The New Leader of Reform Judaism: A Zionist and Lover of Israel

As American Jews gradually distance themselves from Israel, the Reform Movement - considered the greatest reservoir of liberals in the Jewish community - has taken steps to emphasize the importance of its connection to Israel. Meet Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism in the United States.

Shlomo Shamir
Shlomo Shamir
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Shlomo Shamir
Shlomo Shamir

Reuben Jacob (Richard) Jacobs, known to all as Rick, will only take up the position of president of the Reform Movement in the summer of 2012. But the report of his appointment as head of the largest denomination in American Jewry - estimated to be some 1.5-million strong – sparked a wave of praise and compliments.

"New York Rabbi Known as Innovator Is Picked to Lead Reform Jews,"
ran the headline in The New York Times, which gave a favorable report of his election. "The Scarsdale Dynamo" was the admiring response from The Jewish Week, a weekly published in New York City, referring to the achievements of Jacobs, who for the past two decades has been serving as the rabbi and spiritual leader of the Westchester Reform Temple and the Reform community in Scarsdale, New York. He is an original and unique rabbinical figure, says a colleague.

But the rabbis who lead the movement believe that Jacobs' decisive advantage in the contest for the position, which pitted him against seven other rabbis, was his reputation as a Zionist activist who insists on nurturing close ties with Israel. In that, they say, Jacobs will continue the vision of current president Eric Yoffie, who placed Zionism at the head of the Reform Movement's list of priorities, making it an issue of central importance. During his term, Yoffie concentrated on two things: expanding the circle of Torah study and the values of Jewish tradition among members of the movement, and strengthening the centrality of Zionism in Reform discourse.

Ami Hirsch, the Reform rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan and one of Jacobs' friends, says that he's especially pleased with Jacobs' Zionism, and believes he will continue in the Zionist tradition of Yoffie and add to the Zionist energy in the movement.

Dancer or rabbi

Rabbi Jacobs, 55, who speaks fluent Hebrew, firmly maintained in a conversation last week that he is first and foremost a Zionist and a lover of Israel. And to leave no room for doubt, the rabbi emphasizes that his love for the Jewish state and his loyalty to it operate on an emotional and fundamental level, independent of anything and uninfluenced by the nature or policy of the country's leadership.

His ties to Israel date from when he was a young man studying in Jerusalem. Jacobs was ordained in 1982 by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York. Later, he spent almost 20 years he living in Jerusalem off and on; he studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute, which awarded him the title of senior rabbinic fellow. Now Jacobs has an apartment in Jerusalem, and he and his family visit Israel often. His congregation in Scarsdale started a "sister-congregation" in Mevaseret Zion, under the leadership of Rabbi Maya Leibowitz, the first Israeli-born woman to be ordained as a Reform rabbi.

Jacobs also initiated the establishment of a Reform temple in Modiin. "Ties with Israel are an inseparable part of my world," he says.

In a sermon he delivered last Yom Kippur and that was disseminated in the community, Jacobs firmly declared that if you love Israel, you must support it and stand at its side without asking questions. According to one of Jacobs' rabbinical colleagues, he later told his congregation that they should not expect a wave of immigration to Israel from among the members of the Reform movement. But there is no question that under his leadership Israel will benefit from the firm and unreserved support of this leading denomination in the American Jewish community.

If the choice of Jacobs evoked enthusiastic reactions and sky-high expectations among the leadership of the movement and his rabbinical colleagues, there are also those who are worried about the fact that he is a member of the cabinet of the leftist U.S. Jewish lobby, J Street, and is among the senior and veteran activists of the New Israel Fund.

A reform rabbi who is active in a New York community says that he is aware that leaders of two large and leading Jewish organizations are not happy with the fact that the president of the Reform movement will be identified even partially and marginally with J Street. While they would not dare to question his appointment, he says, they will keep close tabs on the patterns of his involvement in political issues in the framework of the Jewish establishment.

Jacobs himself sees no problem in his connections with J Street. He maintains that loving and constructive criticism are a part of life, and caring comes with a duty to express even unpleasant truths. But Jacobs wants to emphasize that he was opposed to, and even angry about J Street's demand that the U.S. administration hold off on vetoing the United Nations Security Council ruling on Israel's settlements. In his opinion, that was a mistake and a serious step to take.

Jacobs, tall and thin, was a dancer in his youth. While living in Israel he studied at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, and considered a career as a dancer. But ultimately, he says, he felt a need to dedicate his life to a religious and spiritual mission, and chose the rabbinate.

From Darfur to Haiti

A conversation with Jacobs and descriptions by his rabbinical colleagues portray him as a rabbi and spiritual guide who is aware of the challenges to the movement presented by the modern and progressive world, challenge that must be confronted. His temple in Scarsdale, one of the largest in the Reform movement, is known as the "green temple" that has adopted environmentally friendly principles and requirements.

Human beings are God's family, and it's a big family that we have to take care of, in words and deeds, says Jacobs. And he really does act on this: After the earthquake in Haiti last year, Jacobs flew to the ravaged country as a member of a delegation whose job it was to examine the results of the rescue operation's activities. In 2005, he went on an extended visit to Darfur and studied the living conditions of the refugees living in a camp on the Chad border.

Upon his return from Darfur, he initiated a fundraising campaign, collecting more than $250 million in donations. Rabbi Yoffie characterizes him as a person who cares. Jacobs is a rabbi who succeeded in combining activity for tikkun olam (improving the world) with an effort at tikkun adam (improving human beings), he says. Yoffie notes that Jacobs came to the leadership of the Reform movement with an important qualitative advantage: He came straight from the field, from the leadership of a large, lively and successful community, and he's familiar with its daily reality.

Jacobs is planning well for his new position, and the list of urgent goals that he has set for himself is long. He refuses to accept the pessimistic assessment that the U.S. Reform Movement is shrinking, and believes that the decline in the number of members stems from the economic crisis that prevented them from meeting temple membership costs, which can be as high as $2,000-$3,000 annually.

If synagogues are going to engage the next generation, Jacobs told reporters, they're going to have to leave their walls. He said that most temples rely on a "please walk in, please walk in" approach, which no longer works, and that synagogues need to serve even those Jews who are not members. Jacobs intends to expand the framework of Reform temples and to attract teenagers and young people.

Jacobs is among the founders and heads of the "group of 18" - dozens of Reform rabbis who favor aggressive activity in the movement. These rabbis claim that the congregations and the temples must be built up from groups of Jews who do not belong to the Reform community. They aspire to establish local youth movements; one of the group's major goals is to help congregations financially.

Jacobs is in trouble, a Reform rabbi smilingly says, but qualifies it by saying that these are troubles that many people would wish on themselves. Jacobs, he says, is creating great expectations of a renewed breakthrough in the movement and new conquests in the community.

Rabbi Reuben Jacob (Richard) Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in the United States.Credit: Union for Reform Judaism



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