May 2, 2011
Reform defends Richard Jacobs as critics attack his Israel positions
An angry exchange over the Zionist credentials of the incoming president of the Reform movement has intensified and exploded onto the public stage.
The conflict pits the movement’s leadership against a group of dissidents who say they represent a growing number of Reform Jews upset by the movement’s “leftward shift.”
Last week the dissident group, which calls itself Jews Against Divisive Leadership and is led by Washington-area Zionist activist Carol Greenwald, placed an ad in a number of Jewish newspapers criticizing the recent appointment of Rabbi Richard Jacobs as the next president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Greenwald, who is on the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA, also has an Op-Ed in JTA slamming Jacobs.
The ad, signed by some three dozen members of U.S. Reform congregations, suggested that Jacobs is not sufficiently pro-Israel to head their religious denomination. It notes that he is on the rabbinic cabinet of J Street and the board of the New Israel Fund, two organizations that promote left-wing causes related to Israel.
The ad calls upon the Union for Reform Judaism to reconsider Jacobs’ appointment or risk driving “mainstream Zionists” out of the Reform movement.
Stuart Weil, a citrus grower in Fresno, Calif., and a lifelong member of the Reform movement who signed the ad, said he is outraged by “the leftist agenda of the Reform movement,” which he says has intensified in recent years.
“Yoffie and Saperstein have turned the Reform movement into an affiliate of the Democratic Party,” he told JTA, referring to current URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie and Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Reform leaders in North America and Israel quickly mobilized a response to the attack on Jacobs, circulating a letter signed by a variety of Jewish leaders affirming Jacobs’ support for Israel, as well as authoring opinion columns praising Jacobs and condemning divisiveness in the community.
Jacobs himself used an appearance Monday in Washington at the Religious Action Center to stress his Zionist credentials and advocate for “big tent” Zionism.
“In times of crisis, it is not uncommon for lovers of Israel to close in tight around only a narrow slice of the community. But Israel is not served by such a narrow tent,” Jacobs said. “I believe that Israel’s security and well-being require that Israel must become a more tolerant and pluralistic society.”
The rabbi, whose nomination must be confirmed by the URJ board in June, noted his lifelong activism in support of Israel along with his deep commitment to what he described as the state’s democratic foundation.
Jacobs, 55, is the senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y. He was tapped in March as the president-designate of the URJ, which claims 1.5 million members and nearly 900 synagogues.
“I have known Rabbi Jacobs intimately and personally for more than 15 years, and if he is not a friend and lover of Israel, then these categories have no meaning,” Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote in an Op-Ed in JTA this week.
Hartman said that while Jacobs’ critics “undoubtedly mean well,” their “nervousness” about Israel’s security is coloring their approach to Jacobs.
Leaders of the Reform movement’s seminaries in North America and Israel took a harsher tone against the dissidents in an Op-Ed that appeared on the Jewish Journal website.
The authors—Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Rabbi Michael Marmur, the college’s vice president for academic affairs; and Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of its Jerusalem campus—blasted the dissident group’s “distorted caricature” of Jacobs and said the “handful” of signatories on the ad they published were out of touch with current Zionist norms.
“The fact that those who have assaulted Rabbi Jacobs’ integrity have wrapped themselves in the flag of Zionist purity is particularly galling,” the Op-Ed said. Decrying the “the tactics of witch-hunting and demagoguery,” the Op-Ed called Jacobs “a model of constructive engagement.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said attacks on Jacobs’ character and reputation, whether coming from within or outside the Reform movement, “are harmful to the spirit of unity and common cause that unites the Jewish people.”
That sentiment was echoed in a letter of support for Jacobs signed by two former chairmen of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, leaders of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a pair of Conservative leaders.
Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, told JTA that he could not remember a similar public outcry against the appointment of a movement leader focusing on the individual’s position on Israel.