For Reform Movement, There’s Change at the Top

New Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs (far left) and outgoing URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie flank former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the URJ biennial convention in Washington, D.C. Credit: Courtesy Union for Reform Judaism.
New Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs (far left) and outgoing URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie flank former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the URJ biennial convention in Washington, D.C. Credit: Courtesy Union for Reform Judaism.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—They sat side by side within an intimate circle, one about to end a 16-year-run as head of the Reform movement’s umbrella, the other on the verge of assuming that role. Change at the top should be—and will be—dramatic, said the former.

“The advice from my predecessor (Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler) to me was, change everything,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, outgoing president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), told reporters. “Organizations need renewal, organizations need revival. I don’t think I have anything to worry about in that regard [with my successor].”

Rabbi Richard Jacobs officially started his term as URJ president on Sunday. Jacobs and Yoffie spoke on a broad range of issues at a Dec. 14 press session, with the Reform movement’s attitudes toward Israel at the fore of the discussion.

When asked if the traditionally left-leaning movement should be comfortable “calling out” Israel on measures such as a bill requiring non-Jewish immigrants to swear loyaltyto a “Jewish, democratic state” and a bill proposing a ban on mosques using loudspeakers to announce the call to prayer, Jacobs responded that the “basis of our relationship with Israel is about love and responsibility” and that “from that foundation, all things are possible.”

But is that “foundation” strong?

“It needs some work, it’s stronger in my opinion than people suggest that it is or imply that it is,” Yoffie said.

Jacobs, who formerly sat on both the J Street and New Israel Fund boards but stepped down from all outside boards when the URJ formally approved his hiring, was asked about how certain Jewish communities and organizations refuse to embrace those two left-leaning Israel groups. He avoided the question, answering: “The key role for URJ and for the president of the URJ is to strengthen our relationship with the state of the people, to the people of Israel.”

“We are going to work every day to build two-way bridges,” he added.

Expanding on how the Reform movement can relate to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and government policies that are sometimes at adds with the movement’s professed values, Jacobs recalled that when the Likud Party’s Menachem Begin became prime minister, Rabbi Schindler—then URJ’s president—said “We relate to the Prime Minister of Israel because we relate to Israel.” In turn, the Reform movement should “express our moral commitments here and in Israel” and “bring them to the conversation,” Jacobs said.

Yoffie said the Reform movement, being Judaism’s “social justice movement,” believes that a “deep, profound, unwavering commitment [to Israel], and an affirmation of our democratic values, go together. They simply go together. They’re part of who we are.”

Jacobs said his goal as president entails simultaneously transforming the URJ and helping congregations “adapt in this new world.” Additionally, URJ needs to engage those who want to participate in Jewish life without having to join a congregation, he said.

Regarding URJ’s approach to gender issues within its engagement efforts, Jacobs said the key is “learning with” the external experts on those issues, rather than saying things like “hey, let’s have a salon, talk about gender issues” among its internal staff. He said the movement also needs to ask, “Where are the men?” [I don’t get the point here…] Gender issues are “on the list” of topics URJ is prioritizing in its engagement efforts, but they are “not explored to the depth” they need to be, Jacobs said.

Asked why among hundreds of workshops at the biennial, there were only three devoted to fundraising, Jacobs said the movement is “focusing a lot of energy on catalyzing congregational change,” telling congregations “hard truths” and asking them to be involved in experimentation. While “fundraising” was in the actual title of three sessions, that theme was weaved into many other sessions at the biennial, he said.

Addressing the issue that “it’s not inexpensive to be Jewish,” and the question of how all the change within URJ will be paid for, Jacobs again emphasized experimentation, and that URJ will be “honest in assessing” those experiments.

“What’s fundamentally going to help us remove those (financial) barriers from Jewish life?” Jacobs asked.

The URJ’s newly minted leader also stressed the need to take responsibility for Jewish life “outside the walls of our synagogues,” and to articulate what Reform Judaism is to “uninspired” members of the movement.

“We’re part of something larger than just our Reform movement,” he said.

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