Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs: American Jews Are 'Afraid' to Talk About Israel

URJ president also says that because of issues of religion and state such as Anat Hoffman’s recent arrest at the Western Wall, 'North American Jews don’t see an Israel that reflects their core values.'

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says U.S. Jewry is “afraid” to conduct internal discussions regarding Israel.

“Conversations about Israel often get polarized,” Jacobs told Haaretz this week, “so we’ve stopped having them. And that’s the worst kind of disengagement there is.”

In an interview with Haaretz, Jacobs said that American Jews are applying stricter definitions to the meaning of “pro-Israel.” The ever-diminishing circle of who is included in the word “we,” he adds, “has gotten so small that it’s a shame. There is a wider community that cares a great deal about Israel, but they don’t care within the narrow parameters that the organized Jewish world has framed.”

Jacobs, who is the “scholar in residence” at this year’s General Assembly in Baltimore, also believes that U.S. Jewry must insist on a new definition of religion and state in Israel.

“There’s got to be a sense that the State of Israel gives non-Orthodox Jews the same kind of Jewish opportunities. Because of issues such as Anat Hoffman’s arrest at the Kotel, [MK David] Rotem’s conversion bill and the lack of freedom to marry, North American Jews don’t see an Israel that reflects their core values.”

“For decades we said that because of existential issues such as Iran, we cannot have conversations about religion and state. I don’t discount that there are serious challenges, but there is also a serious challenge from within that speaks to the heart and character of what the state is about.”

Jacobs is now seeking to enlist the significant influence of the U.S. Federation structure in order to compel Israel to start a dialogue over these controversial topics. “The Federations can’t ignore this,” he says.

Jacobs’ direct, perhaps even militant appeal to the Federations is a reflection of the fact that he is the first denominational leader and the first Reform Jew to ever serve as the GA’s “scholar in residence.” Five months after replacing the widely-admired Rabbi Eric Yoffe as URJ President, Jacobs appears poised to claim his own place at the forefront of the national leadership of the American Jewish community. In his view, his appointment reflects an underlying realignment of the institutional structure of American Jewry and the beginning of a new and pivotal partnership between Federations and synagogues.

“Federations can be partners for us. They used to think of us as ATMs. You know, we’ll have an event, we’ll serve bad chicken, we’ll honor somebody and then people will give money. But it doesn’t work that way anymore.”

Jacobs believes that both Federations and synagogues “are endangered” and need to “re-imagine” themselves. Federations are investing more and more in the synagogues’ educational abilities, while also serving as catalysts for renewed thinking on the part of the synagogues themselves. "We think our institutions can tackle these challenges together, and we do not feel like we have to pull everything over to us.”

“In Boston, 60 percent of interfaith families raise their children as Jewish, compared to 30 percent nationwide. And Barry Shrage (president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies) asks: What is the difference? Is it the Red Sox? No, we actually made synagogue and Federation work together; we blanketed the community in outreach and dialogue and actually made it attractive for interfaith families to raise their kids as Jewish. The demographics of North America are shifting; we have more interfaith families. So what do you do? Do you strengthen the barriers so that they don’t come in?”

“In the old days, the Reform Movement used to gather with itself to decide what to do and then do it. But the truth is that more people are now outside the synagogues and outside the Federations. That is the reality. We have to figure out how to get to those big public spaces of Jewish life, places where it’s not just the unaffiliated who are there, but the uninspired.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs at his installation ceremony at Brooklyn's Congregation Beth Elohim.Credit: Clark Jones / URJ
The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.Credit: Ben Fink Shapiro

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