Reflections from the Road: First in an Occasional Series

A neighbor recently asked “Where is the URJ?”   “Across North America,” I answered.  Wanting a more specific response he pressed me, “No, I mean where is your office?”  “Where ever I am.”   I really wasn’t being difficult just reflecting on my new life as a “wandering Jew.”

Before unpacking my books in my office in New York, I hit the road.   With two months as the Union’s incoming president under my belt, these trips are a terrific way for me to connect with our lay leaders and staff, as well as experience the breadth, depth and diversity of our congregations and clergy—and the broader communities of which they are a part.

Three weeks ago I was “home” in Los Angeles.  I’m a SoCal native; it’s where I lived from age 10 on and where I served as Temple Isaiah’s first rabbinic intern.  Today, Rabbi Zoe Klein, Cantor Evan Kent, Rabbi Dara Frimmer, and Rabbi Joel Nickerson lead the dynamic congregation, and it was a real treat for me to be back in my old stomping ground for Torah study and Shabbat morning prayer, which included young families and longtime members in a spiritually uplifting service.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

On Friday night, I was honored to share erev Shabbat with the Beth Chayim Chadashim community, the first LGBT congregation in the Reform Movement, and a place where I have deep, longstanding connections going back to my student days.  Back in the late 1970s, BCC past president Benn Howard, z.l., was my dance teacher, encouraging me to choreograph my third-year HUC sermon, and BCC’s student rabbi was none other than my roommate, Keith Stern.  On the heels of the recent overturn of Prop 8, my visit at BCC was especially meaningful and I was truly delighted to celebrate this legislative milestone (and the Reform Movement’s staunch commitment to inclusion and equality in each and every one of its holy endeavors) with the BCC family.

At the conclusion of Shabbat, congregational leaders from throughout Orange and San Diego counties came together to chat at Temple Beth El of South Orange County.  In the course of the conversation, I was a bit surprised to learn that some of the folks in the room had not previously met and did not know each other.  Of course, by the time the meeting ended, new connections and the seedlings of collaboration were wholly evident.  Nonetheless, I was reminded of the important role the Union can and must play as a convener of congregational leaders in an effort to create and nurture opportunities for connection.  The HUC-JIR Board of Governors gathering, conversations with West District staff members and lay leaders, and a session with Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles (after which he wrote this piece about me) rounded out my visit to the City of Angels.

More recently, I spent five whirlwind days visiting in Atlanta and its suburbs.  As in LA, my days (and evenings) were filled with “meet and greets,” press interviews, a bit of text study and lots of talk about the Jewish future.

Let me share a few highlights from the Atlanta trip.

On Friday, my day began early at the Davis Academy, where I was absolutely wowed by the students, the faculty and the parents, all of whom work together in a true kehillah kedosha—a holy community—in which the tenets of Reform Judaism are incredibly evident in the outstanding teaching and learning that takes place in so many different and creative ways.  After meeting with the school’s administrative team and Jewish studies faculty, I was honored to speak about the evolution of Reform Judaism with a cohort of Davis parents.  Offering a d’var Torah at the lower school’s kabbalat Shabbat service, too, was a delight.  The community of approximately 800 (including parents, grandparents, faculty, staff and community leaders) gathered together as one—as it does each week—to get a head start on welcoming Shabbat.   In the middle school, I was moved by the drama teacher who, although not Jewish, spoke about the Judaic values inherent in all of her teaching, including the upcoming production of Beauty and the Beast.   By the time I left Davis late in the morning, I’d had a firsthand look at just how devoted this Reform Jewish Day School community is to nurturing a new generation of thoughtful, committed, and knowledgeable Reform Jews.

A lunch meeting at Temple Sinai with the professional leaders from our URJ congregations in the greater Atlanta community and a tour of the congregation’s beautiful facility followed my visit at the Davis Academy.  By early evening, having endured traffic worthy of LA or New York, I was 20-some miles from Atlanta in the small town of Fayetteville, GA, home of Congregation B’nai Israel.  Over dinner with the executive board and clergy, I learned a lot about B’nai Israel, which was formed in 1981 by five dedicated families, and today numbers approximately 85 families who gather regularly in their own building for learning and worship.    There’s a great spirit of dedication that animates their members.   For a number of years, the congregation hesitated to put a sign in front of their new building because they were concerned about those elements of the community that didn’t welcome a Jewish congregation in their midst.  But now they have a sign right out front, proudly proclaiming that the Jewish community is very present.   I’m learning about the varied challenges our congregations face in different parts of North America, and, how they count on the Union for strength and guidance.

Shabbat morning found me in Roswell, at Temple Beth Tikvah where I taught Torah study, shared a d’var Torah in a very participatory worship service and had a dialogue with the community following a delicious kiddush lunch!  For seudah shlishit, the traditional third meal of Shabbat, I “hung out” with a group of phenomenally creative young Jewish leaders who are engaging many young 20s and 30s outside the walls of synagogues.

On Sunday and Monday, I joined the rabbis, presidents and executive directors from the Union’s largest congregations, all of whom gather annually to network, share and learn with and about each other and the unique issues, challenges and joys of their synagogues.   In breakout sessions, we explored many challenges and shared some best practices.  I was inspired by the wise reflections of the members of the group that discussed creating and sustaining congregational excellence.  This latest iteration of our “Largest Congregations Meeting” highlighted the big challenges and even bigger opportunities for congregations in this dramatic time of change.

As I continue to make my way around North America, I look forward to more listening and learning, connecting and convening—with our congregations, with their members, and with the Jewish world at large, beyond the walls of our synagogues.  I’m off to catch my next flight, so check back here soon for more reflections from the road.

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs

About Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the URJ. See his full bio and other writings on the URJ website.

2 Responses to “Reflections from the Road: First in an Occasional Series”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    I’m surprised that you were “a bit surprised” that congregational leaders in Orange and San Diego counties did not know one another. Surely you’ve heard a lot of comments over these past months bemoaning the loss of the regions — and as someone who first related to the Union through a sub-regional federation, that loss of local comity is even more keenly felt. Kudos to Detroit, which keeps its federation alive, reminding leadership that we not just members of our synagogue, but also of the Reform movement and of the Jewish people.

    My most interesting gleaning from your post was the reference to the 20’s and 30’s in Atlanta who are engaging their peers Jewishly outside the walls of the synagogue. This not only responds to the anti-institutional zeitgeist of that generation, but to the need for recognizing and catering to niche populations, engaging opportunities for achieving more critical mass than a single congregation might offer, and taking advantage of the synergies and economies of scale that are available when we look beyond the parochial interests of individual temples.

  2. avatar

    I have recently found out that i might be related to Benn Howard (half uncle), which is how I found your blog. Anything you could tell me about him would be fantastic.

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