Opinion: President Jacobs

For many years now, a central narrative of American Jewish life has been the resurgence of Orthodoxy. Surveys show booming populations. Orthodox adults are nudging Jewish voting patterns to the right. In Israel, black-hat baby-making is as productive as a Chinese iPad factory. As American (and European and Middle Eastern) culture experiences a fundamentalist reawakening, so, it stands to reason, would Jewish culture.

But there’s good reason to challenge the assumption that Reform is static and Orthodoxy growing and dynamic, that Orthodoxy is ascendant and Reform is moribund.

The best evidence of that is Rabbi Rick Jacobs. 

In January, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) installed Jacobs as its new president, to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie in running the congregational arm of the Reform movement.

“In two years,” Jacobs declared at his induction speech at the organization’s biennial conference in Washington, D.C,  “we will have shaped a new URJ that will become the creative force for shaping the Jewish future in the coming years together.”

Those are big words, the kind you hear from every Jewish organization head and rabbi at every banquet from here to the 92nd Street Y.

But Jacobs, both by track record and talent, seems to be one of those leaders who can actually deliver.

He was part of a cabal of Reform rabbis who fought for greater accountability, and excellence, from the 1.5-million-member, 900-synagogue URJ.  In a classic case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, he ended up getting tapped to run it.

I met Jacobs for the first time last week, while he was o.n his inaugural swing through L.A.

We ducked into a small room at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform Jewish seminary located near USC. Jacobs, who is 55, is one of the taller Jews you’ll meet. He trained as a dancer and choreographer. With his close-cropped gray hair, dark gray business suit, green tie and knit kippah, he looks like a very sincere, intense Modern Orthodox businessman.

Jacobs’ Jewish background, it turns out, contains multitudes. He was raised in Tustin, Calif., survived Hebrew school — “I suffered through Hebrew school,” he said — and sparked to Jewish life at the Reform movement’s Camp SWIG. Labor leader Caesar Chavez and the protest singer Joan Baez came to the camp to speak and perform.

“It turned the lights on,” Jacobs told me.

While spending his junior year abroad studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Jacobs fell under the tutelage of the Orthodox Rabbi David Hartman.

“All of a sudden, the intellectual vitality of Judaism became so compelling to me,” he said.

Jacobs explored the different streams of Jewish life but was drawn to the legacy of social justice that Reform Judaism has always embraced. At the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, he founded and directed the first homeless shelter in a New York City synagogue and spearheaded an interfaith effort to build 1,200 low-income housing units in Brooklyn.

Jacobs eventually became senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y. There, he put into practice innovative Hebrew school, rabbinic and liturgical programs, and oversaw construction of a LEED-certified green sanctuary, complete with a solar-powered ner tamid or eternal light, over the Torah ark. He became active in American Jewish World Service, traveled to Darfur and joined — and has since resigned from—the rabbinic advisory committee of JStreet, the left-of-center Israel lobby.

That affiliation provoked a very minor dustup upon Jacobs’ nomination, prompting an array of pro-Israel activists from all points of view to come to Jacobs’ defense.

“No congregation in this country was more at the cutting edge than Rick’s,” Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center told me. “People were outright joyous when Rick was chosen.”

Jacob told me his plans for the movement revolve around finding innovative ways to bring Jewish literacy, inspiration, spirituality and social action back into Reform synagogue life. For those of us who grew up in the Reform movement of the 1970s and ’80s, which had all the spirituality of a hatpin, this seems like a tall order.

But Jacobs, who told me he has meditated since he was 16 years old, wants to find ways to bring authentic Jewish traditions of meditation, music and dance into the liturgy. 

At a time when the cost of synagogue membership is a daunting obstacle to Jewish life, he also wants to find other ways to reach people. In Scarsdale, he hired a rabbinic intern with the instructions never to set foot in synagogue. The intern taught classes and engaged in social action projects in the community.

“There’s a lot going on that’s breaking institutional barriers,” he said.

I asked Jacobs if he thinks the stakes for success go beyond his movement. Is it a coincidence, I wondered, that most American Jews, despite their wealth and success, remain largely politically liberal, and that most American Jews who affiliate do so as Reform? Are American Jews Reform because they are liberal, or are they liberal because they are Reform?  Has the organized Reform movement sustained, codified and institutionalized American political liberalism?

Jacobs thought for while, but resisted any political characterization. He believes in a Reform movement that takes the words of the prophet Isaiah to heart.

“You can argue what the best ways are to achieve opportunity and social justice, but you can’t argue that it is a fundamental Jewish responsibility,” Jacobs told me. “We’ve been a movement that has stood up.”

And now, it’s his turn.