For the second time in a row, a woman from Northern California has been elected as the top lay leader in one of Judaism’s largest organizations.
Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman of Sacramento is the new chair of the North American Board of Trustees for the Union for Reform Judaism.
She has succeeded Daryl Messinger of Palo Alto, who served the maximum allowable four years as chair, from 2015 until the URJ Biennial in Chicago that ended Dec. 15. Messinger made history as the first woman to hold the top lay leadership position at the URJ, the congregational arm of the Reform movement, which covers nearly 850 synagogues and 1.5 million Jews in North America.
Kaufman, a former attorney with 30 years of experience with the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeal, was first elected to the URJ board in 2003. Since then, she has served the URJ as vice chair of its North American board and chair of its commission on social action.
She and her husband, Todd, have two grown sons, Daniel and Jonathan, and four grandchildren ages 5 to 12.
“I’m thrilled,” Kaufman said of her new position. “I have learned a lot about Reform Judaism — its strengths, its challenges. There are a number of different areas that I want to [work on] with the board.”
One thing she wants to do is to help congregations grapple with changing demographics. “Synagogues are different than when I grew up,” she said. “It’s not the [experience] my kids want. We will be spending a lot of time on this.”
Kaufman said she also would like the URJ to increase its engagement with Israel. “It’s something that is trickier, to ensure the kind of Israel we want — democratic and inclusive — and that Israelis understand the Reform movement.”
Kaufman said she would like to oversee more congregations adopting the URJ’s Ethics Code, a list of standards created in 2017 that helps provide Reform synagogues with guidance on professional relationships, improprieties and fiduciary matters.
As for her day-to-day responsibilities, Kaufman will attend oversight committee meetings, appoint individuals to committees and task forces, and build relationships with other Jewish groups.
“I really see her as a visionary leader,” Messinger, her predecessor, told J. “She listens really well. She can make hard decisions. She is a consensus builder.”
Messinger also applauded Kaufman’s leadership when URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa was severely damaged by wildfires in 2017. It was Kaufman who headed the task force that assisted in the camp’s reconstruction, which officially began a month ago, Messinger said.
In the United States, 38 percent of Jews identify as Reform, making it the largest denomination in the country, according to the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
“Jen Kaufman is an exceptional Jewish leader,” said URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs. “She has a temperament and a moral clarity that is extraordinary.”
Kaufman officially became chair on Dec. 14 at the URJ Biennial, where thousands gathered for a Shabbat service at which she chanted the first aliyah.
“Then,” Jacobs recounted, “Daryl Messinger handed [her] the Torah scroll. In that moment, she became the chair. There was palpable excitement and confidence in our direction going forward.”
Though the URJ is headquartered in New York City, Kaufman will operate mainly out of Sacramento, where the Chicago native has resided for 40 years. She is an active member and former president of 170-year-old Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento. She also has been involved with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a “hub of Jewish social justice work,” according to the agency’s website.