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.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.