The leader of the largest Jewish denomination in the world will visit Pittsburgh in February to meet with rabbis and lay leaders here.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, will visit the area, Thursday, Feb. 27, for a communitywide event at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, followed by dessert.
Leaders from Reform congregations throughout the Tri-State area have been invited. Specifically, invitations went to Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg, Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside, Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, Temple Emanuel of South Hills, Temple David in Monroeville, Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak, Temple Beth Am in Monessen, Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, W.Va., Temple Shalom in Wheeling, W.Va., and Congregation Beth Shalom in East Liverpool, Ohio.
Jacobs is expected to hold a “meaningful dialogue with the Greater Pittsburgh community,” Arielle Ingber, executive assistant to the president, said in the invitation to the congregations.
According to URJ spokeswoman Annette Powers, Jacobs will likely conduct a town hall-style meeting, speaking himself at first then opening the sessions for questions. But she added that the format is subject to change.
Temple Emanuel hasn’t hosted a president of the union since Rabbi Alexander Schindler in the 1970s, according to Rabbi Mark Mahler.
“This is really a great privilege for us,” he said.
According to Powers, there was no intent to pick a suburban synagogue as the venue over one in the city.
“There is no particular reason that Rabbi Jacobs is going to the suburbs rather than the city,” she said in an email to the Chronicle. “It was just an idea he discussed with Rabbi Mahler and they decided to host the forum there. Rabbi Jacobs travels to congregations all over North America and really makes a point to see all kinds of congregations — large and small, city and suburban.”
Since taking over as URJ president last year, Jacobs has laid the groundwork for a re-envisioned movement, one in which youth engagement is the No. 1 priority.
During his keynote address at the URJ Biennial Convention this past December in San Diego, Jacobs who appeared before a crowd of 5,000-some participants, struck a new image for the movement. The tall, slim rabbi hearkened back to his surfing days while growing up in southern California; he sometimes spoke off the cuff, frequently strolled about the stage away from the podium, engaged with the audience, and he wore an open collar shirt — no tie.
Most important, he struck a new theme for Reform Judaism; audacious hospitality.
“Audacious hospitality isn’t just a temporary act of kindness so that people don’t feel left out; it’s an ongoing invitation to be part of a community where we can become all that God wants us to be — and a way to transform ourselves in the process,” Jacobs said in his address. “Audacious hospitality is a two-way street, where synagogue and stranger need each other. Hospitality is not just our chance to teach newcomers but, just as important, an opportunity for them to teach us.”
He made clear that all Jews regardless of their race, gender, sexuality and level of observance would be welcome and included.
“In a Jewish world where many more Jews are outside than inside, how can we not practice audacious hospitality?” he asked. “When women finally became rabbis, cantors, and board presidents, they didn’t just fill the previously conceived roles; they critiqued and reshaped Jewish life. We need to do the same now with the LGBTQ community, with multiracial Jews, with intermarried families, and with Gen X and the millennials, all of whom have much to teach us.
“Let’s be frank,” he continued. “Even when they get inside our doors, many of these folks are convinced of not much more than the fact that we can smile. Are they equally certain that we want them? That’s the question. The answer is an emphatic yes. Only by being inclusive can we be strong; only by being open can we be whole.”
He specifically included non-Jewish spouses in the need for inclusion.
“Incredibly enough … I still hear Jewish leaders talk about intermarriage as if it were a disease,” Jacobs said. “It is not. It is a result of the open society that no one here wants to close. The sociology is clear enough; anti-Semitism is down; Jews feel welcome; we mix easily with others; Jewish North Americans [researchers say] are more admired overall than any other religious group. So of course you get high intermarriage rates — the norm, incidentally, in the third or fourth generation of other ethnic groups as well.”
To illustrate that point, Jacobs cited Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, Calif., which he said identifies itself on its website by saying: “We are also ‘Mosaic’ in that we connect back to Moses, a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians, who married a non-Jewish woman of color and became the leader of his people.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)