Rabbi Richard Jacobs tapped to lead Reform movement

Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the spiritual leader of the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., is the choice to become the new leader of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The selection of Jacobs to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who announced last year that he would be retiring in 2012 after 16 years at the helm of American Jewry’s largest religious movement, still requires formal approval by the union’s board of directors, which meets in June.

“We are poised for a great new chapter for the unfolding of our movement,” Jacobs told JTA in an interview Tuesday shortly before the union’s formal announcement. The Reform movement, he said, is about “finding new ways to grow and respond to Jewish life.”

One of his main areas of focus, Jacobs said, would be to revitalize synagogues and engage with young professional Jews who are not involved in Jewish communal life.

“Synagogues cannot wait for people to walk into their buildings,” he said. “The synagogue has to walk into the public square and engage people, particularly Jews in their 20s and 30s. People still crave and need a deep sense of community.”

Jacobs, who has been at the Westchester Reform Temple in suburban New York since 1991, also is a board member of the New Israel Fund, the American Jewish World Service and UJA-Federation of New York.

He is working on a doctorate in ritual dance at New York University. Jacobs used to be a dancer and choreographer with the Avodah Dance Ensemble.

Reform looking at ways to reinvent the movement

After the Reform movement broadcast online its first session devoted to reassessing itself, in mid-November, the comments poured in.

One viewer suggested that the movement create a network of schools, camps, shuls and seminaries focused on “tikkun olam,” the Jewish injunction to repair the world. Another said the movement should train five times as many rabbis and cantors to provide more entryways into Judaism through music, social action and prayer.

Another wrote to express concern about the lack of civility in Jewish discourse, particularly concerning Israel. One asked how Jews could use media and technology to create community.

It is exactly the sort of grass-roots input that members of the reassessment team, called the Reform Think Tank, want as they take a hard look at where American Jewry’s largest religious denomination is today and where it ought to go in the future.

“Five years from now, congregations won’t look like they do today,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the longtime president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA in an interview.

Yoffie, who plans to retire in mid-2012, is one of the major players in the movement’s reassessment project.

The project is online and offline, top down and bottom up. Each of the three major Reform institutions—the synagogue movement, rabbinical association and seminary—nominated 10 members to lead the 18-month discussion, which will be punctuated by four live streaming forums devoted to specific topics. Each is being archived online at urj.org/thinktank.

The first, held Nov. 21 in Los Angeles, dealt with the impact of social media on religious life. About 300 individual viewers watched in addition to about 50 watching parties at Reform congregations. They could follow a blog and Twitter feed along with the broadcast, and sent in comments and questions to help direct the conversation. The team received more than 200 comments and questions even before the first forum, an organizer said.

The second forum is scheduled for April in Cincinnati, a third for December 2011, and the final for March 2012.

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Yoffie said.

“It’s kind of scary,” said Steven Windmueller, a professor at the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and one of the co-organizers of the project. “Everything’s on the table. If we reinvent this whole thing, what will it look like? We’re not moving from one place to another in linear fashion—we’re experimenting.”

Demographic changes, financial challenges, new family structures and the changing nature of social media and how people connect to each other are just some of the pressures forcing change upon a movement founded 200 years ago in Germany but that developed its institutions in North America following World War II, Yoffie said.

Back then, the world and American Jewry had different needs and interests, he said.

“We are primarily a suburban, family-oriented movement,” Yoffie told JTA.

That’s one thing that must change if Reform Judaism is to appeal to the next generation, according to Yoffie.

“We need more synagogues in the major metropolitan centers,” he said.

The recent economic downturn already has forced changes, including the dismantling of much of the Union for Reform Judaism itself, where consultants have replaced many staff departments. That was in the works already, Reform leaders insist; the recession just advanced the move quicker and gives a greater urgency to the reassessment project.

“This is not an ivory tower think tank,” said Rachel Tasch, president of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and one of the 33 leaders selected for the Reform Think Tank. “We’re trying to make it a grass-roots thing, so people have a voice, a way to have real input.”

Those who want to participate in the project can send in their comments anytime over the next year and a half. Pulpit rabbis involved with the project will take the conversation to their congregations and “take the pulse of the community” before the next forum, Windmueller said. The team also will consult with youth groups, synagogue presidents and other Reform activists.

“Most of the questions we received were in line with the questions we ourselves have,” Tasch said after the first forum. “The nature of community in a world where everything is online; the tension between face-to-face communication and technology; the nature of membership; what does it mean to belong in a world where everything is out there and available?”

Yoffie believes that synagogues will continue to be the foundation of Jewish life in North America but must evolve radically to adjust to how people communicate and relate via technology.

“Social media can be contentious,” he told JTA, “and congregations are not contentious places. It’s where you go for comfort and support. So how do we deal with the contention of modern media while preserving the congregation as a place of menschlikeit and mutual respect?

“The truth is, we have to take risks if we’re not going to be irrelevant.”

Lay Leaders Keep Synagogues Going

During the week, Dr. David Kolinsky practices family medicine in Pacific Grove, a sleepy Northern California coastal town. But on Saturday mornings he dons his tallit and leads Shabbat services for Congregation B’nai Torah, a Conservative congregation in neighboring Monterey.

Kolinksy serves as spiritual leader and president of B’nai Torah, which has been lay led since it broke off from a nearby Reform temple 13 years ago.

Visiting rabbis have passed through, but with just 24 dues-paying members, there’s no budget to hire even a student rabbi. The congregation also lacks a building — it rents a small room in a local church, where it stores its two Torah scrolls and where, every Saturday morning, the stalwarts wait to see whether a minyan will show up.

“Probably half our members are happy without a rabbi, and the rest would like one if we could afford it,” Kolinsky says. “Many synagogues have gone through a process of professionalization, where unless you do something of professional grade, you have no right to represent your community before God. Here, everyone does their best. If someone wants to try, the answer is always, come up and do it.”

Among U.S. congregations, B’nai Torah is still in a tiny minority: Most congregations from all streams have rabbis, unless they’re too small or isolated to attract one. Those that can’t afford full-time clergy usually hire visiting or student rabbis.

But the number of lay-led congregations is on the rise nationwide, movement leaders say. Much of that is due to economics — it’s expensive to hire rabbis and cantors, and many older congregations in economically depressed regions have dwindling memberships.

“It’s costing more and more each year to hire a rabbi, so congregations of 100 to 150 families are finding it harder,” says Jay Weiner, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s director for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

Demographic change also creates congregations in new parts of the country, as young Jews move west and north, and their parents retire south. And some congregations consciously choose to forgo clergy; they just want to run their own show.

“By and large, the congregations that don’t have rabbis do it because they don’t have a choice,” said Rabbi Victor Appell, a small-congregation specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). “Because of their size or location, it’s a challenge to find a rabbi to serve them. But that puts them in the position of becoming self-reliant. If you asked many of them now whether they’d want a rabbi, I’m not sure they’d say yes.”

According to Jewish law, congregations don’t need rabbis. U.S. law requires clergy (or other state-sanctioned representatives) to officiate at a marriage, but other than that, any Jew — male in Orthodox circles, male or female in other congregations — can lead services, proclaim a bar or bat mitzvah, name a baby or run a funeral.

Still, most congregations choose to hire a professional.

“It’s the preferred course of action,” said Steven Huberman, director of regional and extension activities for the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ). “Congregations do prefer professionally trained clergy. They look to them as pastor, spiritual stimulant, lifestyle catalyst — it’s difficult for lay leaders to do all that on a regular basis.”

Congregations also turn to rabbis to decide points of halachah, or Jewish law. Clergy can mediate between warring factions in a congregation, or decide delicate questions such as the role of interfaith families, or whether it’s time to take down or put up a mechitzah, which divides men and women at Orthodox services.

The number of lay-led congregations varies from movement to movement. Roughly speaking, the Reconstructionist movement has the highest percentage, the Orthodox Union has the least and the Reform and Conservative movements fall in the middle.

Rabbi Moshe Krupka, executive director of programming for the Orthodox Union, says “very few” of his 900-plus congregations operate without rabbis. They are mostly newly formed congregations that hire rabbis as soon as they can afford it.

“In the Orthodox world that puts a high premium on Torah, mitzvot and spiritual growth to have someone who will infuse the community with a sense of mission and scholarship; it willy-nilly becomes a necessity [to have a rabbi],” he said.

The highest percentage of lay-led congregations is in the Reconstructionist movement. Since its inception, the movement has emphasized the importance of empowering lay leadership and looks at rabbis more as educators and consultants than as pulpit heads.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit, director of outreach and external affiliations for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, says 30 to 40 of its 107 congregations operate without rabbis. Even so, he believes many of those congregations would hire rabbis if they could afford it. The Reconstructionist movement has also inherited some havurahs, or lay-led minyans, from the 1960s and ’70s, Zevit said, though most havurahs don’t affiliate with a movement.

Very few Conservative congregations function without rabbinic support, according to Huberman. He says the USCJ is unable to place rabbis in only about 5 percent of its 750 affiliated congregations.

The percentage is slightly higher in the Reform movement. Between 75 to 100 of the 900-plus congregations in the URJ don’t have full-time rabbis, according to Appell.

Size matters: Most lay-led congregations are very small, which in the Reform and Conservative movement generally means less than 150 members.

Place matters, too: Lay-led congregations are more numerous in regions with smaller Jewish populations, “more often in the South, sometimes in the Midwest,” Appell said.

Many of these congregations used to be larger and more prosperous. They were built in the late 19th or early 20th centuries by Jewish merchants and professionals who followed the general population shift westward. When the industries supporting these towns dried up, so did their Jewish communities. The children and grandchildren of the original settlers moved to cities with greater job opportunities, leaving behind tiny congregations maintained by a handful of elderly Jews.

“You have congregations dying out, entire towns that have disappeared,” said Rabbi Lawrence Jackofsky, director of the URJ’s Southwest Council. About one-quarter of the 82 congregations in his region are lay led, though most of them used to have rabbis. Jackofsky said some of his congregations can afford rabbis, but can’t find candidates willing to move to their isolated towns.

Reform and Conservative leaders say the much-publicized shortage of non-Orthodox rabbis doesn’t really factor into the equation.

“It’s mainly larger congregations looking for second rabbis who are affected” by the shortage, said Emily Grotta, marketing director for the URJ.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of USCJ, says there are actually enough Conservative rabbis being ordained to serve all the movement’s congregations, it’s simply that fewer are taking up pulpits.

The 90-year-old Conservative Congregation B’nai Isaac in Aberdeen, S.D., lost its last rabbi 30 years ago. With just three couples and a few single members left, they still manage to hold Friday night services — when Bea and Herschel Premack are in town.

Herschel Premack, who had his bar mitzvah in the synagogue in 1940, leads services for the congregation. When he and Bea go to California every winter, the shul shuts down.

The congregation, which held its last bat mitzvah 15 years ago, often thinks about closing down, but Bea Premack said B’nai Isaac serves an important educational role in the small Midwestern city.

“We’ve always had the synagogue open for Christian groups, so they can come and learn about Judaism,” she said.

Another kind of demographic change is creating new lay-led congregations, particularly in the fast-growing regions of the West and Pacific Northwest. As younger Jews pour into these areas looking for work and personal fulfillment, congregations are popping up.

Some of these are university towns that attract Jewish students and professors. Others are resort communities, or towns near computer jobs, research facilities or military bases.

“Sometimes enough people in these outlying areas get to know each other and realize there are enough Jews to organize a synagogue,” says Rabbi Alan Henkin, URJ’s Pacific Southwest director. Henkin estimates that one-third of his 85 congregations operate without full-time rabbis.

Then there’s the phenomenon of members splitting off from existing congregations to practice Judaism their own way. Weiner describes a lay-led Conservative congregation in Olympia, Wash., that broke away from its Reform parent congregation because some members wanted a kosher kitchen.

B’nai Torah, the congregation in Monterey, also split off from a local Reform temple to lead its own, Conservative services. Seven members who showed up one recent Shabbat say they prefer the nonhierarchical structure and personal involvement.

“We had a visitor who said he’d never been asked to come up to the Torah before because he doesn’t read Hebrew,” said Devorah Harris, who grew up Reform in Minnesota and led a women’s havurah in the San Francisco Bay Area before joining B’nai Torah four years ago. “We encourage everyone to come up. We help them.”

Change also occurs in the opposite direction: After four decades as a lay-led Reconstructionist congregation, Dor Hadash in Pittsburgh has just hired its first ordained rabbi, who will visit once a month.

Some lay-led congregations consciously decide not to hire clergy.

“I’m not sure I miss having a rabbi,” said Jackie Gish of Reform Congregation Hugat Haverim in Glendale, a lay-led group of 30 to 35 people that split off from its parent Reform temple five years ago. Most Hugat Haverim members are in their 50s or 60s with grown children, so there’s no religious school, just monthly Shabbat services.

Congregations like hers serve a purpose, Gish said. Some Jews don’t want to meet every Friday night. They don’t want to shell out a lot of money for religious school or feel the pressure of capital campaigns, but they still want the warmth and closeness of being part of a Jewish community.

Tolerance and a respect for diversity are required to keep lay-led congregations going, particularly in smaller towns where they often have to serve Jews with very different backgrounds and observance levels.

Weiner points to Conservative Congregation Emanuel in Reno. The congregation is egalitarian, but a mechitzah goes up for Shacharit services because the lay leader in charge comes from a more Orthodox background. The other members tolerate it.

“You have to admire lay leaders who keep these congregations going,” he said.


Yoffie Emphasizes Need to Forge Links

Reform Jews cannot go it alone.

That was the message at the Reform movement’s 67th biennial in Minneapolis last week.

Despite numerically dominating the North American Jewish landscape, Reform Jews must reach out to other Reform Jews in Israel and Eastern Europe and fight anti-Semitism by forging closer ties to Christians, said the movement’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

"There is no such thing as Lone Ranger Judaism," Yoffie said at the convention of the newly named Union for Reform Judaism, delivering the keynote address to a Shabbat morning service of 4,500 delegates.

The address marked less of a philosophical sea change for Reform Judaism than Yoffie solidifying an agenda he has promoted since ascending to the top of the largest American stream of Judaism in 1996. Since that time, Yoffie has spearheaded calls both to infuse the movement with more tradition and to invigorate ritual through participation.

On Shabbat, he underscored his points with a distinctively progressive twist. Since God made the covenant at Mount Sinai with the Jewish people, he said, "every religious Jew has understood that she cannot fully observe Torah and reclaim the holy moment at Sinai unless she does so as part of klal Yisrael," the people of Israel.

First, Yoffie said, the movement would invigorate its support for Reform congregations in Israel, in addition to Reform Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Yoffie urged members specifically to raise money to help build two new Reform synagogues in Modi’in and in Mevasseret Zion, both led by women rabbis, while also helping train Reform Jews in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to launch new communities.

He also urged the movement to support Israeli students at the Jerusalem branch of the movement’s seminary, the New York-based Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, with two-year scholarships and two years of post-ordination salary. To raise such funding, Yoffie asked each of the movement’s 920 congregations to ask each member to donate $18 annually — "about the cost of two movie tickets."

Seeking inspiration for this work, Yoffie looked no further than the ultra Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement, which has built outposts throughout the world.

"It is hard for me to say this, but I will say it nonetheless: We must follow the example of Chabad," Yoffie said. "I disagree with Chabad about practically everything, and I am appalled by the messianic fervor that has flared up in their midst. But I envy the selflessness of their young men and women who fan out across the world to serve Jewish communities in distress."

A Chabad spokesman, Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, declined to comment on Yoffie’s remarks.

Yoffie also called on Reform Jews to rebuild the bridges they have forged with non-Jews as a path to fighting anti-Semitism and promoting Middle East peace.

While Reform Jews led interfaith efforts for decades, those ties have declined recently, and in "many communities, little survives beyond Thanksgiving services and model seders," he said.

Yoffie urged synagogue leaders to invite neighboring churches to join in studying a seven-session course on biblical texts and the religious and political issues surrounding Israel.

Whether synagogues can forge those ties remains to be seen, but his call came with joint endorsements by the major Protestant group, the National Council of Churches of Christ; the Presbyterian Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church; the United Methodist Church, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Reform Jews know that our community is ill served by the embrace of narrow tribalism," Yoffie said.

Yoffie also urged Reform Jews to look inward. He called on members to study Torah for 10 minutes daily, saying those who complete 100 hours of study using a "Ten Minutes of Torah" Web site will be honored at the group’s 2005 biennial in Houston.

Aiming for the youth market, Yoffie also unveiled a "Packing for College" kit for 11th and 12th graders, a nine-session, two-year course about choosing a college and drafting a "personal Jewish action plan."

In the political realm, Yoffie underscored the movement’s longtime support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, urged a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and called for dismantling new settlement outposts. Yoffie said he is raising the issue because of what he called "the threat that the settlements pose to Israel’s sovereign survival."

With the number of Jewish settlers doubling from 115,000 to 230,000 in one decade, the Jewish and Palestinian populations are becoming so "intertwined" that separation will soon prove "impossible," he said.

After three years’ of intensified violence, "there is a sense of desperation" about how the right-wing Likud government of Ariel Sharon is handling the situation, he added.

"I don’t understand, where are they moving?" he said. "The settlers are turning Israel over to the Arabs. — JB

‘My Judaism Is the Civilization’

Amos Oz, Hebrew novelist, secular prophet and self-proclaimed “non-synagogue” Jew, has joined his local Reform congregation in Arad, the Negev desert town where he has lived since leaving Kibbutz Hulda a decade ago.

In reaction to last month’s massive haredi demonstration in Jerusalem against the Supreme Court, he joined other leading writers and intellectuals in urging fellow liberals to support Israel’s fledgling Reform and Conservative movements. So far, about 700 callers have registered their solidarity, and the Reform movement is launching a new recruitment drive.

In a wide-ranging interview, Amos Oz explains why he was one of the first to sign up — and why the Arad congregation should not expect to see much of him.

ERIC SILVER: If you are not a believer, why have you and your wife, Nily, joined a synagogue?

AMOS OZ: It is a measure of solidarity with the Conservative and Reform movements, which are now being discriminated against in Israel. They are the focus of a fierce attack from the ultra-Orthodox.

ES: Have you been affiliated with any kind of synagogue before?

AO: No, never. I am not a synagogue Jew, and I have not become a synagogue Jew. I shall participate only very occasionally. My affiliation is an act of solidarity, not an act of a born-again Reform Jew.

ES: You have been accused of hypocrisy for joining a religious community when you don’t believe in the religion.

AO:As I said, it’s an act of support; it’s an act of endorsement. I find the Conservative and Reform version of Judaism closer to my own than the Orthodox.

ES: What does being a Jew mean to you? What place does the religious tradition have in your Judaism?

AO: My Judaism is the civilization, of which the religion is only one of many components. There is not even a proper Hebrew word for religion. Dat does not mean religion; it means a body of law and customs. The entire concept of associating a Jewish civilization, a Jewish culture, exclusively with the synagogue is one of the manifestations of a stagnation dating back to the 17th century.

ES: Many Jews who share your lack of religious belief still maintain certain traditions, like lighting candles on Friday night, circumcision, bar and bat mitzvah. What part have such things played in your life?

AO: I maintain those traditions which I like and find meaningful. I maintain them because they are part of my beloved heritage.

ES: So why join a Reform congregation now?

AO: We are witnessing a crusade on the state of Israel, which is primarily over the exclusivity which the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox claim. I don’t think anybody deserves exclusivity over Judaism.

ES: But if you are not religious, what does it matter to you?

AO: This is my heritage. I am a Jew, and Judaism is not a religion. It’s a culture; it’s a civilization. Here are some people claiming exclusivity, and they intend to exclude anyone who does not treat Judaism their way. By the way, they intend to exclude not only the Conservatives and Reform. They intend to exclude my kind of Jew as well. And they intend this exclusion, using my taxpayer’s money, and I don’t like it.

ES: Their demonstration was a peaceful protest against the Supreme Court. Why shouldn’t they have the right to demonstrate just like anyone else?

AO: You mentioned the word hypocrisy earlier. That demonstration was a manifestation of hypocrisy because it was not at all about the Supreme Court. It was about the law of the state; it was about who runs the state. Does the state belong to its citizens, or should it be controlled by the rabbis?

ES: Those citizens are going to the polls in May. Jewish control of the whole of the ancient Land of Israel is receding as the central issue dividing right and left. A right-wing government has handed land to the Palestinians. Do you see a new opportunity for the secular politicians, of both camps, to curb the bargaining power of the religious parties?

AO: This is highly likely. The Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox are among the first to realize that they no longer hold the balance between hawks and doves, because there is no longer an abyss between hawks and doves. This is one of the reasons why their leaders are trying to establish hasty faits accomplis in order to change the Israeli reality.

ES: Do you agree with some commentators, who argue that, despite all the appearances, the religious are actually losing the battle?

AO: I am not sure that they are losing, but I’m quite confident that they are not gaining it. The entire Orthodox Jewish electorate was represented in the first Knesset in 1949 by 19 members. Fifty years later, they are represented by 23. That means that once every 14 years, they gained one more seat. At this rate, in 800 years, they will become a majority. After the elections, it will be time for the major secular parties to get together and conclude the conflict with the Arabs and start setting rules of the game for the state of Israel.

ES: What kind of state do you want to see?

AO: A place of thriving Judaism in all its forms, a place of thriving culture, a place of thriving creativity, in all its forms and all its manifestations.