Scarsdale’s Jacobs will go from URJ critic to boss

I mentioned recently that Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Scarsdale has been tapped the next leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, a group that represents more than 900 Reform congregations.

The Forward‘s Josh Nathan-Kazis has run a provocative feature about Jacobs, which explains that he has been a leading critic of the URJ but now will be given a chance to reform the group — and Reform Judaism — himself.

Many rabbis of leading Reform congregations apparently believe that the URJ is doing a poor job leading and inspiring them. Jacobs has been among them.

Boy, it’s hard to think of a denominational group — in any religion — that has satisfied its membership. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has faced tremendous criticism in recent years. Many Mainline Protestants leaders and their cabinets face regular critiques, often for being “detached” from the people in the pews.

Now that I think about it, I can probably count on two hands all the praise I’ve heard for denominational leaders. Criticism is easy to come by.

Jacobs, by the way, still has to be approved by the URJ board in a couple of months. Then he’ll take over next year.

Here’s a key snippet from The Forward:


Members of the URJ’s nominating committee point to Jacobs’s career as a congregational rabbi and to his experience revitalizing his own congregation as key reasons for his selection.

“The URJ is a congregational movement,” said Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus of B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom, in Homewood, Ill., outgoing president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and a member of the nominating committee. “I think it will be very helpful to the people in the congregations to know that the new president has had experience on the ground.”

The fact that Jacobs had no previous role within the URJ administrative hierarchy is significant, since the URJ was roundly criticized over the 2009 reorganization that resulted in budget cuts and layoffs. The other finalist under consideration by the nominating committee was Rabbi Jonah Pesner, a URJ staff member who serves as director of Just Congregations, the URJ’s congregation-based community-organizing initiative.

In an e-mail to colleagues following the announcement, Pesner expressed support and admiration for Jacobs. “I have admired Rick since I was a rabbinic student,” Pesner wrote of Jacobs.

Jacobs said that he believes he was selected to lead the movement because of his success at Westchester Reform Temple and his involvement in the field of synagogue transformation. He was a board member of Synagogue 2000 and its successor group, Synagogue 3000.

“Congregations are what I know,” Jacobs said. “I understand when rabbis say it’s hard during economic [downturns] to figure out how you’re going to keep all the sacred functions going. That’s not a world I have to read about or call somebody about — that’s what I do every day.”

“He has the experience transforming an institution, but achieving the buy-in and support of those who have been there for a long time and those who are new,” Dreyfus said.

Poll asks: Was Japanese disaster a sign from God?

According to a new poll, 56 percent of Americans completely or mostly agree with the idea that God is in control of everything that happens in the world.

But only 38 percent completely or mostly agree that natural disasters are a sign from God.

I guess the 18 percent in between might say that God is in control of natural disasters — but doesn’t intend them as a sign.

Maybe? I don’t know.

The new poll, from the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service, of course addresses the meaning, or lack thereof, of the tragic earthquake/tsunami in Japan and our other recent disasters.

Overall, 70 percent said they believe God is “a person with whom people can have a relationship,” a very Christian way of looking at the world.

Only 8 percent said they did not believe in God.

A few interesting findings (to me):

Only 18 percent said the suffering of innocent people sometimes causes them to have doubts about God. 48% completely disagreed with the idea.

40 percent agreed with the idea that natural disasters are “God’s way of testing our faith.”

On the question of whether recent natural disasters are evidence that we are in “end times,” 21% completely agreed and 23% mostly agreed. 20% mostly disagreed and 32% completely disagreed.

83% agreed that the U.S. should provide “significant financial assistance” to Japan and other countries that suffer.

My friend and former colleague Nicole Neroulias wrote up the results for Religion News Service and was kind enough to interview me because of my book on the subject.

I hope I didn’t summarize things too…tightly. It’s hard to talk in sound-bites. How many times have I heard that from people I have interviewed?

(AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

Scarsdale’s Rabbi Jacobs to move to the national stage

Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the well-known and well-liked leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, has been named the next president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

As soon as I saw the announcement a few minutes ago, I thought “Well, this makes sense.”

Jacobs is an impressive guy, erudite and yet approachable. Many people have told me over the years how much he has inspired them.

Let’s face it: Running Westchester Reform for close to 20 years requires a special guy. It is a very large and influential congregation that is home to many successful, influential and vocal people.

Hey, it might be easier to head the URJ!

The URJ has about 900 member congregations, including a couple of dozen in the Lower Hudson Valley.

Jacobs’ nomination has to be approved by the URJ’s trustees in June. Then he’ll take over for retiring Rabbi Eric Yoffie, one of American Judaism’s most interesting and outspoken leaders, in 2012.

Reform Judaism is doing pretty well these days. It will be mighty interesting to see what Jacobs has to say and where he tries to take the movement.

Jacobs would become only the movement’s fourth president in the last 68 years. Until a few years ago, the URJ was known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Dolan on ’60 Minutes’ Sunday

Speaking of Archbishop Dolan, the archbishop of NY will be profiled Sunday on “60 Minutes.”

Dolan has, of course, been extremely critical of the mainstream media’s coverage of the Catholic Church, focusing his ire on the NYTimes.

When people think of the mainstream media, they often think of CBS News right alongside the mighty Times. And everyone knows that “60 Minutes,” maybe my all-time favorite television show, edits their segments very precisely.

But how do you say no to Morley Safer?

I’ll be mighty curious to see how it goes. My guess is that the thrust of the segment will be “These are difficult days for the Roman Catholic Church, but the archbishop of New York is a fresh face who is comfortable in front of TV cameras and is quite willing to discuss the pain caused by the sex-abuse scandals.”

Something like that.

The press release from CBS News opens with this:


CBS News)  Calling the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal “hideous” and “nauseating,” New York’s Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan says the scandal “needs to haunt” the church for some time to come.

In the wide-ranging interview, Dolan also discusses his past role as the archbishop of Milwaukee, his current mission and the state of the church in America with “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer. The profile of the leader of New York City’s two-million-plus Roman Catholics will be broadcast Sunday, March 20 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

Asked if he feared the impact of the scandal would go on forever, Dolan replies, “In some ways, I don’t want it to be over, because…this was such a crisis in the Catholic Church that in a way, we don’t want to get over it too easily,” he tells Safer. “This needs to haunt us.”


More information will be available about the interview, including Safer’s impressions, on 60minutesovertime.

Dolan: Come back to Confession

On this St. Patrick’s Day, Archbishop Dolan has released a pastoral letter about Confession.

The 11-page letter makes a case for the centrality of the Sacrament of Penance in Catholic life. It’s very much written in Dolan’s direct, somewhat informal, passionate style.

He asks that St. Patrick, the patron saint of the Archdiocese of NY, intercede by promoting a return to the Confessional. “To pronounce the sacramental absolution by which our sins are forgiven is one of primary reasons the Church and the priesthood exist,” he writes.

He laments that the words of absolution “are not heard as often as they should be
in the Church in New York.”

He offers a bit of (recent) historical perspective: “Not everything was perfect decades ago when most Catholics routinely went to confession – perhaps too routinely. But whatever problems existed in the 1950s are now a half-century in the past, and subsequent generations have grown up without any knowledge of whatever excesses may have existed. They have indeed grown up without what belongs to them as part of the patrimony as Catholics – the liberating, joyful experience of God’s mercy in the sacrament of penance.”

Dolan addresses the priests of NY: “My brother priests, we should never lose our amazement and our gratitude at this gift. The Spirit called down upon us at our ordination is the same Spirit who hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation. We need that same Holy Spirit, for the work of forgiving sins is a work as astonishing as the creation of the world – a work we can only do because the Lord Jesus explicitly entrusted it to us.”

He also cites the sexual-abuse scandals as having “taught us again” about the realities of sin. About the sins of Catholics, he writes: “We have failed to speak about them, and the now, as we have experienced so painfully, to our shame and embarrassment, we face the “attacks of the world that speak of our sins”. The attacks are real, and so too are our sins! The Christian should not wait for others to
speak of his sin; we should confess it simply, repent sincerely, and be forgiven quickly!”

Dolan spends some time on our “confessional culture,” which details sin and scandal and then watches celebrities offer public confessions and apologies. He writes: “The “confessional culture” around us shouts itself hoarse for it can confess, but there is no absolution. Sin confessed but unredeemed either leads to despair or is trivialized.”

In the end, Dolan suggests that some may find his letter to be too long.

“If so, take it as a sign of my eagerness to use all the persuasive power God has granted me in the service of a renewal of the Sacrament of Penance,” he writes.

A ‘Good Book’ without God

I got “The Good Book” in the mail yesterday. Subtitle: “A Humanist Bible.”

What is a Humanist bible, you ask?

Pretty much what you would expect. It looks and feels (at 597 pages) like a Bible and draws on, according to a release, the “general structure of the traditional Bible.”

It’s divided into Genesis, Wisdom, Parables, Concord, Lamentations, Consolations, Sages, Songs, Histories, Proverbs, the Lawgiver, Acts, Epistles, the Good, Dylan and the Beatles.

Just kidding about Dylan and the Beatles. The Good Book ends with The Good.

It was written by University of London philosopher A.C. Grayling, who has written books about WWII, Descartes, the philosophy of life, and other weighty topics.

In the press materials, Grayling is asked whether his book is an atheist Bible. He answers, in part:


There is no mention at all of gods, souls, the afterlife, religion, or any associated topic. The Good Book is about human experience in this world, distilling the human wisdom of all ages and places to provide insight, solace, inspiration, guidance, and prompts for thought about how to live a good life.


How does a Humanist Genesis open, you wonder. Like this:


In the garden stands a tree. In springtime it bears flowers; in the autumn, fruit.

Its fruit is knowledge, teacher the good gardener how to understand the world.

For it he learns how the three grows from seed to sapling; from sapling to maturity, at last ready to offer more life;

And from maturity to age and sleep, whence it returns to the elements of things.

The elements in turn feed new births; such is nature’s method, and its parallel with the course of humankind.


A colleague of mine walked past my desk, flipped through The Good Book and said “It’s like having a football team without a quarterback.”

The author would probably say that the other 10 players on offense would do fine on their own.

Are there spiritual questions as Japan’s nightmare unfolds?

I haven’t heard or seen much coverage of the devastation in Japan that has raised religious or spiritual questions.

Maybe because so many of those questions were asked after relatively recent disasters — the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the quake in Haiti. Maybe there isn’t much left to say or ask.


My friend Cathy Lynn Grossman at USATODAY wrote about how the Japanese will turn to their Buddhist and Shinto traditions for solace. She writes, in part:


Seven days after the quake and tsunami, waves of memorials will begin in whatever temples remain near the disaster zone. In Buddhist traditions, the seventh day ritual begins 33 years of formal mourning ceremonies ahead, Williams said.

Just as Christians and Jews in the West may offer prayers for those who have died and those who mourn, so these rituals and prayers will come from throughout Japan, as well as from Thailand and Taiwan, where many share the Japanese form of Buddhism, said Williams, a native of Japan.


Williams is Duncan Williams, a survivor of the Friday quake and a scholar of Japanese Buddhism at the University of California-Berkeley.

I also came across a note about Glenn Beck saying — sort of — that the disaster was a message from God:


I’m not saying God is, you know, causing earthquakes — well I’m not not saying that either! What God does is God’s business, I have no idea. But I’ll tell you this — whether you call it Gaia or whether you call it Jesus, there’s a message being sent. And that is, ‘Hey you know that stuff we’re doing? Not really working out real well. Maybe we should stop doing some of it.’



I also found that someone asked Yahoo! Answers this question: “Did japan tsunami start the end of the world?”

But Yahoo! deleted the question based on their community guidelines.

ADD: Apparently, the governor of Tokyo said Monday that the earthquake and tsunami were “divine retribution” for Japanese egoism. He apologized today.

Gov. Shintaro Ishihara had used the Japanese term “tembatsu,” which means something along the lines of “heavenly punishment.”

“The way [Ishihara] used it was a prewar understanding of the will of heaven or the gods to discipline the Japanese people,” John Nelson, the chair of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco, told CNN.

(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Most support hearings on Islam, poll finds

Forget the special interests.

Did Americans support Peter King’s hearing on Muslim “radicalization?”

A Gallup poll found that 52 percent of Americans believed the hearing to be “appropriate.” 38 percent said not appropriate.

Republicans were 69-23 in favor of hearing appropriateness.

Dems were 49-40 AGAINST appropriateness.

No surprises there.

Meanwhile, a new poll from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 40 percent of respondents believe Islam is “more likely than others to encourage violence.”

42% say it is not.

These numbers have held pretty steady since 2003.

In 2002, only 25 percent saw Islam as more likely to encourage violence than other faiths.

Here is Pew’s political-affiliation analysis:


Political and ideological divisions are even wider: By roughly three-to-one (66% to 21%), conservative Republicans say Islam encourages violence more than other religions. Moderate and liberal Republicans are divided – 46% say Islam is more likely to encourage violence, 47% say it is not.

By more than two-to-one (61% to 29%), liberal Democrats say that Islam is not more likely than other religions to promote violence. Conservative and moderate Democrats, by a smaller margin (48% to 31%), agree.

Hearings open on Muslim ‘radicalization’

With all the interest in today’s “Muslim radicalization” hearing, here is the latest AP story:


Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — A congressional panel investigating homegrown terrorism in America displayed sharp divisions Thursday over how to frame the discussion, reflecting a country still struggling with how best to combat terrorism nearly a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Homegrown terrorism is on the rise in the United States, and al-Qaida has built a strategy around inspiring young American Muslims to become one-man terrorist cells. That strategy has at times been successful, and the U.S. government has wrestled with finding a consistent plan to combat it.

Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican who called the hearing, says the American Muslim community is not doing enough to speak out against terrorism and is reluctant to help police. The Obama administration worries that broad statements about an entire religion only play into al-Qaida’s narrative that the U.S. is at war with Islam.

After a week of protests leading up to the hearing, King dismissed what he called unwarranted “rage and hysteria” and said Congress has a duty to press forward.

“Homegrown radicalization is part of al-Qaida’s strategy to continue attacking the United States,” King said as he opened the hearings.

The top Democrat on the committee, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, said he believes the hearings could be used to inspire terrorists.

“I cannot help but wonder how propaganda about this hearing’s focus on the American Muslim Community will be used by those who seek to inspire a new generation of suicide bombers,” Thompson said.

Despite years government focus on terrorism, there is no one predictable path toward violence. Homegrown terrorists have been high school dropouts and college graduates as well, people from poor and wealthy families alike. Some studied overseas. Others were inspired over the Internet.

That has complicated government efforts to understand and head off the radicalization process. And it reduced some of Thursday’s debate to a series of anecdotes: of Islamic terrorists on the one hand, and Islamic firefighters on the other.

King told The Associated Press that he had larger security details for the past few months because of an overseas threat relayed in December. Since then, round-the-clock security has been provided by the New York Police Department and the Nassau County, N.Y., police.

On Thursday, at King’s request, the Capitol Police secured the congressional hearing room and surrounding areas, as well as his office.

Rarely does a congressional hearing attract as much advance controversy. Critics have likened them to the McCarthy-era hearings investigating communism.

The witnesses included family members of young men who were inspired by others to go into terrorism, with deadly consequences. They told Congress that the young men were brainwashed by radical elements in the Muslim community.

Melvin Bledsoe, whose son, Carlos, is charged with killing an Army private at a recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark., testified about his son’s conversion to Islam and his isolation from his family.

“Carlos was captured by people best described as hunters,” Bledsoe said. “He was manipulated and lied to.”

Elsewhere at the Capitol, National Intelligence Director James Clapper was scheduled to address the threat of homegrown terrorism. In his prepared remarks, Clapper said 2010 saw more plots involving homegrown Sunni extremists — those ideologically aligned with al-Qaida — than in the previous year.

“Key to this trend has been the development of a U.S.-specific narrative that motivates individuals to violence,” Clapper said.

Hearing on Muslim ‘radicalization’ drawing interest by the day

Rep. Peter King’s hearing on Muslim “radicalization” in the U.S. is Thursday and various groups are lining up to denounce the whole idea.

I know because I’m getting a steady string of press releases.

Human Rights First says “stop the witch hunt.”

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture says the hearings will “single out American Muslims as a source of violence and extremism.”

The ACLU wrote a long letter to King, insisting that “Treating an entire community as suspect because of the bad acts or intolerant statements of a few is imprudent and unfair, and in the past has only led to greater misunderstanding, injustice and discrimination.”

The liberal Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty says that the hearing implies that “terrorist threats to the American people result from one religious group is an insult to the millions of peaceful Muslim American citizens.”

I have heard from one group, America’s Survival, that wants King to also look at the activities of the TV channel Al-Jazeera in the U.S.

King’s House Committee on Homeland Security will hold a hearing on “Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response” on Thursday at 9:30 a.m.

Here’s the schedule of witnesses:

Panel 1

Hon. Keith Ellison, A Representative in Congress from the 5th District of Minnesota

Panel 2

Hon. Frank Wolf, A Representative in Congress from the 10th District of Virginia

Panel 3

Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, President and Founder, American Islamic Forum for Democracy

Mr. Abdirizak Bihi, Director, Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center

Mr. Melvin Bledsoe, Private Citizen

Sheriff Leroy Baca, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department