Rabbi Richard Jacobs’ Remarks to Board of Trustees Upon His Election as President of the URJ
URJ Presidency Acceptance Speech as delivered by Rabbi Richard Jacobs
on June 12, 2011–10 Sivan 5771
Letme begin by expressing my deep gratitude to Peter Weidhorn, Bob Heller,the Presidential Search Committee, and the entire Union for ReformJudaism Board of Trustees. What an exceptional honor and enormousresponsibility you have bestowed upon me.
You have called meto lead this great Union for Reform Judaism and I am honored andhumbled. Honored by the confidence you have shown in me, and trulyhumbled by the towering examples of those who have served before me: Rabbis Yoffie, Schindler and Eisendrath. Their visionary leadershipbrought us far on the path of Jewish creativity and commitment; they ledus forward as we grew in numeric strength and in spiritualimagination. But there are new chapters in Jewish history that we mustnow write.
Ashraynu, how greatly have we been blessed by the extraordinary leadership of Rabbi Eric Yoffie. Eric’s leadership is grounded deeply in Torah and love for the Jewish people. What an exceptional religious leader he is: forceful and at the same time exceedingly humble. Eric’s strategic initiatives have impacted every part of our Union. During the coming months we will express to Eric all he has meant to us as we also prepare for the next part of our collective journey.
I’m joined today by my beloved wife and partner Susan Freedman and our three children Aaron, David and Sarah. I know you just elected me URJ President but in our house Susan is the president. For over twenty years she has served as the President of the Public Art Fund, which places temporary art work in public places throughout the 5 boroughs of New York City including the one of the most spectacular public art projects ever mounted, the NYC Waterfalls. Susan grew up at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan where her late father served as an active board member. She was privileged to be in one of Rabbi Sally Priesand’s first confirmation classes there. Because my Jewish life was inspired by my many summers at Camp Swig both as a camper and staff member, all three of our children spent summers at Eisner Camp in the Berkshires.
Aaron will be a senior next year at Brown University and is working this summer as a White House intern. David will be a sophomore at Brown University and is working this summer at Lawyers for Children in NYC, a unique law firm that represents kids in foster care. Sarah just celebrated the first anniversary of her Bat Mitzvah this past Shabbat by beautifully chanting Torah at WRT. This summer she will be volunteering for a therapeutic horseback riding program called Pegasus working with physically, emotionally, and developmentally challenged individuals. Before her Bat Mitzvah Sarah did similar work in Israel with an extraordinary organization called Intra located near Netanya.
My family has been enormously supportive of this move which changes our family’s life in so many ways. Susan and I try to teach our children that to live a life of purpose serving the greater good requires sacrifice but in the end such service helps shape a better world. I know I can count on their continued understanding and support as I immerse myself in the demands of this new position.
My rabbinate began just a few blocks from here in an old, rambling brownstone building with a small, diverse congregation of all ages and backgrounds seeking to build a community of meaning and purpose.
I was hired to be the part-time rabbi and educator of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. Our warm and spirited sacred community grew steadily with a willingness to experiment with every aspect of congregational life. On Simchat Torah we closed the street to dance the night away. Artists and grad students helped evolve our own experiential curriculum. With our minimal staff my “rabbinate” included regularly opening and closing the building, ordering the bagels and answering the phones. It was exciting to build a congregation with a group of lay leaders who hungered for more than they had known.
After a few years I was privileged to become their first full-time rabbi. On my watch we opened one of the first homeless shelters in New York City to be housed in a synagogue. That holy work in the 1980s led us to join an interfaith, interracial coalition of faith communities and what would turn out to be one of the earliest community organizing projects within our Movement.
Our passion for justice led us to build 1200 affordable housing units not far from here in a neighborhood that had only known decline. Commercial banks wouldn’t give our coalition a construction loan so we created our own bank for social responsibility called Community Capital. It was here in Brooklyn that I learned that congregations with purpose and imagination can do great things!
And so it is poignant that my narrative continues today in Brooklyn where I stand before you to talk about our Jewish future.
Demographers keep telling us that Judaism is not a growth industry. I disagree, but it would be folly to ignore the facts behind their analysis. Ties that once bound Jews to each other and to our tradition are attenuating. The number of interfaith couples continues to rise, with many still not finding any open doors in Jewish life. Men are less likely to stake out a place within our congregations. While 80% of American Jews affiliate with a synagogue at some point during their lives, their engagement tends to be temporary and tenuous.
No more than 50% of American Jews are members of synagogues at any one time. Unless we change our approach, there is little chance that Jews in their twenties and thirties will even enter the revolving door of synagogue affiliation. Hoping is not a strategy; the Jewish world needs new approaches for engaging the future. Together we will shape the strategies that will broaden and deepen our movement.
Everywhere we look, there are dramatic challenges facing our people; yet each is a phenomenal opportunity to revitalize Jewish life. Only very rarely has Jewish history known an era of so much creativity or innovation; no previous generation has possessed our resources and potential.
For two centuries, Reform Judaism has pointed the way forward. For the past forty years, our religious ingenuity has made us the fastest growing theologically liberal denomination in America. And yet we’ve become bogged down. Too many Jewish leaders seem paralyzed by fear of the future. This moment in Jewish history demands bold thinking with big ideas; this is not a time for staying the course. It’s time to reinvent the architecture of Jewish life. It’s a time to cast a broad net, to explore options rather than to rule things out, and to recreate a Movement which will be as meaningful in the future as it has been in the past.
Inclusive religious communities that are serious about learning, spirituality, tikkun olam and community will be attractive to the widest cross section of 21st century Jews and even to seekers of no faith. To be a Jewish spiritual home for “all who are hungry” does not require a minimalist Jewish vision but rather an engaging, demanding and elevating approach to Jewish life.
We must not try to be everything to everyone, but we can inspire and engage an increasingly wider swath of the Jewish community. We were the pioneers of outreach to the intermarried. It was the URJ that first battled homophobia as we welcomed LGBTQ Jews to their rightful place throughout Jewish life. As we clarify our core mission we will not shrink our vision for Jewish life.
A very important part of my leadership as the URJ President will be to help all of our URJ congregations become ohavei Zion–lovers of Zion. But I must admit I was surprised that the questions which have been raised are over whether I am sufficiently committed to Israel – to Am Yisrael, to Eretz Yisrael, and to Medinat Yisrael. Anyone who knows me – and, let me be clear, my critics do not – knows that love and support for Israel is simply in the fiber of who I am. I can no more say that “Israel is important to me” than I can say “my heart is important to me.” Both are deep inside of me, and I cannot imagine living without either.
There will be times during my Presidency when we come together to debate what should be the Union’s stance on specific Israel-related issues. This is not that time. For now, I only want to make two points.
First, I stand squarely in the tradition of Rabbis Schindler and Yoffie, that I will never, ever compromise on Israel’s security, never. I will ever lift up our efforts to strengthen it as a Jewish and democratic state, and thatI will be proud to work to advance the Israel policies that this Movement has adopted over the past generations.
Second, and just as important, I hope that when the time comes for such a debate, that it will be a machlochet L’shem shamayim – a dispute for the sake of heaven…that we will conduct that debate with passion, to be sure. I hope and pray we will always debate with passion — but with civility and a respect for those who hold differing views.
I hope we will work to learn what others really think, and have really said, rather than relying on rumors, half-truths and outright lies. I hope that we will talk about real issues, and not find people guilty by association. I hope that anyone who wants to know what I think about something will ask me. As you will learn, I’m not exactly shy.
Aleinu -“it is up to us” to foster a deep love for and engagement with Israel among Reform Jews of North America, young and old. With Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, ARZA and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, we can be builders and supporters of Medinat Yisrael and will continue to do so. Israel is not only a bundle of pressing issues and challenges, but more importantly our dynamic and inspiring Jewish homeland. When Israel gets into our hearts then I know that we will never stop fighting for an Israel that is secure, religiously free, guided by justice and dwelling in peace.
Our focus cannot rest solely on the present. The future of the Movement – and that of the North American Jewish community – is dependent upon the children and young adults in our congregations and those who would be part of congregations. The Youth Engagement Campaign that Rabbi Yoffie initiated is critical to the bright Jewish future we’re all hoping to shape. I’m committed to moving this forward.
These issues and many more make up some of the challenges facing our synagogues.
I became a rabbi almost thirty years ago to serve God and the Jewish people wherever I could do the most good. I’ve loved my years serving two amazing congregations first in Brooklyn Heights just a stone’s throw down the road and for the past nineteen years at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York. As I prepare to leave the congregational rabbinate, I believe more than ever that vibrant synagogues are the key to our Jewish future. I will be the first URJ President who has spent decades as a congregational rabbi; synagogues are what I know and synagogues are what I love.
I’ve spent almost thirty years animating my congregations with life-enhancing learning and worship that speaks to the heart, and tikkun olam that shapes a better world. My congregation in Westchester is not alone in the work of synagogue transformation. A growing circle of URJ congregations from Los Altos Hills, California to the Riverway in Boston are blazing similar trails of innovation and excellence in all of the core areas of synagogue life. It can be done but it can’t be done alone, and that’s where the URJ comes in.
The URJ can be a catalyst to vision and excellence, the twin doorways to dramatic change and growth. But the surest way to fail is to start by saying we already know the answer. We have learned much working with and for congregations across North America. There is always more to learn and for that we turn directly to the dedicated lay leaders and smart professionals in the congregations and the other arms of the Movement — especially the CCAR and the College. And yes, we have a group of prominent successful rabbis called the Rabbinic Vision Initiative. We must tirelessly seek out the best ideas wherever they are found.
Our challenge will be not only to seek the best ideas but to listen intently and be nimble enough to respond. Many of our partners have brilliant ideas but too often feel we are ignoring their many successes and accomplishments that could be models for others. Others feel like we’re not listening to their pain, their challenges or their fears. Let’s start with the kind of listening that engages the entire Movement in order to reflect the current realities on the ground.
I’m not suggesting that after listening all we need to do is throw everything we hear into a giant blender and out comes the bold new Jewish future that we so desperately need. But if we don’t begin by forging a deeper sense of partnership with our congregations and all of our stakeholders, they won’t care about our bold new plans. And by the way, when we have been listening, we’ve mostly been listening to people who think just like we do here in the beltway of Reform Jewish life called the URJ.
Fortunately, I will not undertake this sacred work alone. One of the greatest blessings of my decades in the congregational rabbinate was the partnerships I enjoyed with lay leaders. As I look around the room today all I see are new partners, you who represent the diversity and the dedication of this congregational arm of our movement. Your insights, experience and vision will be key to the direction our movement takes. Together we will work to shepherd them through challenges, celebrate successes and prepare their congregations for the next generation.
My transition team begins our work tomorrow. I am pleased to announce that Rabbi Jonah Pesner will direct my transition team in the coming months. And when I formally begin my presidency Jonah will join me in the senior leadership of our movement. He is an exceptionally talented, creative and charismatic young leader whose work with Just Congregations has sent waves of exciting new thinking and activism through our Movement.
I am also proud to announce that Rabbi Dan Freelander will be a part of the new senior leadership team. Danny has served this Union with distinction for his entire professional career and is eager to help us re-imagine and renovate the URJ going forward. Over the coming months we will begin to shape our team to meet the many challenges facing our Movement and all of Jewish life. You can be sure that the Union is going to have the very best staff in the Jewish world, a staff devoted to and exemplifying excellence.
In order to learn more about the best in innovation and creative thinking inside and outside the Reform world, this summer I will be convening a group of some of the most brilliant and visionary thinkers and practitioners who will help us chart the course of Reform Judaism in the coming decades. I look forward to this exciting endeavor and I will regularly report on my findings.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, scouts are sent to spy the land of Israel to see what awaits the Jewish people on their journey. Ten of those scouts come back overwhelmed by the frightening realities our people will be forced to confront. Two of those scouts, Joshua and Caleb, return brimming with optimism and hope. All of the scouts saw the same terrain, but their responses could not be more different. Anyone with their eyes open can see the enormous challenges before our Movement, but at the very same moment, I am buoyed by a sense of possibility of this unique moment in Jewish history.
In twenty-five years, I see our movement flourishing with a wide network of energetic religious communities of depth and passion stretching throughout the Jewish world. From the ranks of the unaffiliated and the uninspired, they will flock to our inclusive religious communities that are serious about learning, spirituality, tikkun olam and community. Together we will catalyze innovation and excellence so that our expression of Judaism will attract the widest cross section of 21st Century Jews and seekers who have yet to find their faith. Remember, congregations with purpose and imagination can do great things!
It is time for us to seize this moment to shape a better tomorrow. As URJ President, it will be my honor to help lead and journey with you to that future we are just beginning to envision.
Aloh Na’aleh–Let’s get going to that better tomorrow.
Learn about Rabbi Jacobs and read other speeches and writings at urj.org/rabbijacobs.