Rick Jacobs: Rav On a Mission

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is a Rav on a mission. As the newly installed president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in North America, Jacobs has his work cut-out for him. While the movement remains the largest in North America, the challenges facing not only the URJ, but all non-Orthodox movements, are significant. To Jacobs’ credit, he comes to the position with a keen understanding of these challenges, and a few ideas that will hopefully awaken both the established orthodoxy of entrenched organizations and some movement individuals.

On an early summer visit to Israel, his first since officially taking over the reins from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, eJP sat with Rabbi Jacobs to look at not only where the URJ currently is positioned, but where it needs to move so as to thrive in the 21st Century as it has in the 20th. Much of what Jacobs conveyed during this discussion applies not just to the Reform Movement but to the broader structure of the Jewish organizational world.

Several times during the conversation, Rabbi Jacobs emphasizes that “We’re at a crossroads.” He continues, “We need to be bold, smart and strategic about how we approach this moment in Jewish history.” It is almost as if Jacobs recognizes the clock is ticking; not just with the amount of time he has to move the needle, but for the movement, and American Judaism, to leapfrog forward from times past.

He knows the URJ has a long-standing problem of keeping youth involved post-Bar/Bat MItzvah (80% currently drop out before confirmation). He is keenly aware that today’s 20- and 30-somethings harbor a deep distrust of “institutions”. He knows that all too many Reform synagogues, and their rabbis, are wrapped in a cocoon of the past. He clearly “gets it”. Jacobs sees himself as the necessary catalyst for change and is determined to succeed.

Along the way, he expects some push-back. A long-time congregational rabbi, Jacobs comes to the URJ with a deep understanding of what’s ‘happening on the street of American Judaism’. It cannot be said he is seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Jacobs is a realist – never underestimating the difficulty of the task. And, he knows that above-all-else, congregational change is an absolute must for the movement to flourish.

Stressing that congregations, and their staff, need to “adapt or die”, he tells eJP, “congregational rabbis need to get out of their comfortable chairs, away from behind their computer screens, and take a deep dive into new initiatives.” In the new world order of the URJ, congregations must once again overflow with creativity and energy; they need to move “from ok to good; from good to great; and from great to extraordinary. Only then will [our synagogues] be the central address for the 21st Century Jew looking to cultivate a strong, nourishing Jewish life.”

Tied not so neatly with congregational change, the URJ, like the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and like the entire North American federation system among others, needs to deal with the unmistakable need to engage the next generation. In multiple conversations with Jacobs since his selection in mid-2011, he has articulated the importance of “making sure this next generation is not just along for the ride but is really taking responsibility for Jewish life.” Of course, they need to first be in the room – from the local level on up – and here, as a movement built around strong synagogues, the movement has an easier long-term entry point – through developing relationships with, and between, teens, their peers and their families. Such was the motivation, initiated under Rabbi Yoffie, for the Campaign for Youth Engagement and their ambitious goal of having the majority of Jewish youth active in Jewish life by 2020. As Rabbi Jonah Pesner, a senior vice president of the URJ, wrote in eJP earlier this year, “If we are serious about youth engagement, we can’t just replicate another program – even one that works in the short term. We need a massive initiative, a focused, strategic effort to ensure that we leverage the full strength and talent of every corner of the Jewish world.” With the full support of Rabbi Jacobs and the leadership, the URJ is continuing to inject both financial resources and build new partnerships to move this Campaign forward.

As one listens to Rabbi Jacobs, one can’t help but think he will succeed. He closes our conversation by saying, “each of us needs to make a commitment to be a part of something larger than our individual selves.” Not only has Rabbi Jacobs internalized his own message, he’s busy pushing it out wherever he can.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs will serve as the scholar-in-residence at the upcoming Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA)’s 2012 General Assembly (GA), the annual gathering of the North American Jewish community, in Baltimore this November.