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For new Reform leader Richard Jacobs, big tent movement is the idea

Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Scarsdale, N.Y. was tapped to be the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism. (Union for Reform Judaism.)

Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Scarsdale, N.Y. was tapped to be the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism. (Union for Reform Judaism.)

NEW YORK (JTA) — For the man tapped to lead American Jewry’s largest religious denomination, keeping the movement’s 900-plus synagogues welcoming to the unaffiliated, inspiring for members and a home for disaffected traditional Jews may require a high-wire balancing act.

As a former dancer and choreographer, Rabbi Richard Jacobs may be just the guy.

On Tuesday, the Union for Reform Judaism announced that Jacobs, the senior congregational rabbi at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., is the choice of the synagogue group’s presidential search committee to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is stepping down in 2012. Jacobs’ nomination requires confirmation by the URJ’s board of directors, which meets in June.

In an exclusive interview with JTA a few hours before the announcement was made, the 55-year-old Jacobs said his mission is to make sure the Reform movement is a big tent with its flaps wide open and its Jewish stakes planted deeply in the ground.

“There’s no anti. It’s all pro,” he said. “Nothing Jewish is alien to us. Reform Judaism is an evolving and profound expression of the Jewish tradition. Its essence is to respond to the call of God and to the imperatives of the day.”

For Jacobs, that means embracing environmentalism, helping in places like Darfur and Haiti, and speaking out in support of the Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. He speaks with pride of his synagogue’s green initiatives, noting that its Ner Tamid, or Eternal Flame, is solar powered. He is chairman of the New Israel Fund’s pluralism grants committee, which promotes religious and social pluralism in Israel. He is a board member of the American Jewish World Service, with which he visited Darfur refugees in Chad in 2005. He wears a green Darfur bracelet on his wrist.

In the synagogue, Jacobs wants to create dynamic and inspiring places for people to encounter Judaism — including non-Jewish seekers.

“The key thing is to have the doorways open,” Jacobs told JTA. “Anyone who wants to be a part, they are welcome.”

Under Yoffie, the Reform movement embraced tradition as never before, marking a stark departure from classical Reform and alienating some old-guard Reformers. Yoffie encouraged Shabbat observance, promoted wider use of Hebrew in Reform liturgy and supported greater ritual observance.

Jacobs says he supports that direction for the movement.

“I embrace the Jewish tradition; it’s what nurtures the Jewish life,” he said.

“What Rabbi Yoffie affirmed is the core affirmation of the Reform movement. I will continue to deepen our connections. We shouldn’t take off the table things that are not relevant to us today but may become relevant tomorrow.”

But Jacobs was one of 17 rabbis who issued a position paper several weeks ago criticizing the direction taken by the URJ during the Yoffie years.

"Our movement has not responded effectively to the dramatic changes in the wider landscape of Jewish life," said the position paper, whose 17 signatories called themselves the Rabbinic Vision Initiative.

The group said the URJ’s governance structure is "large and unwieldy," the URJ underperforms when it comes to fundraising, and "is not productively engaged in the real-life needs and challenges of its member congregations."

Though the URJ underwent severe restructuring during the recession, shedding departments and staff, the rabbis’ paper called the reorganization "peremptory and ineffectively executed."

Now set to lead the Reform synagogue association, Jacobs will bear the burden of putting some of the changes he and his colleagues suggested for the URJ into practice.

Trim and tan, the smooth-talking Jacobs still looks the part of the dancer he was as part of the Avodah Dance Ensemble. Now, however, his focus is on the mind rather than the body, though his synagogue does weave yoga and meditation together with text study at some Shabbat services.

Jacobs cites as his mentor David Hartman, the iconoclastic, New York-born Orthodox rabbi who moved to Israel and founded Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, an educational and research institution aimed at promoting new and diverse voices in the Jewish tradition. Jacobs is a senior rabbinic fellow at the institute and visits often. He has studied there in the summertime for some two decades, and he and his family have an apartment in Jerusalem.

The connection to Israel is a vital part of Jewish life, he says.

Jacobs will be a new face for the Reform movement at a time when financial difficulties, demographic changes, and the new ways that young Jews use social media and relate to communal life present new challenges and opportunities for the movement. Tackling these issues and making Jewish communal life relevant for Jews in their 20s and 30s will be one of his main areas of focus, Jacobs says.

As the head of the Reform synagogue organization, Jacobs naturally sees synagogues as the linchpin.

“We want to make exciting synagogues the norm,” he said. “Synagogues cannot wait for people to walk into their buildings. 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 spent most of his career as a congregational leader, first as a rabbi at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue in the 1980s and then at the Scarsdale temple in suburban New York. He says his synagogue has been at the forefront of a transformation in worship that he hopes will spread to all of the movement’s synagogues and reinvigorate them.

“I couldn’t imagine I’d become a rabbi of a large, suburban Reform congregation because I grew up in one and it didn’t speak to me,” said Jacobs, a native of New Rochelle, a Westchester County suburb that borders Scarsdale. But, he said, “I’ve led transformation without disenfranchising those who are resistant to change."

The plan is to start with a listening tour of Reform congregations throughout North America.

“We are poised," Jacobs told JTA, "for a great new chapter for the unfolding of our movement.”

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