Nod to Change as Jacobs Takes URJ Reins

Gospel Choir and African Tallit Symbolize New Path for Reform

Nod to Change: Rabbi Rick Jacobs pointedly used his installation as head of the Union for Reform Judaism to symbolize big changes at the group.
clark jones/urj
Nod to Change: Rabbi Rick Jacobs pointedly used his installation as head of the Union for Reform Judaism to symbolize big changes at the group.

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published June 15, 2012, issue of June 22, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Rabbi Rick Jacobs designed the ceremony that installed him as president of the Union for Reform Judaism to broadcast his vision of what the Reform movement — the largest denomination in American Jewish life — should be.

Rabbis and cantors led songs by Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and by Reform folksinger Debbie Friedman at the June 9 event. A 100-member gospel choir sang and got most people in the packed sanctuary on their feet and swaying. The choir came from Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., near Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., where Jacobs was the rabbi for 20 years. The new president of the Reform youth movement, an 18-year-old biracial man, chantedf the week’s Torah portion.

Choreographer Liz Lerman led “sacred movement,” reflecting Jacobs’s commitment to the arts and his past as a member of a modern dance troupe. And the ceremony was held at Brooklyn’s Congregation Beth Elohim, a synagogue recently revived by its rabbi and viewed as cutting edge, rather than at one of the Reform old-establishment congregations in Manhattan.

Greater Centennial Choir of A.M.E. Zion Church sings.
clark jones/urj
Greater Centennial Choir of A.M.E. Zion Church sings.

Throughout his installation, Jacobs wore a tallit made from cloth he purchased in Chad, where he visited Darfuri refugee camps with American Jewish World Service several years ago.

While the installation marked the ceremonial start of Jacobs’s time at the helm of URJ, it has been a year since his appointment was announced and six months since he started working there. He immediately restructured the 139-year-old organization, eliminating about 20 positions and shrinking the board of directors. He also changed the board’s mandate and overhauled the organization’s business model.

These are dramatic changes meant to turn around a denomination that is, like the Conservative movement, aging and facing challenges both financial and existential.

“You can be serious about your Judaism and not necessarily affiliated with a synagogue” today, Jacobs said in an interview with the Forward a few days before his installation. “The greatest challenge is creating a Reform movement that is nimble and responsive to all that’s changing in the wider Jewish community and at the same time really anchoring the center,” he said. “We are realigning our priorities to meet those challenges, to have a very clear sense of the timeless as well as the timely. It’s very dangerous to sit and hold on to the status quo, which religious denominations are usually quite good at.”

His biggest challenge may be reversing his denomination’s contraction. The number of URJ-affiliated synagogues has shrunk to 877 today from 909 in 2005, according to Rabbi Daniel Freelander, the URJ’s senior vice president. Some have closed and others have merged. One of the largest, Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, resigned from the URJ last year to protest leadership it saw as unwieldy and ineffective.

An increased number of URJ congregations are struggling financially and paying less in dues to be members of the URJ than they did several years ago. Moreover, they are slower to pay them, Freelander said.


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!
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • 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.