Amid the dim lighting and sartorial conformity of Sunday night’s Chabad kinus, it’s normally pretty hard to find people. But after my table mate informed me that among the guests that night was the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, it took only a quick glance across the room to locate the beardless Rabbi Rick Jacobs seated at a table near the stage.
It is almost certainly the first time that the leader of the Reform movement has attended a Chabad kinus. The event has been held for just 30 years, so only Jacobs’ two immediate predecessors — Rabbis Alexander Schindler and Eric Yoffie — could have attended. Yoffie never did. And the kinus was comparatively a tiny affair during Schindler’s tenure. (Schindler did, however, meet with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yoffie told me.)
When I approached Jacobs, who was standing alone by the stage as a sea of black-hatted men surged around him, he didn’t appear eager to probe the significance of his presence. He told me he had been invited by Yehuda Krinsky, the head of Chabad’s educational arm, and had happily accepted. When I called the next day to inquire further, I was told Jacobs was in meetings all day.
“Rabbi Jacobs said that he was honored to be Rabbi Krinsky’s guest,” a URJ spokesperson emailed me. “He enjoyed the evening very much, and will leave further comment to his hosts.”
Chabad has been an object of both envy and criticism for Reform leaders.
In his installation sermon from 2012, Jacobs said that Reform Jews could “learn important lessons from Chabad about creating non-judgmental opportunities to experience Jewish practice and build sacred relationships.” He also vowed that his movement would no longer permit Chabad to operate on campus without competition.
Jacobs’ predecessor, Yoffie, also had some feelings on the subject of Chabad. In an article in Haaretz earlier this year, Yoffie noted Chabad’s obvious successes, not the least of which is the creation of a corps of devoted young rabbis unequaled in the Jewish world. But aside from their obvious parting of theological ways, Yoffie also took issue with Chabad’s rightward orientation on Israel, its strains of messianism, its cultivation of wealthy individuals, and its promotion of what he called a “minimalist” Judaism with low expectations. (A Chabad official responded that there’s something a little rich about the head of a movement that has abrogated the commitment to many Jewish rituals to accuse an Orthodox group of lowering the religious bar.)