New Reform Head Walking Pro-Israel Tightrope


Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Scarsdale, poised to become the next leader of the Reform movement, recalled this week taking part in an anti-government protest in Jerusalem last July sponsored by the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement.

“I take issue with residents of east Jerusalem [being] taken out of their homes to make room for Jewish settlers,” he explained, hastening to add that he disagrees with 99 percent of what the movement, which has been described by the Jewish Agency for Israel as anti-Zionist, stands for. But he said he joined prominent Israelis who also agreed with him on this issue, like novelist David Grossman and educator Moshe Halbertal, a colleague of Rabbi Jacobs at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where the senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple is a senior fellow.

And Rabbi Jacobs noted that the night before the protest, he had participated in a rally in Jerusalem on behalf of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped and held by Palestinian terrorists.

“That didn’t mean that I supported the agenda of many who attended,” like a man standing near him whose T-shirt called for rebuilding the Third Temple.

In a sit-down interview and subsequent phone conversation this week, the rabbi aired his views on Israel for the first time in a detailed way, seeking nuance where others, particularly critics on the political right, look for hard-line definitions.

He acknowledged that in his new position as president the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), set to begin in 2012, he may well have to consider participation in protests and rallies “differently, reflecting the different views within our movement.”

Weighing his symbolic role as leader of America’s largest denomination at a time of deep polarization in the Jewish community over Israel, Rabbi Jacobs is trying to advocate a middle-road approach framed by commitment to strengthening Israel rather than abiding by strict parameters. But he admits it’s not a simple matter, and that his personal views must be balanced with decisions formed by the various arms of Reform Jewry as part of “a thoughtful, deliberative process.”

Rabbi Jacobs favors a “big tent” approach in assessing groups and individuals in terms of support for Israel, and notes that “the tent needs to have boundaries, but we have made them so narrow that the slightest wind blows it over.”

Rabbi Jacobs said his commitment to Israel extends well beyond political or religious issues and is not dependent on which party is in power or whether he agrees with the rulings of the Chief Rabbinate.

He described the many facets of his connection to the Jewish state, from his congregational visits to study with the Orthodox chief rabbi of Efrat, in the West Bank; to his active engagement with the New Israel Fund, chairing its pluralism grants committee; to his personal decision after the second intifada to buy a family home in Israel and visit two or three times a year.

“I am an ohev Yisrael [a lover of Israel],” he said, “and my love for Israel is among the deepest loves of my life.”

The subtext of his comments was that Rabbi Jacobs has been criticized by some on the political right regarding Israel for his associations with dovish groups like J Street, a political lobby, and the New Israel Fund, which supports a wide range of Jewish and Arab groups in Israel.

The Zionist Organization of America last week expressed “concern” at Rabbi Jacobs’ connection to those two organizations, “and thus at the prospect of the Reform movement becoming a captive” of their “beliefs and actions.”

But Rabbi Jacobs resisted being easily pegged. He said his relationships with Israel are “beyond organizational,” noting that while he was “very proud to sign a J Street High Holy Day message [last year] that had a clear, strong commitment to peace and a two-state solution,” he thought the group was “wrong” in calling for the U.S. to endorse a UN resolution describing Israeli settlements as illegal.

J Street, the Washington-based lobby that describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” lists Rabbi Jacobs as a member of its rabbinic cabinet, but he denied joining the group.

“I support the goals and visions of J Street, but I’m not defined by it,” Rabbi Jacobs said, adding that the biography he provided did not include J Street because he only listed boards with which he is active, including UJA-Federation of New York and the American Jewish World Service.

Asked his reaction to the statement from ZOA and from a Commentary blogger who found his involvement with dovish groups a “troubling sign,” Rabbi Jacobs said he “wasn’t surprised, but I wish people would hear from me first. I have a narrative and a life deeply committed and engaged with Israel.”

He said he wholeheartedly supports the work of the New Israel Fund, a group dedicated to civil rights and religious pluralism in Israel. Noting that he was proud to sit on its international board for a decade, since 2001 he has chaired its pluralism grants committee, which he described as “helping to shape a more tolerant Israel.” The grants, he said, include a prayer service attracting secular Israelis in Tel Aviv as well as Modern Orthodox groups fostering tolerance.

NIF also supports “litigation and advocacy efforts by and for Arab citizens of Israel,” according to its website.

Rabbi Jacobs said NIF strengthens Israel as a democracy, is a supporter of human rights and has “made an important contribution to Israel.”

On the issue of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, he said he strongly opposed global BDS, which seeks to eliminate the Zionist state, but drew a distinction between such efforts and those who boycott products made in Jewish communities in the West Bank.

He said the Reform movement has not taken a position yet on the boycott of West Bank settlements but that “we do take positions on the hardest issues.”

Pressed to define what it means to be part of the pro-Israel movement today, the rabbi said that “criticism of Israel” is acceptable “as long as it is not delegitimization or demonization.

“It’s not scientific,” he said of the description, “but I like the tone and substance.” He also said he agrees with what Daniel Pipes, an academic known for his hard-line Mideast views, said about J Street recently, namely that anyone concerned about the security and welfare of Israel is in the pro-Israel camp.

Rabbi Jacobs pointed out that as the first congregational rabbi to lead the Reform movement, he feels he is well positioned to “bring concrete ways for congregations to show their love for Israel.” He said he hopes to be “an advocate and guide” on how to attract young people to Israel’s cause, primarily through visits that show the full gamut of Israeli life rather than just the political problems.

He said he often leads congregational trips to Israel in which he brings “hundreds of members — people from the left and the right,” enabling them to “forge strong bonds” with the people and land of Israel. During his last trip, he said, the group visited and studied with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who helped found the West Bank settlement of Efrat. He also takes congregants to Arab neighborhoods, stressing that education and dialogue are of prime importance.

Westchester Reform has raised funds to help Reform synagogues in Israel, Rabbi Jacobs said, building a library in one and donating a Torah to another. These acts, he said, were “to concretize what it means to love Israel.”

Turning to Israel’s controversial Conversion Bill — which is now on hold because of non-Orthodox opposition to its attempt to give Israel’s Chief Rabbinate responsibility for all conversions — Rabbi Jacobs said it is a sin that the Jewish people have not yet found a way to convert as many as 300,000 Russians who have been living in Israel for years.

“I’d love to see a broader definition of the conversion process,” he said. “If there are official [conversion courts] with narrow parameters, there should be others” with a broader definition.

Each would have standards satisfactory to the different movements of Judaism, and the State of Israel would recognize them for the purpose of marriage.

Rabbi Jacobs said he “stands very comfortably” with where the Reform movement has been regarding Israel. “Mine is not a foreign voice,” he said. “I have spent lots of time there, and that positions me to understand the challenges and opportunities it faces. I’m in a position to strengthen that connection and to bring [Israel] to more of those in our movement and to those outside of it. I look forward to building on it.”