September 18, 2019

What makes Rabbi Rick Jacobs tick?

In December, 5,000 Jews from around the country gathered in San Diego for the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Biennial conference. Overseeing it all was longtime pulpit rabbi-turned-URJ president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs. In these excerpts from an interview with the Journal, he talks about audacious hospitality, giving up his family’s business to pursue the rabbinate and why the Reform movement should have the same goals as Chabad.

In your 16-page address to the Biennial, you talked about a lot of positive things happening within the movement. What’s keeping you up at night? 

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: I’m a person much happier being asked what gets me up in the morning. But you can’t have your eyes open and see what’s going on in Jewish life if you don’t have deep concern — I do. But I like to channel worry into constructive, productive action. People sit around and worry, “Why don’t young people care about being Jewish?” I don’t want to spend five minutes thinking about that. I interact every day with people who do care, and I think our job is to discover and teach how we could all care more. 

Isn’t that avoiding reality a little bit?

RJ: Reality is the place where you start. At my first congregation, people would come up to me during the epidemic of homelessness on the streets of New York City and say, “What are you doing for the homeless?” I said, “You meant to ask, what are we doing for the homeless?” I said, “What are we doing? Zero. What could we do? Let’s put our thoughts together.” And we actually opened a homeless shelter — four nights a week, the homeless slept in our synagogue, in our social hall, for 30 years. 

Your concept of “audacious hospitality” is a theory of inclusion some have referred to as “big-tent Judaism.” But if the tent is open to anybody and everybody, what obligations or responsibilities does the tradition require in order to be “in”?

RJ: I would not say that the tent is infinite. There are things we don’t stand for. Once, when I was leading a bar mitzvah service, a very traditional group of people walked in wearing black fedoras — Orthodox Jews walking into a Reform synagogue — and one of the guys said to me, “Would it be OK if we just ask the women to sit on this side and the men on that side?” And I said, “I actually can’t do that.” I can give you a hundred examples of where we will not compromise who we are.

Do you think the URJ is leading today as it did in the past? 

RJ: We’ve been the backbone of social justice in America. One of my predecessors, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, carried a Torah scroll with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. Barack Obama spoke to our Biennial in D.C. two years ago and said, “I would not be the president of the United States were it not for the Religious Action Center that helped to blaze a trail. …” So we’ve been leading. And that’s not just talking about our role within Judaism — that’s our role in the community and in the world. When people say, “I want the Reform movement to stay focused on religion and not do all the political stuff,” I say, “You want to pull out social justice from Judaism? You can, but you basically don’t have Judaism left.” 

You come from a family with a long established business background. It was a different choice for you to go into the rabbinate. What called you? 

RJ: I grew up working for my parents’ furniture business, and their hopes, believe me, were that I would go into the business. I carry around my grandfather’s card in my pocket. When he was getting started in the furniture business, he developed a web of relationships that was so full of trust, integrity and warmth that when my mother’s sister’s husband died and she had to drive across country with kids, my grandfather gave my aunt one of these cards and said, “If you get into any kind of trouble, you go into any furniture store and you just show them this card and they will take care of you.” And my grandfather was not a boastful man; he actually knew that his good name — [Theodore Baumritter, a founder of the home furnishing company Ethan Allen Inc.] — was the thing that was most important. I carry that [card] around to remind me. I just couldn’t see myself being in the business world. I wanted to be a serious student of Judaism. 

What about Judaism so inspired you? 

RJ: Rabbi David Hartman was my mentor and teacher for 30 years. He’s the reason I became a rabbi. When I [spent] my junior year abroad at Hebrew University, he had just made aliyah, and he was teaching a class on Maimonides, Halevi and Spinoza. And I walked into this seminar, and here’s this Orthodox guy, running around the classroom — he is gesticulating; he is hysterically funny; he’s profound; he challenges everything I thought and assumed — and I’m just drawn in. When I told him I was going to become a Reform rabbi, I assumed he was going to be really angry, like, “Why did I waste my time with you?” But he was so proud. 

How did your family respond when you chose this path?

RJ: At first they were a little bit surprised; I was also a trained modern dancer. So my dad, who is a very funny man, said, “Rick, I just have to tell you something about these two possible career choices — the rabbinate and dance: You’ve got two losers here. You’re gonna be poor, and you’re gonna be frustrated. But it’s your life.” 

You have had the opportunity to venture deep into the core of your passions, and by contrast, some people see Reform Jews as wanting Judaism “lite.” Do you think a religious practice should be easy, accessible and accommodating, or rigorous and challenging? 

RJ: There has to be discipline to anything that’s artistic or spiritual. I’ve got this whole way of looking at Judaism whereby, basically, Orthodox Judaism is ballet and Reform Judaism is modern dance. And people think modern dancers don’t have technique, that they don’t work and sweat and really push. People think it’s just “whatever I feel, whenever I feel like doing it.” But I don’t think that’s Reform Judaism; I think that’s just people who haven’t experienced what it really is about. I have the exact same job as [Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, head of Chabad] — to take people wherever they are. You could be on the farthest shore — they’re going to bring you in.

You could argue, however, that while Chabad is very good at outreach, few people who attend their Shabbat dinners actually embrace Orthodox Judaism.

RJ: They’re not only thinking that their success is measured in people who become Orthodox. They want to ignite Jewish connection and responsibility. [The URJ] is working not just in congregations, but in the ecosystem called The Jewish People. Like Chabad, we want to have a bigger agenda: to shape a world of compassion, justice, joy and wholeness. And we do that by nurturing really serious religious communities. 

One criticism I’ve heard about you is that you rarely express vulnerability. So I wonder, what makes you feel truly vulnerable as a leader and as a human being? 

RJ: I was in Eastern Chad [with American Jewish World Service] visiting with Darfuri survivors, and you could barely keep from sobbing, it was so painful. And I was walking around [this camp], and all of a sudden, this kid got my hand. And he was not letting go. And the head of the refugee camp told me the kid’s story. So I said to the guy, “You know, we have a house in the suburbs … he could share a room [with my kids].” And the guy said, “Rabbi, that’s a lovely thought, but a very wrong-headed idea. Your job is to go home without him and make sure that he and all of his peers are going to be remembered.” Honestly, the feel of that kid’s hand was [with me] for years. If you’re not vulnerable in the world, and you don’t open your heart and feel the pain and say, “Is there anything I can do to help that pain?” then you’re not alive.