Reform’s New Leader

Editorial

Published March 23, 2011, issue of April 01, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Whoever leads the Union for Reform Judaism can really matter in American Jewish life. With 900 synagogues serving 1.5 million people, the Reform movement is the nation’s largest Jewish denomination and, despite its budgetary and organizational travails, remains the steadiest ship in the vast and sometimes inchoate sea of liberal Judaism. Its leaders tend to hold their jobs for a good, long while — Rabbi Alexander Schindler for 23 years, Rabbi Eric Yoffie for 16 years by the time he officially retires in 2012.

So the selection of Rabbi Richard Jacobs as the next president of the URJ will have consequences far beyond his suburban synagogue and the movement he hopes to lead if, as expected, his selection is officially approved in June.

Jacobs is a wise and bold choice. Wise, because he seems to exude that rare combination of intellectual smarts, rabbinic charisma and social empathy necessary for Reform leadership, with a solid track record to back it up: Membership at his Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., grew from 900 households to 1,200 during his 20 years as rabbi. But Jacobs has also been a critic of the very organization he wishes to lead, and even his upbeat language after the announcement of his nomination rang with words that signalled a break with the past.

In an interview with the Forward, he spoke of bringing “transformational change” to the Reform movement, about the “need to reimagine what we do every day.” And he’s not just referring to the administration at the URJ’s offices in Manhattan. Jacobs clearly believes that the synagogue will remain central to Jewish life in America, but that it needs to, in his words, become more “compelling, meaningful and engaging” to retain its members and attract the unaffiliated and uninspired.

In this, his background and focus echo the choice two years ago of Rabbi Steven Wernick to head the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Wernick is not exactly Jacobs’s counterpart — the Conservative movement has a leadership troika, unlike the more streamlined Reform set-up — but both men share the experience of leading congregations during challenging times before assuming their national roles.

At a time when synagogue membership is anathema to many Jews who are alienated by the cost or by the very idea of belonging somewhere, it is important for these two movements — which still represent the majority of religiously affiliated American Jews — to reaffirm the synagogue’s central role while reimagining its function and purpose. Jacobs speaks of examining “where our walls end and where our reach extends.” Amen to that.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • 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.