Diaspora dialogues

Reform Judaism, claims its new US president, is increasingly the answer to secular Israelis’ prayers

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: In 10 years there will be a major force of non-halachically acknowledged Jews in Israel — serving in the army, paying taxes, intermarrying

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs at his 2012 installation as head of the Reform movement. (photo credit: Clark Jones, Courtesy the Union for Reform Judaism)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs at his 2012 installation as head of the Reform movement. (photo credit: Clark Jones, Courtesy the Union for Reform Judaism)

As a rabbi aligned with the controversial New Israel Fund and provocative J Street political action group, Richard (Rick) J. Jacobs, the newly installed president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), could represent to Israeli Jews yet another naive American Jewish leader who just doesn’t get Israel.

However, as Jacobs said this week in an interview with The Times of Israel at the Reform movement’s Jerusalem headquarters, “[Chief Sephardic Rabbi] Rav Amar would not be talking about us if we weren’t real.”

On June 17, Amar released a letter condemning the “uprooters of Torah,” referring to the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism that are, according to a recent Guttman Center, Avi Chai-sponsored survey, some 8 percent of Jewish Israelis. (For comparison’s sake, the ultra-Orthodox logged in at 7%.)

In an Israel torn apart by religious partisanship, Jacobs believes Reform Judaism “is a breath of fresh air.” He calls the recent ruling in which Gezer Regional Rabbi Miri Gold won the right to be paid by the state as a rabbi “a new crack in the wall keeping us out.”

Jacobs, 56, knows his way around Israel. He has spent time in Jerusalem over the past several decades learning at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and earlier studying dance at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance. The lithe 6’4″ rabbi’s early career was divided between the pulpit and mixing movement with liturgy, both as a choreographer and dancer. In early June of this year, he was installed as president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

‘Reform is no longer identified as negative [in Israel]’

While there are 900 Reform communities across North America, there are currently some 100 Reform rabbis in Israel, which represents a significant increase in the past decade. Once a pejorative term in the Holy Land, “Reform is no longer identified as negative,” says Jacobs, citing the work done by the movement’s legal social action wing, the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), with Egged’s segregated buses, and the Miri Gold case, the small claims court win for Rozi Davidan who was barred from reciting a eulogy at her father’s funeral, among others.

Reform Judaism, in short, is the answer to secular Israelis’ prayers.

And “secular Israelis are curious,” says Jacobs, pooh-poohing Amar’s claim that Reform causes secularism. “His expression of Judaism is causing assimilation; it drives Israelis further from Judaism.”

According to Jacobs, 30% of Jewish Israelis have had some kind of Reform experience by now. “We’re not yet at the tipping point,” but this figure is significant in shaping and sharing new possibilities for secular Israelis seeking a Jewish expression, whether for the holidays or a bar mitzva.

“There are people who are hungry and thirsty here wherever we look,” says Jacobs.

Reform Judaism is also attractive to young unaffiliated Jews who are concerned about social justice, inside and out of the Jewish people. Reform Judaism is identified with being on the forefront of an ingrained tikkun olam movement that Jacobs calls “living the breadth and depth of the Jewish tradition, including the Biblical prophets who taught not just strict ritual observance but rather also commitment to social justice — not being thoughtful about one aspect.”

Some would say, however, like Amar, that these new possibilities are responsible for an ever-widening gap between the “established” Orthodox monopoly on religion in Israel, and the increasing reality of a significant non-halachicallly Jewish population. The Reform movement, admits Jacobs, performs the greatest number of conversion ceremonies across the globe, including in Israel, where most of the converts are olim from the former Soviet Union.

“They feel tentative in Israeli society,” says Jacobs, “in their Jewishness, in their identities. Through learning more about Judaism, they learn more about themselves, about their country. Their identity is being strengthened.”

‘We tell the converts that in the greater Jewish world, they are loved and cherished’

The Reform converts in Israel are under no illusions they’ll be accepted as Jews by the broader Israeli population. “But we tell them that in the greater Jewish world, they are loved and cherished.”

The Diaspora may be more accepting of the non-halachic convert, but since the country’s inception, the “default” Judaism in Israel is Orthodoxy. How are these converts accepted by their friends? Jacobs answers somewhat sheepishly, “They are told that it’s not authentic.”

At the same time, Jacobs is adamant there aren’t, as hardliners tend to say, two Judaisms evolving, one in Israel, and one in the Diaspora. “No, if anything we’re coming closer. There’s lots of renewal here; it’s starting to look more like US Jewry.”

And in any case, he says, you can’t fight statistics: In 10 years it will be the demographic reality that there will be a major force of “non-Jews,” or at least non-halachically acknowledged Jews, entrenched in Israeli society, serving in the army, paying taxes, intermarrying.

“Look at what is going to be good for the Jewish people,” he implores the Amars of today. “If anyone in the Orthodox world thinks this [creation of two Judaisms] is a great strategy, I beg to differ.”

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