Jewish Journal

Reinventing an Eternal Tradition with Rabbi Rick Jacobs

by Susan Esther Barnes

August 14, 2013 | 1:00 am

Photo by Susan Esther Barnes

I was honored to have brunch last Sunday morning with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), along with other leaders from my congregation. I’m going to write about what he said, but first I’m going to write about how he said it.

In the room were several round tables, with a lectern at the front. I was happy to see Rabbi Jacobs completely ignore the lectern. Lecterns serve to create space, both physically and otherwise, between the speaker and the listeners. They also create a more formal atmosphere than might otherwise be present.

Instead of walking to the front of the room to speak, Rabbi Jacobs simply stood up at the table where he had eaten his brunch. But he didn’t stay there. Instead, he spoke for a while from between his table and the one next to it, then moved between two other tables while he continued to speak, then moved again, so that by the time he had finished, he had completed a circuit of the room.

It may not sound like a big deal, but I found it to be impressive. It meant that, before he was done, he had stood near to every single table. It signaled not only informality, but it showed a desire to treat everyone equally. It showed he was not, literally or figuratively, separating himself from us.

After the event was officially over, he made time for us to speak with him one-on-one. Even when he was informed that his ride to the airport was waiting, he did not use it as an excuse to duck out. Rather, he stayed to speak with those who wanted to speak with him.

It’s true; actions speak louder than words. These actions spoke volumes about his values and his character. These things, more than anything he could have said, made me feel proud to have him at the head of the Reform movement. But he did say some impressive things, as well.

Rabbi Jacobs’ message was that our movement is a continuation of what Judaism has always done. It is about growing with the times. As he so eloquently put it, it is about reinventing an eternal tradition.

He spoke about a conversation he had with Rabbi Krinsky of Chabad, who asked him, “Why do you do what you do? You don’t care about kashrut, you don’t care about Shabbat, you don’t care about mitzvot. So what are you trying to achieve?”

Rabbi Jacobs gave the perfect answer. He said, “I do care about kashrut. I do care about Shabbat. I do care about mitzvot. I just care about them in a different way than you do. My job is the same as yours – to bring people to authenticity and a deeper spiritual practice.” Brilliantly put.

He said the URJ is working on the following three priorities:

1. Catalyzing Congregational Change. This doesn’t mean telling congregations what to do. He said it means paying attention, being smart about what needs to change, and bringing tools to congregations to help them realize that change.

2. Expanding Our Reach Beyond the Walls of Synagogues. He spoke about how, in the 50’s and 60’s, everyone joined a synagogue, temple or church. These days, there are many more unaffiliated people. We can’t just sit back and wait for them to show up. We need to go meet them where they are, and help them to have meaningful Jewish experiences outside of the synagogue.

3. Engaging the Next Generation. He said the problem is when we try to tackle this challenge by asking, “How do we make 20 and 30 year old people more like us?” We need to realize they are not like us, and engage them in ways they want to be engaged. He says when they get back from Birthright trips a spark has been lit in them, but they don’t know what to do next. We need to help them with options.

It was an inspiring event, and I’m looking forward to seeing the progress on these priorities in the years to come.


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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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