BALTIMORE—Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform movement’s congregational arm, was an atypical choice as scholar-in-residence for the 2012 Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly—by his own admission.
“First of all, it’s an honor,” Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), said in an interview with JNS.org in Baltimore on Sunday, the GA’s first day. “And it’s unusual, actually, to have a denominational leader as a scholar-in-residence, and I feel like it’s a chance for us to speak about the incredible possibility of the Federation and synagogue world to really cooperate on a level that we’ve not yet cooperated.”
Jacobs—who is approaching one full year since taking the reins as URJ president from Rabbi Eric Yoffie at the organization’s December 2011 biennial—also discussed the U.S. elections, youth engagement, and priorities within tikkun olam (repairing the world).
JNS.org: What does it mean to you to be scholar-in-residence at the Federation GA, where such a wide spectrum of Jews is represented?
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: “For me, to be able to be here, I feel like I’m here representing [all] the denominations, not just the Reform movement, because I think that synagogues are critical to the Jewish future. But we have to think very creatively and differently, and I think that’s what’s happening at Federation as well.”
What has been the thrust of your first year as URJ president?
“I spent 30 years as a congregational rabbi, which is more years in the congregational rabbinate than all of my predecessors [as URJ president] combined. What that means is that I really understand the challenges that synagogues are facing now. So for me this has been a year of really trying to get better acquainted with the diversity of our movement, we’re in the South in small congregations, we’re in Canada in large congregations, and everything in between, and to really get a sense of the strength and the areas that we need to strengthen. So for me this has been kind of a whirlwind time to quickly begin to articulate a vision of where we’re going, and to align our material and spiritual and human resources so that we can meet those challenges.”
During your GA opening plenary remarks, you said “Embracing a focus on tikkun olam need not, indeed must not, come at the expense of study and worship?” Do you have a personal experience that illustrates that point?
“I spent Sukkot in 2005 in refugee camps in eastern Chad. These were the Darfur survivors. We weren’t sure that we would be able to say all the brachot every day, but the Darfuri refugees live in Sukkot. Literally, in Sukkot. And for them, it’s a 365-day-a-year gift, if they’re lucky enough to have a flimsy hut in the middle of the desert. So for me, I understood am yisrael far better than the beautiful sukkah I build on my front lawn every year.
So for me, those [values] are inseparable. Jewish study is a cornerstone, Jewish spiritual practice—these are cornerstones of my life. But tikkun olam can be a required piece of that puzzle, and for some young people especially, they start with tikkun olam. It doesn’t mean they end with tikkun olam. Some start with limmud Torah (study of Torah), that’s powerful. The key is to start and to connect all the pieces. So for me, you see that obviously the largest slice of the young demographic we need to impact are right there with tikkun olam, but haven’t connected the other dots. That’s our responsibility [as Jewish organizations].”
Also in your GA remarks, you said “Tikkun olam is universal—not limited to our families or to Jewish people,” but that Jews are also “profoundly obligated to care for our own people wherever they may be.” How should we balance those priorities?
“It’s the same way you prioritize [when] you have a family, and you live in a community. The halakhic sources are very instructive, [when they say] mpnei darkei shalom (for the sake of the ways of peace)—you have to worry about not just those in your immediate family.
“And I think that for very many of our young people, we want to make sure to prioritize not just everybody else, but include your own family. There are some people who only think about their own family and they never think outside the Jewish circle. But I think there’s just as big a danger today that you can be busy saving every other people in the world, but not have sympathy and activism in service of our own people who are struggling. So, it’s a balance and it’s a counterbalance that we have to always struggle with.”
What were your impressions of the debate within the Jewish community during the American election season?
“I don’t think we’re getting an A or an A-minus on deep communal debates at the moment. We’ve got a lot of work to do on that, and I think not just the United States, but our love of Israel needs to also have a deeper, more thoughtful debate about all the big issues that we face.
“It’s the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) message, which I actually deeply believe—our relationship between our country and the Jewish state, if it is in some ways beyond who is the sitting president or the sitting prime minister, I think it is critical that we make sure that the American Jewish community [ask itself] can we stand together, can we stand with Israel, on the critical issues?
“I hope that whatever divisive words were spoken—and a lot of divisive words were spoken—that we see our common goals and our common real struggles together, and that we rise as one in service of those.”
Most Jewish organizations are talking these days about how to create “young leaders.” What progress is the Reform movement making on that front?
“I think everybody is talking about it, but talking about engaging young Jews in their 20s and 30s isn’t the same as doing it, and there is not going to be one strategy that’s going to get everything done. I think we’re only aware how critical it is, but how critical it is to be thinking and acting in a variety of ways, and to make sure that first of all, don’t characterize those who are unengaged as not caring and not knowing. I led high holiday services at Brown [University] Hillel [in Providence, RI] this past Yamim Noraim, and I can tell you that a lot of times we make assumptions about who are those young people, but I think a lot of times our assumptions are dead wrong.”
“So I think one thing is first of all, we must have the young Jews as part of our thinking, and strategizing, and experimenting. It’s not for us to do for them—we have to do with them. And they are different and they think differently than previous generations, and that is known by everyone, but it is actually something not to be underestimated.”