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Reform Movement Picks New Head

Richard Jacobs has been one of the movement’s most prominent critics

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Rabbi Richard Jacobs.(Ben Fink Shapiro via Union for Reform Judaism)

The Union for Reform Judaism announced today that Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple and sometime-critic of the URJ, is its new president-designate. Pending a vote this July, Jacobs will replace Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who has led North America’s largest Jewish denomination since 1996, in July 2012.

“I’m honored to follow the giants before me,” Jacobs told reporters today, just prior to an introduction with the URJ’s board of trustees, at the Upper West Side’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. “But we need a new path. I’m going to build on our movement, which is a strong movement.” The URJ, an umbrella organization that claims 1.5 million members and 920 congregations, has been threatened by financial difficulties and criticisms from congregation leaders like Jacobs.

Today, however, Jacobs praised the URJ for being responsive to critics, and while he insisted, “I am not defined by the Rabbinic Vision Initiative”—the group of prominent, critical rabbis of which he is a member—he did assert that his “RVI colleagues are with” him. He also bristled at questions concerning the financial challenges facing the URJ, insisting that with a truly transformative vision, he would attract partners and funds. To some extent, he admitted he’d be “renovating the house while the owners are still living there.” As to critics, he argued, “They might not love everything that happens, but they’re part of everything that happens.”

Jacobs will most likely follow in Yoffie’s tradition of political liberalism. He spoke expansively of enduring the “scars of Hebrew school” only to come into his Jewish consciousness at Camp Swig, a Jewish camp in Saratoga, where, “among the redwoods,” he met progressive leaders like César Chávez and Joan Baez. In recent years, he’s traveled to Haiti and spent Sukkot in Darfur; in August, he attended a rally in support of the Cordoba Initiative, the group sponsoring the Islamic cultural center a few blocks from Ground Zero.

He spoke proudly of his home in Israel, which he and his wife built during the Second Intifada. He smiled while describing coaching a basketball team of high-school seniors, none over 5’2’’, against much taller players from French Hill—all of whom fought in Lebanon.

He’s also a leader of the New Israel Fund, a board member at American Jewish World Services, and a former dancer and choreographer who is pursuing a doctorate in ritual dance at New York University.

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Judy West Hollywood says:

Sorry about the “scars of Hebrew school”. Yet the RJE would not survive without the many excellent innovative educators whose vision created the Reform camping movement.

Michael says:

Nothing about the crisis in Jewish learning among the Reform. Mature young adults look for more than an engagement in liberal politics (a fine thing in itself): they also crave a literacy in classical Jewish texts, rituals, and literature. There need not be a contradiction between an immersion in these things and a Reform political sensibility.

Ken Besig, Israel says:

It is truly disturbing and loathsome that the new head of the Reform Jewish sect, Richard Jacobs, is a leader of the New Israel Fund. The New Israel Fund is a notorious and dangerous organization, almost anti Semitic in it’s philosophy, which funds some of the nmost virulent Jewish and Arab anti Israel organizations.
All of these anti Israel organizations engage in “lawfare” against Israel, routinely and publicly accusing Israel of human rights violations and war crimes, calling for the international isolation of Israel, and the financial disinvestment in Israeli companies and Israel itself.
This so called “rabbi” Jacobs should be shunned by every self respecting Jew and any Jew with a sense of moral decency.

Michael says:

Ken, the crisis in American Judaism is not its politics: it is its “disturbing and loathesome” (to use your hyberbole) low level of literacy about things Jewish: Bible, Midrash, Talmud, rabbinics, literature (both religious and secular), Hebrew, Yiddish, history, and so forth. If you’re concerned about the future of Jews and Judaism, you need to have an honest assessment of the state of Jewish literacy outside the Orthodox world. It’s pretty dismal.

perot says:

Well, here we go again.

Reform Judaism which had moved away from its”classical” version, becoming more traditional…i.e. Kippot, Tallesum, kosher only in Temple, has now become Quaker.

Maybe Reform has more members than other more traditional streams, but ….
César Chávez, Joan Baez, Haiti, Darfur; Islamic Cultural Center and, oh my God..the New Israel Fund of all things.

They will now attract all of the self-hating Jewish students who pout anti-israeli invective on campuses. Or maybe this is the fruit of Reform camp and Hebrew school.

Let me make sure I understand you correctly, Michael: Reform Jews clamor for more learning of traditional Jewish texts and their rabbis insist on “No.” Instead, the rabbis tell them, Ken, to go out and demonstrate against Israel and work against the survival of the Jewish people. Well if paragons of Judaism won’t work for justice for farmworkers, won’t fight against genocide in Darfur, and won’t help rebuild houses in Haiti, then why, exactly should we study Torah, remember the Exodus, or teach the prophets?

Surely you know the Jewish text that concludes that the Temple was destroyed because of chinat sinam–baseless hatred among Jews. So why haven’t you learned anything from that text?

It is fortunate for the reform movement to have an amazing speaker with human insight from the Torah to help to lead a movement and grow. Hearing both sides of a conflict first is important before any resolutions are made.
Jacobs and the other partner rabbis have taken time from their enormously busy schedules to visit my son, a grocery bagger and to encourage him to learn Hebrew. My son now studies on his own every day for a year and Rabbi Jacob takes the time to talk to him in Hebrew. I am overwhelmed by his kindness. I see other mothers in agreement for their children as well. He is a teacher first. Let him teach. Argue the subject. Love the teacher.

Paul Silbersher says:

This article claims that there are 1.5 million members

in 920 URJ Congregations. That would mean that each

Congregation would have approximately 1,600 members.

Am I missing something?

Diana Fine-Sealtiel says:

To Rabbi Jonathan Gerard

The expression in Hebrew is “sinat chinam”.


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Reform Movement Picks New Head

Richard Jacobs has been one of the movement’s most prominent critics

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