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A conversation with Rabbi Rick Jacobs about the future of the Reform movement

The umbrella organization that serves the 850 synagogues of the Reform movement, the nation’s largest Jewish denomination is laying off about 20% of its staff, in addition to furloughs. The Union for Reform Judaism made the announcement after it decided amid the coronavirus pandemic to close all of its summer camps, forfeiting its single largest source of revenue.

Rabbis and experts on Jewish communal life said the layoffs raised the question of whether the pandemic would precipitate some kind of merger between the synagogue organizations of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. The organizations provide services like technological help, training, mediation and curriculum creation that could possibly be done as one body, instead of three, sources said.

In an interview the day after the layoffs, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the leader of the URJ, signalled his openness to such a merger. Here is an edited and condensed transcript from that conversation.

Ari Feldman: A lot of people feel more connected to their synagogues than they have in a long time. The kind of ingenuity and dynamism that has come out of synagogues during the pandemic, to pivot so quickly to doing everything online, is self-evident. So for me the main thing I’m trying to parse here is what the implications are of that for national synagogue organizations.

Rick Jacobs: A lot of the reasons that our great congregations have been able to adapt so quickly to this new environment is actually the role that the URJ has played. Our role is critical, because we’ve been advocating for big shifts and changes. Congregations realized that if they didn’t have online virtual classes or worship or counseling, they wouldn’t have anything to say to their community and beyond. We were doing workshops for hundreds of congregations during that early period — not just how to use Zoom, how to do Facebook Live but how to change what they were doing so it really would be effective.

We said, “Who would like help applying for an SBA loan?” Almost 200 congregations raised their hands and said, “We would. We don’t know how to do that. Walk us through. Coach us”. And we did, and most of them did receive SBA loans. We’re providing a whole host of resources, training guides, working with treasurers and finance committees for synagogues.

Which programs saw cuts?

Every area had cuts, but no area was cut off in its entirety. We couldn’t. That’s who we are. People are looking for, what’s the thing we’re not doing. Well, the core things, we’re going to continue doing, and we’re doubling down on things that we know to be very impactful today and that we uniquely can do, and can do really well.

Do you have a sense of what the overall loss in revenue is, as a percentage of total revenue? Do you have a sense of how much revenue was camp expected to bring in this year, or how much did it bring in last year?

It’s a major figure. I’m going to say that, because I can’t actually have the exact figure yet, because you’re talking also about tuition, some of which is already there. So we’re working that out. We have 15 overnight camps, 10,000 campers. We take hundreds of kids to Israel every summer. We have a semester in Israel. We have a host of programs, all of which have fees associated with them.

There’s a lot of opinion out there that Conservative and Reform Judaism, especially at the grassroots level, the practices are very similar, and they have a lot of shared goals. Do you have any vision for what a shared organization could look like that aims to support Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform synagogues?

If you think of a Venn diagram, what are the things that overlap all of us? How do we have our individuality but still have a commonality? There certainly are some bottom lines that are tough. Who is Jewish, right? We have a very expansive definition. We include patrilineal Jews. We include interfaith families in every part of what we do. That’s a dividing line. What does Shabbat morning service look like? There’s still some pretty big differences. And I think we want to respect that. We don’t think we have to homogenize everything into one cookie cutter of what synagogues look like or what a family’s Jewish life looks like.

This is not a moment of, the last person out, turn out the lights. This is a Jewish community in a very dynamic phase. So the language of shrinkage, that’s not the language to describe the reality of Jewish life today. Change is the language. Adapting is the language.

So do you see the possibility of actual, structural, organizational merging of operations happening in your tenure? Is that in the offing at all?

Sure. I think that’s a very real possibility. And internally, and also with congregations. You’ve got four congregations within 10 miles of each other — really?

I think that the thing is, let’s not miss the structure for the essence. Can we get more essential Jewish living by organizing differently, by structuring differently? That’s a compelling conversation to have. Because I think for so long Jewish life was very focused on buildings, and having boards and having all these separate things. I think now we’re saying, if I’m praying online with this community, and I’m learning in person with that community, and I’m showing up to volunteer in the homeless shelter at that synagogue — that may be more how a Jewish life of connection is structured, and I think we should be also open to that.

In some ways, the global pandemic is a big push in the right direction, the direction that many people resisted because the status quo is always very appealing. So some of these changes that are now kind of racing forward are really opportunities for us to do this different, and better.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman


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