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.