Q&A: Rick Jacobs URJ president says Jewish young people are priority 1

Q&A: Rick Jacobs URJ president says Jewish young people are priority 1

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke of  “audacious hospitality” at the URJ’s 72nd Biennial conference in San Diego. (Photo by Dale Lazar)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke of “audacious hospitality” at the URJ’s 72nd Biennial conference in San Diego. (Photo by Dale Lazar)

(When Rabbi Rick Jacobs was installed as president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement, in June 2012, he promised to turn Reform Judaism into a “movement undergoing renovation that will renew Jewish life.” Since then, Jacobs has embarked on an aggressive effort to re-engage Jewish youth, rethink the bar and bat mitzvah, reach out to interfaith families and advocate for liberal Judaism in Israel. He addressed the Knesset this past November.) 

Jacobs unveiled several new initiatives at December’s URJ Biennial, many of which are youth oriented, such as a new Jewish science camp initiative at the 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy near Boston.

Jacobs will visit Pittsburgh on Feb. 27 for a town hall meeting with Reform leaders from across the Tri-State area at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, but he discussed changes in the movement during an exclusive interview with the Chronicle.)

Jewish Chronicle: Is there a message for Pittsburgh in your visit?

Rick Jacobs: It’s a two-way stop. I’m actually bringing messages and some of the things URJ is taking leadership on, but also I’d like to understand and know better what’s going on on the ground in Pittsburgh. It’s not identical if I’m in Texas or if I’m in Seattle or any other place; I don’t presume the exact same things are happening in the exact same way. So I’m coming to share some thoughts; I’m coming also to hear, and get to understand and to know the community better.

JC: What are some of those thoughts you care to share?

RJ: The big agenda questions about how we respond to some of the challenges in terms of demography. In a world that is digesting still the impact of a Pew study, what’s the opportunity in that for us is? It doesn’t actually tell us what we should do; it tells us where we are. What we’re supposed to do [is] always leadership’s job, to figure out where in the current reality the opportunities are for us to strengthen and to grow and to deepen.

For example, for interfaith outreach. There’s a significant machloket — a significant debate — that’s going on that’s not just about personal opinions or individual thoughts. What’s the opportunity for the Reform movement to continue and maybe even to expand its leadership in outreach to interfaith families? What does that mean, how does it get practiced?

We are the movement that introduced outreach to the Jewish world in the ’70s; when Alexander Schindler did so, he met with significant resistance. Over time, I think more people have understood its importance, what that means for congregations, what that means for people outside congregations. One thing where I have put a big stake in the ground is we are not going to walk away from people outside the congregations. Many of those people happen to be our young people.

JC: You’ve said a number of times that youth engagement is your No. 1 priority. … You also put your money where your mouth is when you sold part of the New York headquarters for $1 million and you earmarked that money for youth projects. That’s a major statement, but obviously it’s going to take more than money to re-engage Jewish youth. What other components do we have to bring to that project?

RJ: We are lowering the barriers to participation in our youth programs; we are not requiring membership in movement congregations — we think that’s a perfect moment for us to be doing outreach — and we’re going to start [youth programming] with sixth grade before students have had bar or bat mitzvah.

And we’re bringing the assets of our 14 summer camps — with our youth programs, with our congregational programs, with our Israel programs. … No matter what a student’s interest is, there is a doorway into Jewish engagement.

Very frankly, this is not about lowering the bar; it’s about bringing more students into more engagement and to deepen that engagement. We think it’s not enough just to give lots and lots of kids a Jewish flavor. We want the core of what we do, which is learning, which is spiritual practice, which is social justice, which is a deep sense of community. Those are the things that make youth engagement real; it’s not just, they came and ate pizza on a Wednesday night. …

This is programmatic as well as financial. We’re not asking people to invest money before they see the really thoughtful plan that’s unfolding and that’s already beginning to strengthen parts of our URJ youth programs. But if we don’t engage the next generation, frankly everything else we talk about is going to be moot. So there’s a reason it’s our No. 1 priority.

JC: As we engage Jewish youth, does that automatically mean we must de-emphasize religion to engage with them in the first place? And is that why you’re trying experiments like the 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy?

RJ: We’re not de-emphasizing anything. Let’s think of what the Sci-Tech Camp is. It is an incubator camp; the Foundation for Jewish Camp picked out our movement yet again [to partner with] because they know of the excellence of our camping project. … There are plenty of kids who have never gone to a Jewish summer camp because they don’t resonate with soccer and [other activities].

And by the way, what happens at our Jewish Sci-Tech camp that’s part of URJ? Shabbat, prayer, learning. It’s not that they spend seven days a week 24 hours a day only doing scientific experiments and technological activities, it’s embedded in the Jewish framework. … It’s not scientific and technology instead of, it’s science and technology embedded within, and it’s meeting students where they are, which doesn’t mean you meet them where they are and you leave them where they are. … We’ve had a blind spot; there are plenty of our best kids who are not engaged in Jewish life because their interests are not part of the mix currently of offerings. We’re saying those kids are precious to us; we want them involved.

JC: How does Israel figure into your vision for the future of the movement?

RJ: Intimately and deeply. That’s why much of [last] week has been spent responding to the chairman of the law and justice committee of the Knesset.

(Jacobs was referring to right-wing MK David Rotem, who was reported as saying the Reform movement “is not Jewish.” Rotem offered a full apology last week, but only after first saying his remarks were “misinterpreted” by the media. An MK for the United Torah Judaism party — ultra-Orthodox party — accused the Reform movement of forcing Rotem to apologize and of bribing lawmakers.)

We’ve been leading the effort to make sure the Western Wall is a wall that has a place for every one of us, not just those who have Orthodox practice, but those who believe that egalitarian, pluralistic practice is not just an OK thing, it is now the dominant Judaism of the Diaspora.

We believe Israel is fundamental to Jewish identity. We are deeply committed to Israel’s security and well-being, and its character.

Character includes pluralism and affirmation of Jews of all different beliefs and practices.

We think that there’s a real great moment for synergy. The prime minister has launched his Prime Minister’s Initiative, which is to take responsibility for Jewish identity and engagement worldwide. We think this is a great mission; we also believe that we uniquely have a part of that work, so we’re bringing Israel to our North American movement in more direct ways and more effective ways. …

We don’t want Israeli engagement to be episodic, not once in a lifetime you went on a trip to Israel, [rather] how does Israel live in a North American Reform community day to day, with our littlest ones in nursery school, with teens and adults.

JC: Back in this country, how should Reform congregations in such close proximity to one another interact? Should they be competitors? Should they be partners? How should they interrelate?

RJ: There should always be a sense of menschlichkeit and unity; it’s certainly the case that that is the norm throughout our movement, as well as new opportunities to strengthen each other’s work and to partner when it’s appropriate and when it’s a positive for all concern. Whether you’re talking about Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, where we are blessed to have multiple Reform congregations, we also want to make sure to focus on the community that’s not being engaged as well as those that are happily within those walls. So I’m hoping that we can have a conversation with our professional and lay leaders of Pittsburgh, looking forward to having them share their frustrations and their successes.

I’m happy to listen, but at the end of the day we have almost 900 congregations throughout North America. We stand for something; we stand together. And yet there is diversity. Congregations are not all from one cookie cutter. They have different practices, there is diversity within Reform; that’s a healthy strength.

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at leec@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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