September 16, 2019

High Holy Days Q&A with Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Upon his installation as president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) last year, Rabbi Rick Jacobs promised to work toward reimagining and renovating the Reform movement by focusing on engaging young adults in Jewish life, by working with other arms of the movement in seeking out great ideas and by continuing support for Israel’s security.

The former longtime spiritual leader at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., who has a background in modern Jewish dance, is the fourth president of the URJ. As such, he now leads a network of Reform congregations, clergy and professionals across North America. 

Before he appeared as the keynote speaker at the Board of Rabbis of Southern California’s annual High Holy Days conference at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Aug. 13, Jacobs sat down for an interview with the Journal. The 30-minute discussion covered a wide range of topics, from what he has achieved during his time as leader of the Reform movement, to the financial standing of the URJ, to his take on the shopping mall of Jewish life. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Jewish Journal: Given that we’re approaching the High Holy Days, let’s begin there. If you were to give a High Holy Days sermon this year, what would you talk about?

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: I can’t imagine this High Holy Days not giving a sermon that touches on Israel — deeply and constructively and affirmatively. How we resolve some of the pluralism issues in Israel is deeply affecting the Jewish community here and there, and everywhere around the globe. 

JJ: In June 2012, you were installed as the president of the URJ. So it’s been a little more than year. Looking back on this year, what do you think you’ve accomplished? 

RJ: We actually had to identify three core strategic priorities, and they weren’t just out of my head — they were from conversations with lots of folks. … We have lots of synagogues that are literally going under, and they just can’t imagine how to do their work effectively. So we’ve created ways for synagogues to re-imagine and reboot themselves. …

Catalyzing congregational change is key. This is not hierarchical, but the three [core principles] are: catalyzing congregational change, expanding our reach beyond the [synagogue] walls … and engaging the next generation. We don’t have a shot if we don’t get teens, college students, the 20s and 30s crowd — that’s the big waterfront of possibility.

We are literally about to announce in the coming six weeks an entire reframe of everything we do in our movement that touches youth: how we train youth professionals, how we integrate camp and youth groups and congregations and Israel and create a much more serious, integrated web. 

JJ: What’s happening with the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution [an initiative led by the URJ and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion to radically alter the ritual]? 

RJ: It’s pretty far along, and Bradley Solmsen, who is our director of youth engagement, and Isa Aron [of HUC-JIR], are doing quite interesting things. And the L.A. Federation is about to launch its own cohort here in Los Angeles of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution.

JJ: Are you optimistic that the URJ and Hebrew Union College will, with this initiative, revamp b’nai mitzvah and bring new energy into them, new life into them and find meaning in them?

RJ: The answer is absolutely, because if we tell the truth about what’s happening today, we have to wake up and say: It may be sustaining itself for a little longer, but we have an institution that’s right now one of the largest magnets of families to synagogue life, and at the end of the day, we’re not holding many of these families [for] long after it’s over. 

So you have to ask the questions of, “What did those kids get nourished with, and what did their families get nourished with?” And if you tell the truth, most of our congregations across North America, there’s a whole lot of disengagement that goes on.

It’s a peak moment for many families, even if they are going to drop out. But what is sustaining about that inauguration into Jewish life? What is it that will be the linchpin or the beginning connector? If you really tell the truth, it’s pretty hard to say in the current structure that bar and bat mitzvah is achieving what Jewish life needs it to achieve.

JJ: What are other hard truths that people in leadership positions, such as rabbis, might not want to acknowledge but are self-evident? 

RJ: There’s something changing right now in Jewish life, and it’s not just Jewish life, it’s religious life. There’s a real disconnect to institutions; there’s a big disconnect to religious institutions. I don’t think it’s simply a little phase. I think it may be one of those things that’s part of the evolution of North American religious consciousness. 

People like [Harvard political scientist and “Bowling Alone” author] Robert Putnam … [he] does a lot of analysis of what is a member, what does it mean to belong, what does it mean to be part of this community — I don’t believe we’re at a tweaking moment, we’re seeing tectonic plates shifting. 

And it doesn’t, to me, feel ominous; it feels that those are things to duly note and to demand a response. I think there’s also a huge hunger for religious meaning and religious community. It just may not come in the forms that we’re used to delivering on.

JJ: What are your thoughts about synagogues where people are not necessarily attracted to it because it’s Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, but because they’re attracted to the personality of the rabbi? 

RJ: Does any of those have a one-word Hebrew name for their congregation? [He is referring to IKAR in Los Angeles, led by Rabbi Sharon Brous.]  Would that be one of them? 

JJ: [Laughs] Yes, maybe. What are your thoughts on that phenomenon? 

RJ: I think people are hungry for something that is meaningful, and I don’t think they’re hung up on what the name is. It can have the name Chabad, it can have the name “unaffiliated.” It can be a congregation that is just a startup. But if what is going on there is engaging, I think that’s what matters most. Certainly the younger people — their parents, when they join, it’s, “What’s the quality of the place?”

You’ll have people who are joining Reform congregations where they love the vitality, they love the learning, they love the openness, and some people are joining Reconstructionist or some traditional synagogues — it’s more the substance than the name or the brand, which I don’t think is a bad thing. I think it means that people are discerning … 

In Judaism, people are asking, “Would I want to be in a long-term relationship with that community?” Potentially it’s liberating, and at the same time, I think it challenges everyone to be real clear about what is their unique value.

 JJ: What kind of financial standing is URJ on at the moment? I know there are synagogues that can’t pay their dues to the URJ because they can’t afford it and are opting out of the movement. What does that mean for the URJ’s future? 

RJ: First of all, we don’t have very many synagogues that are opting out. Our job is to take care of congregations when they are doing well and when they are not doing well. So if a congregation is really struggling heavily, that’s like an individual at a congregation who comes to you and says, “Rabbi, I just lost my job. I’m having a really hard time. So we’re not going to be members this year.” The rabbi would say, “Now is when you really need to be part of our congregation.”

So we’re seeing many congregations are struggling, and we’re helping them and working with them to figure out what they need to be strengthened. And sometimes it’s financial, sometimes it’s actually to help them really address some of the changes that have not been addressed. We’re certainly seeing a mix of congregations who are in great financial health, others that are more challenged. But we see ourselves as being partners with congregations, bringing them new ways of practicing synagogue life and helping them through the difficult time so we can be part of something larger than even a great congregation in a local community. … 

I think sometimes movements have been very parochial in their own needs, as opposed to seeing the world through the eyes of congregations. So, we see ourselves as partners with those organizations, but there have been hardly any congregations that have left the URJ. 

JJ: What kind of presence does URJ have, in terms of staff and office space, in Los Angeles nowadays? 

RJ: We have a number of really key leaders here from URJ, including Rabbi Janet Offel [rabbinic director for the URJ congregational network on the West Coast] and Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, the co-director of our Just Congregations project [the URJ community-organizing arm], which includes over 160 of our congregations in North America. 

We have office space at the Hebrew Union College downtown, which is also a great model. Because you have Hebrew Union College, which is a great academic institution, and URJ not just sharing space but really thinking about the opportunities. 

And we have staff members who work with our [educational course] “Intro to Judaism.” … We have a web of people who are here. 

 JJ: Going back to the High Holy Days, there are plenty who have mixed feelings about their synagogue. What do you say to the congregant who wants to have a great High Holy Days experience but is ambivalent about his or her shul? 

RJ: A lot of times, it’s not really the rabbi who can automatically create by him- or herself a dynamic engaged community, and sometimes it’s the community that actually needs to be changed.

Sometimes, I hear from my colleagues that they would love to do different things, but they have a leadership that says, “You can’t,” and, “This is what we’ve done. This is what we always do.” So, I don’t think it’s just about going into the mall of Jewish life and running over to Nordstrom and then leaving and going to Macy’s. 

I also think it calls upon congregations to not take their memberships for granted. They will not come for two years or 10 years or 20 years unless there is something there that’s really [keeping them engaged]. 

JJ: So it’s up to the community as much as it up to the rabbi to make the synagogue a place worthwhile? 

RJ: I think we need to tap the talent and the vision of a community as well as the rabbi bringing his own.