Rabbi Rick Jacobs: Reform Jews Committed to Israel Despite 'All the Messiness'

Despite disagreements with Israel's government and Orthodox establishment, head of Reform movement is optimistic about furthering liberal and egalitarian agenda in the Jewish state. A wide-ranging interview ahead of this week's Reform Movement Biennial in Florida.

David Braun Photography Inc./ Union for Reform Judaism

These days Rabbi Rick Jacobs often doesn’t see eye to eye with Israel on issues ranging from the policies of its right-wing government to its treatment of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. But the first message the president of the Union of Reform Judaism brings when he meets Israeli officials is that, as condemnation of Israel and BDS movement gain momentum in left-wing circles, the Jewish state needs liberal Zionists like him more than ever. And he is ready to help.

“As I tell (Israeli ambassador to the U.S.) Ron Dermer, ‘I’ll go fight in places you’ll never get invited to,’” Jacobs says. “There are places we need to be and groups we need to engage with to whom you can’t bring the set of arguments you think are the standard talking points of Israel. Situations where if you can’t be honest with people about occupation and settlements, you can’t even get to the table. I can.”

Most Reform Jews are committed to social justice and liberal values and are unsettled by the news coming out of Israel, from the treatment of the Palestinians, to the battle over the Iran deal, Jacobs says. And then, he adds, there are the differences over the Orthodox monopoly on defining what it is to be Jewish in the Jewish state, accompanied by the feeling that in Israel, Judaism is growing more tribal and less tolerant and compatible with a commitment to democracy and equality.

But distancing himself or his movement from Israel is not an option Jacobs is even willing to consider. The most prominent and powerful liberal Zionist in North America says he “fell in love with Israel just as she is with all the messiness, all the complexity.” He remains enamored of and connected to the country and firmly believes that other American Jews feel the same way.

“My love for Israel is not about who’s in power or the latest bill they pass in Knesset. I care deeply: My connection is in the deepest part of who I am,” he says. “Yes, when you talk to people – especially young people – who are disaffected from Israel and you start giving them the ‘rah rah’ speech – they will turn off. You have to talk to them honestly, you are going to admit that there are many things that need repair. But for me, this is my home and these are members of my family. When rockets fly there they are landing land on people I love and care for – even if they sometimes make me crazy.”

Jacobs, 59, a tall and lanky former dancer, sat with a Haaretz reporter in a courtyard at the Hebrew Union College campus in Jerusalem about a week before the Reform Movement’s Biennial kicks off on November 4 in Orlando, Florida. The massive gathering will welcome Reform clergy and congregants from around the United States and the world to study, worship, compare notes and get a shot of inspiration. Jacobs had arrived in Israel as part of the Reform delegation to the World Zionist Congress, and was checking in on the new batch of Reform Movement students who have arrived on the Jerusalem campus for their year of studies, in what can only be described as a jittery atmosphere in the city.

The delegation to the congress decided to forgo the scheduled tour of Israel’s south and instead preferred to focus on Jerusalem’s tensions. They visited the Old City's Dormition Abbey to promote interfaith relations as well as a Palestinian girls' school in East Jerusalem, where the group discussed the current terrorism wave and, Jacobs notes, many of the liberal American delegates were “sobered” by what they heard. He says the pupils told the visitors that the two-state solution was “out of the question” and that they believed all of the recent knife attacks were fabricated and that Israelis were shooting young Palestinians in the streets unprovoked.  

Jacobs also took the group to the Western Wall, which should have presumably been one of his greatest disappointments. After all, at the previous Reform biennial in 2013, he excitedly told a packed hall that a large spectrum of Jewish groups were “close to agreements with the Israeli government that will physically reshape that holiest of Jewish sites, and for the first time give us roles in overseeing the pluralistic Judaism that will be proudly and publicly practiced there.”

But progress toward a final agreement came to a halt following the Israeli elections in January of that year, and the return of the ultra-Orthodox parties to the coalition.

The Reform leader denies that the egalitarian plan for the Wall is at a dead end today. “It’s at a crossroads,” he insists, preferring to focus on the positive – the historic breakthrough that occurred when the Israeli government agreed to sit down with representatives of the feminist prayer organization Women of the Wall and of non-Orthodox movements, as well as the Orthodox, to work toward a basic agreement on what an egalitarian arrangement will entail and who will hold authority over it. “No one thought we’d get one step," says Jacobs now. "And we are 50 steps in.”

The sticking point, he explains, is creating a precise physical setup agreeable to all – that is, finding a space that will serve ultra-Orthodox Jews' purpose of ending what they consider to be provocation on the part of Women of the Wall and egalitarian groups – without hiding non-Orthodox practice, as Jacobs puts it, “in the back of the bus.”  

The plan is on hold now, less because of intra-Jewish strife than the fragile political situation with Muslims regarding the Temple Mount. Any major changes now, with “status quo” being the watchword, are unthinkable, he says, adding, “We are the movement that is all about peace and so we can’t be the force that is going to be the catalyst to more tension."

Agitating when necessary

Progress on behalf of other causes championed by the Reform Movement has also been halted by the return to power in Israel of the ultra-Orthodox parties and the conditions they placed on their participation in the coalition, which have frozen any legislation that would create a civil marriage option and reforms in the Chief Rabbinate in matters of Jewish status.  

But Jacobs vows to stay engaged, and when the opportunity presents itself, to push forward. “We work with the Israeli government whenever possible and agitate whenever necessary.”

David Braun Photography Inc./ Union for Reform Judaism

Jacobs says he feels less troubled by the ultra-Orthodox members of the coalition, from which there are “few surprises,” than he does by the right wing: the actions of Habayit Hayehudi and of the “more extreme members of the Likud,” which are eroding Israeli democracy, and encouraging racism and xenophobia.  

In this, he finds common cause with Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin. Jacobs helped repair the split between the president and the non-Orthodox that stemmed from remarks Rivlin made in the past, describing Reform practice as “idol worship,” and his refusal to address non-Orthodox religious leaders as rabbis. After Rivlin’s election, Jacobs asked him to relate to “the largest Jewish movement in North America with the same tolerance and respect” with which he treats minorities in Israel.

“A week later," he recalls now, "I am on the train commuting to work and the phone rings. There’s an etiquette, you never answer your phone on the train.” But since it was a call from Israel, Jacobs picked up, and President Rivlin was on the line. “He said, ‘Rabbi Jacobs.’ And I said ‘Yes!’" Rivlin proceeded, says Jacobs, to give him a five-minute drasha (sermon) on mutual respect and understanding.

It was a breakthrough moment. The last time they met, the Reform leader says, “I sat in his office and in the course of the meeting he must have called me ‘rabbi’ 15 times.”

While Jacobs told Rivlin how much he appreciated the respectful gesture, ‘I said, ‘Enough, already. My Hebrew name is Reuven, you can also call me by my name.’ ”

Jacobs is also a Rivlin fan because of the importance the president places on the Jewish state’s relations with the United States, and his concern over Israel becoming a partisan issue in Washington, particularly in advance of the 2016 election. He worries that if the relationship between the Israeli government and the Obama White House, as well as with key Democrats, continues to deteriorate “all we’ll be left with is Republicans who are going to out-pro-Israel each other to the extent that if you don’t claim Baghdad as part of Eretz Israel you are going to seem like you are an anti-Zionist.”

He warns that “If the Democratic party, Jewish and non-Jewish, moves away from the State of Israel because it has become so contentious – that is a disaster for the State of Israel.”

'Audacious hospitality'

U.S. politics will be in the spotlight at the biennial in Florida, with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addressing the conference on Saturday evening.  

The Reform world is abuzz over the U.S. presidential race and a crowd favorite is certainly Bernie Sanders, who, while not a formally affiliated Reform Jew, is identified as a liberal member of the tribe. “The fact that he is a strong candidate for the presidency suggests that our whole place in society is more secure,” Jacobs says.

While his Brooklyn-accented speech and his background are clearly Jewish, Sanders is “definitely not ritually Jewish” in any way, Jacobs points out, noting that, after all, the presidential hopeful did spend Rosh Hashanah addressing a convocation at the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s evangelical Christian Liberty University.

Still, says Jacobs, “he certainly considers himself to be a social justice Jew. When you ask him to talk about his Judaism, for him, it’s all about progressive ideas.”

Sanders-style Jews fit into Jacob’s “big tent” philosophy. Whether it is social justice, spirituality, study or love of Israel that attracts a Jew to a Reform community, or any Jewish institution – he believes in embracing them with what has become his catchphrase: “audacious hospitality.”

Four years ago, when he was installed as president of the Union of Reform Judaism, Jacobs promised to change and revitalize movement institutions that he believed were coasting along on past successes and the fact that they were the only game in town for most interfaith families. He warned that, “unless we change our approach, there is little chance that Jews in their 20s and 30s will even enter the revolving door of synagogue affiliation.”

He admits today that the process of restructuring and revitalizing such a massive organization hasn’t been easy, but “to me it is so clear that the landscape of American Jewish life is so dramatically changing that to stand still is to go backward.”

During his tenure, he says, he and his team have “scrutinized every shekel” the movement has spent, in an effort to be as “smart and strategic” as possible, aiming at “making a bigger effort toward a Judaism that is alive, egalitarian, inclusive, joyful because that’s what people are hungry for.”

Despite the often-cited and worrisome statistics regarding assimilation and disaffection from organized Jewish life, Jacobs still believes that “in the marketplace of spirituality, Reform Judaism is incredibly appealing.”

The movement’s biggest initiatives involve youth engagement, from expanding summer camp programs to being more flexible with respect to bar- and bat-mitzvah celebrations, the central life-cycle event for young Jews, to reaching out to young couples with children.

Jacobs doesn’t hesitate to take a page from the success of other Jewish streams. Orthodox Jews, who were few and embattled just a few generations back “are thriving,” he says, and not only because of high birth rates, but because they are “smart and strategic” and “made a conscious set of decisions that have turned out to be terrific."

He cites other inspiration that came from another unexpected place: the recent U.S. visit of Pope Francis, whom Jacobs met at the 9/11 memorial in New York. “What a privilege to hear him,” Jacobs enthuses. “I found each of his messages to be incredibly on point and embracing, the interfaith service in a place of pain and memory to be so moving. When we ask how to make religion really relevant to people who have checked out ־ well, the pope has been doing that more than anybody lately.”

At the multifaith service held at the memorial, Francis "engendered so much good will and a sense that there could be a common purpose,” Jacobs says. “At that service with Muslim, Christian, Jewish leaders, I thought, why doesn’t the pope just lock the doors? We have people in this room who, if they work together, could change the trajectory of faith.”