embrace their Jewish religion and identity as a choice, not as a given. Reaching out to the 'Nones' is challenging, complicated and will require significant resources. But we cannot afford not to do so.”

Those attending the Biennial will be looking to Jacobs, the Reform movement leadership — and to each other — to figure out exactly how to do that.