URJ Names Rick Jacobs To Take Helm of Movement

Scarsdale Rabbi Helped Found Group Critical of Reform Movement He Will Lead

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published March 22, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Union for Reform Judaism has designated a prominent congregational rabbi and critic of the URJ as its new president and the de facto leader of the Reform Jewish movement in North America.

Rabbi Richard Jacobs, currently the senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY, will succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie as president of the URJ in July 2012, pending board approval of Jacobs at a meeting this June.

Jacobs, who leads a large Reform congregation in Westchester, will inherit a financially strapped organization, and a movement that is increasingly dissatisfied with its own leadership. Indeed, some of the most strident criticism of URJ has come from a small group of prominent congregational rabbis, the Rabbinic Vision Initiative – a group of which Jacobs is a founding member.

Union for Reform Judaism

“Rabbi Eric Yoffie is a giant,” said Jacobs in a press availability shortly before the announcement of his new position. But, he said, “we need a new path because the world is a different world…We need some serious work to figure out where the next iteration of Jewish life is in the United States and Canada.”

The URJ, an umbrella group which claims to represent 1.5 million Jews and more than 920 congregations, is the largest Jewish religious organization in North America. Yoffie will retire after leading the movement for 16 years.

Jacobs’ synagogue, Westchester Reform, has 1,200 member households and is among the largest in the Reform movement. He has led that congregation for the past 20 years. Previously, he served as rabbi at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. He is also on the board of the American Jewish World Service, UJA-Federation of New York and the New Israel Fund.

The Rabbinic Vision Initiative, which Jacobs helped establish, was founded by 18 rabbis of large Reform congregations from around the country. That RVI announced its existence in March with a letter to Reform rabbis and a position paper that included a stinging critique of the operations of the URJ.

The paper said that the governance structure of the URJ is “large and unwieldy, precluding effective and dynamic response to the changing realities of the Jewish world today.” It charged that the organization has underperformed in fundraising and development over the past 10 years; that the members of the RVI “sense a widespread concern in our movement that the URJ is not productively engaged in the real-life needs and challenges of its member congregations”; that the organization lacks a “culture of excellence,” and that it has generally “been left behind” as new, dynamic Jewish organizations move to the fore.

Jacobs’ name was attached to the document, as were the names of Rabbi Peter Rubinstein of Manhattan’ Central Synagogue, Rabbi Ronne Friedman of Temple Israel of Boston, and other leading Reform rabbis.

“I am not defined by the RVI,” Jacobs said at the press availability. But, he said, “I think my RVI colleagues are with me.”

Jacobs is markedly tall, thin, and an engaging speaker. He wears a green Save Darfur bracelet on his wrist and a small blue yarmulke on his head. He said that he believes he was selected to lead the movement because of his success at Westchester Reform Temple and his involvement in the broader push within Reform Judaism for synagogue transformation.

“We’re a congregation that has transformed itself,” Jacobs said. “Worship and spirituality are at the very fabric of what we do.”

He also described himself as being in tune with the needs of congregational rabbis. “Congregations are what I know, and the URJ is the congregational body of our movement,” he said.






Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.