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.
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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.


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