The Column: High hopes for new president of Reform movement

Tall and lithe, Rabbi Rick Jacobs strode in the j. office last week with a spring in his step, looking like the rabbi he is, as well as the dancer he used to be.

It was his first trip to the Bay Area since his June installation as the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization representing more than 870 Reform congregations across North America.

He’s come to the job at a great time and a terrible time. On one hand, the Reform movement is now the largest Jewish stream in the country. On the other hand, like most Jewish organizations, the URJ has no money — at least not enough to do what it used to do, and what some think it should still be doing.

Jacobs was brought in to clean house, but the slashing and burning got under way even before he was officially installed. Entire departments at URJ headquarters in New York were wiped away, replaced by consultants working offsite; regional offices were closed; anywhere belts could be tightened, they were.

Things had become so rocky that in 2009 a group of Reform rabbis from 17 congregations, some of the largest in the movement, rebelled against what they considered the URJ’s unwieldy bureaucracy, threatening to break away altogether. Just one did — Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles — but others hovered on the edge.

Jacobs, senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., was part of that rebel group. He now heads the very organization he and his buddies laid siege to.

“That process probably clarified for him what was really needed for the movement,” opines Rabbi Dennis Eisner of Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, who was part of a group of local Reform rabbis who met with Jacobs last week while he was here.

Eisner says he has “high hopes” for Jacobs and his new leadership team. He cites Jacobs’ cooperative way of working, as well as his 20 years as a pulpit rabbi. “He understands congregations and their needs,” Eisner says.

Rabbi Larry Raphael of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco is more sanguine. “I happen to think very highly of Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbi [Jonah] Pesner [a new URJ senior vice president], and I wish them very well,” he says. However, despite all its bang, Jacobs’ overhaul “hasn’t affected us,” Raphael says.

Jacobs is an artist and an activist. He danced with a modern dance troupe in the 1980s, he went to Darfur with the American Jewish World Service, he served a decade on the board of the New Israel Fund and he’s unabashedly Zionist — which, according to his definition, emphasizes pluralism and human rights.  That’s why he took part in an anti-government demonstration two years ago in east Jerusalem, protesting house demolitions — an incident his opponents within the Reform movement held up as evidence of his “lax” Zionist commitment when they tried to derail his appointment last year.

In fact, Jacobs was hired largely on the strength of his pro-Israel credentials. One of his main priorities is to get Reform Jews to “engage with Israel, at a very deep level,” the way he did in the mid-’70s during his junior year abroad in Jerusalem.

He’s already launched an Israel engagement strategy in some three dozen congregations. “A lot of Reform Jews are disconnected from Israel,” he admits. “It’s not just about getting people there, but getting them to touch Israel deeply.”

So-called “unaffiliated” Jews? He hates that word. “It makes it seem as if it’s their problem,” he says. “I prefer the word ‘uninspired’ — it’s our problem. In many ways we haven’t been that inspiring.”

Reform congregations need to reinvent themselves, he says. “Reform Judaism is not ‘Judaism light’ — it is innovative, serious, committed to social justice; it’s about change. It’s open and inclusive.”

Jacobs has not stepped into an easy position. Heading the URJ, Eisner says, is “a hard, hard job — you get a job like that, you say ‘mazel tov’ and Kaddish at the same time.”

Eisner says that a couple years ago, Beth El, too, was considering leaving the URJ. “Congregations felt they were only there to foot the bill, and that was difficult,” he explains.

Whether Jacobs and his colleagues can turn the movement around remains to be seen, but, says Eisner, “There’s definitely a different feeling under Rabbi Jacobs. We need to be supportive, proactive and patient.”

Sue Fishkoff
is the editor of j., and can be reached at

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at