Deal to 'Physically Reshape' Western Wall Is Near, Says Reform President

In speech to movement’s Biennial, Rick Jacobs preaches outreach to intermarried families, multiracial Jews and gay community.

President of the Union of Reform Judaism Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced Thursday that the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall are “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.”

Jacobs made the announcement in his keynote address to the Reform Biennial in San Diego, in an statement clearly designed to define the direction in which he intends to steer Reform Judaism, and spotlight what he has done in his year and a half in the job.

The agreement on the Wall is only one aspect of the movement’s lobbying Israel towards “transformative change” in its religious landscape. “Our appetite for pluralism and religious freedom extends way beyond those ancient stones,” he said. “The time is long overdue for equality to reign throughout the State of Israel. Because of our deep love for and commitment to the ideals of the Jewish State, we insist on equality, not just at the Western Wall, but also in rabbinical courts, under the bridal canopy, at funerals, in conversions, and in the founding and funding of our congregations,” he said, to enthusiastic applause.

Despite delivering his remarks on Israel at the end of a speech that lasted an hour and a quarter, he received the loudest and most sustained ovation from the crowd when he declared: “It cannot be that the great ingathering of the exiles will result in the only democratic state in the world that formally discriminates against the majority of the Jewish people,” he added. “That ain’t right. Orthodox Judaism is, of course, a legitimate choice for those who chose it, but it must no longer be the default position of the Jewish State. That does neither Judaism nor the State a service, quite the contrary.”

The vast majority of his speech was devoted to defining his vision of “a more vibrant and richer” Jewish life in North America, preaching a doctrine of what he termed ‘audacious hospitality’ in his keynote address to the Biennial Conference, pushing Reform congregations to throw open their doors to the widest variety of groups, arguing that “only by being inclusive can we be strong; only by being open can we be whole.”

“In a Jewish world where many more Jews are outside than inside, how can we not practice audacious hospitality? When women finally became rabbis, cantors, and board presidents, they didn’t just fill the previously conceived roles; they critiqued and reshaped Jewish life. We need to do the same now with the LGBTQ community, with multi-racial Jews, with intermarried families, and with Gen X and the millennials, all of whom have much to teach us.”

Confronting the issue of intermarriage head on, Jacobs praised the bold decision of the late former president of the movement Rabbi Alexander Schindler not only to accept Jews and their non-Jewish spouses into Reform Jewish congregations and that “instead of closing doors we should open our hearts” and said that as a result, there are “phenomenally” committed interfaith families contributing to congregations with their children are being raised as Jews.

Yet, he lamented, “Incredibly enough, however, I still hear Jewish leaders talk about intermarriage as if it were a disease. It is not. It is a result of the open society that no one here wants to close. The sociology is clear enough; anti-Semitism is down; Jews feel welcome; we mix easily with others; Jewish North Americans, researchers say, are more admired overall than any other religious group. So of course you get high intermarriage rates – the norm, incidentally, in the third or fourth generation of other ethnic groups as well.”

Jacobs argued that “In North America today, being “against” intermarriage is like being “against” gravity; you can say it all you want, but it’s a fact of life. And what would you prefer? More anti-Semitism? That people did not feel as comfortable as they do with us?” “

He called it “a veritable gift of God to have the opportunity of a millennium: more non-Jews who want “in” than Jews who want “out.” That has never before happened before and we dare not squander this gift out of fear of what new voices may say and where new opinions may lead us.”

A longtime advocate of reexamining institutions, changing and reinventing them when necessary, most of the concrete changes and initiatives Jacobs has initiated in his time in office highlighted in his speech, have been oriented towards youth. “Two years ago, we squarely faced the staggering statistic that 80 percent of our Movement’s young people are out the door by 12th grade. I pledged to you then that our number one priority would be to turn that wide scale disaffection into deep engagement.”

He vowed “Let me say this as firmly as I can: We’re not going to let go of any of our kids.”

Jacobs announced steps in his ‘campaign for youth engagement’ including expansion of the synagogue youth groups, until now aimed at high school students, to younger kids, expanding them to 6-8th graders, and turning the Reform movement’s summer camps into year-round operations for activities, linked more closely with local congregations. He also announced a new program towards inclusion of people with disabilities in congregational life and steps to link national Reform organizations closer together.

Jacobs also announced that in a move to “realign priorities” the URJ is selling one of the floors in their building at 633 Third Avenue in NYC, “to reinvest our own assets from bricks and mortar to people.”

At the same time, they are moving youth-oriented divisions of the organization onto the Hebrew Union College campus in Greenwich Village to strengthen ties between rabbinical students and youth professionals.

Addressing the topic that has hung like a cloud over the Jewish community much of the year, the Pew study if Jewish Americans, Jacobs said that while the study examines trends, some disturbing, he reminded the audience that “Trends are a wake-up call, not our destiny.”

The report, he said, found Reform to be “not just the largest stream of American Jewry, but larger than all the other streams combined.” The Pew numbers, he said show that “in spite of the many Orthodox outreach efforts, including Chabad's, to bring less observant Jews into greater observance, the data reveal no real success. Modern and ultra-Orthodox Jews finally now appear to be growing in number because, for the first time in a century, they are retaining their members and growing their ranks with large cohorts of children born and educated within. But otherwise, the trend is decidedly away from Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism – toward Reform.”

He said “I believe with the very fiber of my being that young Jews are hungry, but not for a Judaism frozen in a distant time, no matter how loving and warm the purveyors – including Chabad, in particular – might be. We have what people are looking for, but we’ve been reticent to get out and say so, partly because we have yet to articulate an audacious vision of what the world can become.”

Reform Jews, he said “are not the way out, but the way in, the way to being fully Jewish and modern, Jewish and inclusive, Jewish and universal, Jewish and compassionate” and that “the time is long overdue for us to stop using Orthodox Jewish practice as the baseline against which we define our own Jewish practice.”

Jacobs reiterated Reform’s commitment to a secure Israel and continuing American support to the Jewish state. “At the same time, we remain deeply committed to the proposition that a real peace process that brings about a viable Palestinian state and secure borders for Israel is indispensable for Israel’s security and well-being even as it is for Palestinian political aspirations and for U.S and Canadian foreign policy interests throughout this volatile, but vital region. We continue to hold that while Israel cannot control what the Palestinians do, it must ensure that through its own policies and actions, it must not act to undercut the prospects for peace. Settlement expansion threatens such goals.”

Anticipating Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s address to the Biennial on Sunday, Jacobs said “I have no doubt that the Prime Minister will address the pressing issue of Iran. We support the efforts of the international community to find a non-military solution to the very real threat of a nuclear Iran. The next few months will be critical. But let us be clear: all options, including the military option, and the certainty of additional sanctions, should the negotiations fail, must remain on the table lest critical sources of pressure on the Iranians to enter and hold to a diplomatic solution be dissipated.”

Screenshot from URJ Biennial's Twitter page.