The Union for Reform Judaism — the largest Jewish “denomination” in the U.S. — opened its big Biennial conference today in Washington, D.C.
6,000 delegates. Five days. President Obama to speak. Big stuff.
To top it off, Rabbi Eric Yoffie will end his 16-year tenure as president. He will be replaced by none other than Rabbi Rick Jacobs (that’s him), the longtime spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale.
The Reform movement is, of course, Judaism’s liberal wing. The URJ represents something like 900 congregations and over 300,000 households, but there has long been concern over how “connected” to Judaism many of those households are. A lot of teens basically drop out after their bar and bat mitzvahs and many of the interfaith families that belong to Reform congregations are not terribly active in Jewish life.
Yoffie will be remembered for pushing tradition in a Reform context. He was big on Torah study and Jewish education and on the need for Reform Jews to stay connected to Israel.
Jacobs — well known in these parts as an energetic and personable leader — has been talking a lot about change and transformation and making new connections with Jews on the fringes. These are big, broad issues so it will be mighty interesting to see what Jacobs suggests for the Reform future.
The Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt has a typically thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of what the URJ conference is facing. He writes:
Indeed, Rabbi Jacobs, a tall, ruggedly handsome man of 56, says the future of Reform Jewry is “all about transformation,” invoking the mantra of Billy Beane, the baseball executive portrayed in the film “Moneyball”: “adapt or die.” The rabbi wants to see Reform Jewry seek out “the unaffiliated and the uninspired,” beyond the walls of the synagogue.
Despite economic woes, he says this is not the time to “scale back” but to reach out more aggressively. Congregations can no longer “sit back and wait” for young adults who drifted away from Jewish life come back and join as young parents, as happened in the past.
This generation is distrustful of denominations and institutions, the rabbi said, and will respond to relationships more than programming. The job of Reform leaders is to reach young people where they are and connect them to the values of the movement, emphasizing ritual and observance, community, social action and moving tradition into modernity, Rabbi Jacobs says, all “rooted in serious Jewish learning at the core.”
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.
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.