Reform Movement’s New President

Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ remarks at URJ’s Biennial Convention (12/18/11): Click for Rabbi Jacobs video.

by Rabbi Bill Kuhn

The Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Biennial Convention took place in Washington, DC  December 14-18,  2011 with a record attendance of over 5,000 Reform Jews from around North America. Founded in 1873 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, (originally named the Union of American Hebrew Congregations), the URJ is the umbrella organization of all of the congregations in the Reform Movement.  Rodeph Shalom has been a member of the URJ since the very early days, and has been a proud leader of the Reform Movement ever since.

The two other founding organizations of the Reform Movement are our seminary Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinic group.

After a long and distinguished career, Rabbi Eric Yoffie is retiring as president of the URJ.  He was honored at the Biennial Convention, as the entire movement owes him a debt of gratitude.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs was welcomed as our new president on Sunday, December 18 at the convention.  A good friend of mine, Rabbi Jacobs, presented his outline for a visionary process for the URJ that will reinvigorate and enrich the mission of our movement.  I have been impressed with his ability to lead a transformation in his former congregation, Westchester (NY) Reform Temple, which has put them in the forefront of visionary congregations.  I am hopeful that he will be able to use this experience in change management at the URJ to make it more relevant and helpful to all of our Reform Congregations.

One of the reasons I am excited about Rabbi Jacobs leadership, is that the vision he expressed for his own congregation, and for the URJ, is similar to the vision we have expressed for Rodeph Shalom.  Here are a few highlights of his address.

“To be a Jewish spiritual home for all who are hungry does not require a minimalist Jewish vision, but rather an engaging, demanding and elevating approach to Jewish living.”  This approach is based on several key Jewish values: “Service” (“Avodah”), an obligation to serve and to become “vessels of divine compassion and righteousness…by giving strength and healing to those ailing, frail and mourning among us; feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless; involvement in synagogues or in the community; and partnering with challenged communities in Israel and around the globe.”

The second Jewish value is “Learning” – (“Limmud“) “The doorway to a Jewish life of depth and purpose is lifelong and soul-enhancing learning.  Nothing nourishes the soul more than delving deeply and often into the sacred texts of our people.  The goal of a lifetime of Jewish learning is to attain a heart of wisdom.”

The third value of the foundation of Rabbi Jacob’s vision is “Practice” (“Derech Chayim”) “Living a life that matters means cultivating a disciplined, spiritual practice with an awareness of the holy in everyday living.  From the way we eat to the observance of sacred time and holy days to the ethical rigor by which we conduct our business, all are gateways to holiness.  Meditation, prayer, mindfulness, yoga, menschlichkeit, and gratitude are just some of the daily practices of holy living.”

The fourth Jewish value of his vision is “Justice” (“Tzedek”).   “A deep commitment to social change through shaping more just social policies in North America and in Medinat Yisrael.  By digging deeper than political platforms, we must mine Jewish sources for values and guidance in responding to the critical issues facing our country and our world.  Building on the rich Talmudic culture of respectful debate, we can offer a better way forward: away from the vicious demonization of opposing views toward common ground upon which we can heed the Jewish imperative to heal brokenness and injustice wherever we find ourselves.”

By basing the future of the Reform Movement on these essential Jewish values, I believe we will be able to navigate the difficult waters of the world today.  The Jewish community faces many dramatic challenges, yet we also have an opportunity to recreate the very meaning of Reform Judaism.

I am committed to help Rabbi Jacobs and our URJ with the renaissance of American Judaism.  If we employ the same kind of creative visioning for the Reform Movement that we are able to use at our congregation, I know we can succeed.

To read Rabbi Jacobs remarks go to: