Rabbi Rick Jacobs is worried. A man accustomed to speaking in paragraphs, Jacobs voiced his lengthy concerns Wednesday at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly’s closing plenum, immediately after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu basically pooh-poohed onstage the perception of a widening rift between the two largest Jewish communities.
Sitting in the shade outside the exhibition hall as the “Let’s Talk” banners were taken down around us, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism frankly expressed a desire for official acknowledgement of Reform Jewry in Israel.
It’s a recognition that has been endlessly promised by the prime minister, but, even as secular Israelis appear to be increasingly interested in Liberal Judaism, remains elusive.
As the head of North America’s largest Jewish movement, representing some 900 congregations and nearly 1.5 million people, Jacobs is a rare bipartisan figure: For his unabashed love of Israel and egalitarian democratic principles, he is beloved — and reviled — on both sides of the political spectrum.
When installed some six years ago, Jacobs, a 29-year pulpit rabbi, vowed to open Reform Judaism’s big tent even wider, promoting “Audacious Hospitality,” alongside the movement’s long-standing social justice principles.
At the same time, Reform Jews say they feel anything but hospitality at the hands of the Israeli establishment.
For Jacobs, the love of Israel has been constant since his first trip here in the 1970s as a college junior. After his 1982 ordination by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, he has for the past several decades maintained ties with the liberal Jerusalem-based Orthodox Hartman Institution and keeps a small apartment in the capital.
But today, as the government of Israel has increasingly fortified its borders, some of his flock are increasingly scrutinized, delegitimized, and even labeled not Jewish by official Israel and its rabbinical arm. Not surprisingly this wounds the relationship, which in a politically complex time is widely described throughout the just completed GA as increasingly in peril.
Now in his 60s, Jacobs, who has lived in New York most of his adult life, still exudes the Californian openness of his youth as he discusses the fraught and fraying connection between Israel and North American Reform Jewry — in the most paradoxically optimistic way possible. Reform Jewry, he said, is far from giving up, and is in fact preparing to “lean in” even more to its relationship with Israel.
Right this second, how do you see the status of the relationship between American Reform Jewry and Israel in general?
So, this is the headline. It should be in bold letters, and it should be big. The relationship of our movement to the state of Israel – the people of Israel, the ideals of Israel, and this incredible miracle – is unbelievably strong. You may have seen a press release yesterday, it refers to our North American board adopting the Jerusalem Program, which is a core set of affirmations about Zionism going back to the founding of the state.
The relationship of our movement to the state of Israel – the people of Israel, the ideals of Israel, and this incredible miracle – is unbelievably strong
It affirms aliyah, Hebrew language, a Jewish democratic state, pluralism — all the core affirmations. To this moment that has been the commitment of our auxiliary, called ARZA. And we said, “You know what? We want this to be all of our commitment.”
At a time when [Israeli] government policies, frankly, have been pushing North American Jews and all Diaspora Jews away, feeling the distance, we said, “We’re not going with that. We’re actually going to lean in.” And in fact my new vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism [Rabbi Josh Weinberg], is putting Israel into every single thing the movement does. To connect to Israel on a deeper level than the headlines.
The political issues will always come and go, and some of them are very urgent, but the relationship has to be deeper than a headline, deeper than a political party, or a particular individual. It has to be towards this incredible, breathing, amazing community called Israel.
Do you feel that previously you had not as a movement stressed Israel?
We have, and this was doubling down. And especially at this moment, where the distance is real – anyone who doesn’t see it is not opening their eyes and not thinking. Instead of letting that continue, we said we have to put more energy, and build deeper, be more engaged – particularly with our younger people – to connect to the things that are absolutely at the core of what Israel is, why it was created, why it’s part of all of our lives.
You noted as well the Hebrew language, and this has been something that Reform Jews have been criticized for: that they can sound out the letters of the prayer book, but they don’t actually speak Hebrew. Do you see this changing in the near future?
It has to be part of a whole Jewish engagement, part of a – “Why do I need to learn Hebrew?” Because it’s the access. It’s one of the ways in which you experience Jewish tradition, Jewish culture, Jewish sovereignty. And to share a common language.
When I was a young person, I worked at one of our URJ summer camps in California, and I ran a program, it was a Hebrew-speaking camp. And kids came for the summer and spoke Hebrew. People said, “Oh, but did they have fun?” And we said, like, “Yeah. I mean, they had fun in Hebrew. We played sports, we had conversations.” And over the course of the summer they got not fluent-fluent, but they came to experience and love the language.
Hebrew education – it’s not enough that it be a language of prayer. It’s also the language of text, and it’s a living language, and I think that’s a beautiful thing for us to affirm, and it’s one of the ways that we share a common language. And if we don’t share a common language, it’s not just linguistic, it’s also conceptual.
You said that if you don’t recognize that there’s a growing distance between the Israeli government and American Jewry, then you’re just not seeing it. But how are you sensing it in terms of the Jew in the pew?
I just spent Shabbat in Louisville, Kentucky. Before that I was in Norfolk, Virginia. Before that I was in Texas. First of all, in the small and large places – not just Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago – people care about, they love the State of Israel. And they’re concerned that the State of Israel has not fully embraced them.
When I shared, this Shabbat, that the new [Jewish People Policy Institute] JPPI research tells us that the Reform and Conservative population in Israel is going like this. [Tilts hand like an airplane liftoff]
It’s an unbelievable story [in light of] the government’s official lack of recognition and support, both financial and in terms of freedom. There’s a hunger in Israel for an egalitarian, pluralistic Judaism. So, eight percent of Jewish Israelis identify with the Reform movement, five percent with Conservative. That’s 13%, that’s 800,000 people named in the study – that’s larger than the Haredi population of Israel.
That doesn’t mean that they vote in a bloc like the Haredi community does. But there’s a really powerful, positive story, and there’s a demand that equality is not one of those options in the Jewish tradition or in our commitment to democracy.
Every citizen is equal, and every Jewish person, no matter how he or she believes or practices. They [the Jews in the pews] see that the decisions don’t reflect that openness and that sense of “We’re all in this together.” They want to see change, and they want to see it out of love.
It’s not a threat. Sometimes it gets angry because they say, “How is it that the rights of a very small minority have now taken over the Jewish tradition for this country?” Whether it’s in areas of education, the funding of rabbis or communities. One of the things that the JPPI pointed out was that of the 13% who identify as Reform or Conservative, most are not joining synagogues. But the key to remember is that most Orthodox Jews don’t join synagogues – it’s not an Israeli model.
It’s such a different model. And these numbers – 3%, 8%, 5% – change with every different survey, as you know, I’m sure. But the takeaway that I got from the JPPI report is that the secular Israeli population thinks more along the lines of Reform Judaism, but will not necessarily vote or act along those lines.
Yes, but also, the people who identify with Reform Judaism are not one party. There are Likud voters who identify with pluralistic Judaism, like, “Of course. We should.” Yesh Atid, Zionist Union, certainly Meretz. And even, I’m sure, even within Yisrael Beiteinu.
What it says is that we’re a diverse community politically, we’re diverse in how people are practicing. But people, I know, want a way to live Jewish commitments, and they want to be authentic about it.
It seems in the past several years the rhetoric has changed slightly. That instead of being philosophical and spiritual about certain Israeli policies, you’ve become more pragmatic, often condemning the Israeli government very harshly.
Well, first of all, if you take into account the number of broken promises by this Israeli government. But I have to say, previous governments have not done right either. There’s a point where you say, day kvar [that’s enough].
To be honest, freedom isn’t usually handed [over] because you say, “Please, I’d like some freedom,” and sometimes you have to stand strongly. It comes from a place of deep commitment and love. But also it’s about right and wrong, it’s about the core ideals, and it’s not against an individual, it’s against a reality. And the reality is changing, but not fast enough, because this shever [rift], this mashber [crisis] with North America in particular and Israel, is real.
What are some specific promises that have been broken?
We just heard the prime minister of Israel give a wonderful interview with Richard Samuel – the [former] chair of JFNA – and he reminded all of us of the core mission of Zionism, he reminded us about the synagogue in Vilnius, and the history – all binding, uniting things. He also said that he’s going to very soon create one little part of the original Kotel compromise, which is to create an egalitarian prayer space, which has been said for several years now that they’re going to do this.
The thing I would point out is that this unilateral decision, in a sense, does not give us what was agreed upon, but give us what he says he can do – and honestly, I understand political constraints.
But let me explain what happened on Friday afternoon at the egalitarian section. A group of non-Orthodox Jews came to the egalitarian section – it should be their right – to observe kabbalat shabbat. And it was a large group, and they get there, and within moments of arriving, all of a sudden 100 yeshiva students just — poof! — out of the blue, came down, put up a little mechitza [gender barrier], and started singing as loudly as they could and trying to drown out the tefillah [prayer].
If there is one day, as the prime minister promised, a beautiful prayer space, but we don’t have oversight to be able to set the policies –
There was an oversight council [in the original 2016 Western Wall compromise] that was agreed upon so that the practice of that place would be not governed by the Rav Hakotel [Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch], who to be honest is never going to watch out for our interests.
To have a space that we don’t have “sovereignty,” meaning independence, the ability to do what we do freely, not to mention the other key element is to be open, that people know that we’re there, know that there’s an option. Political realities are real. But it’s not okay to say, “This is all you get, this is all I can deliver.”
By the way the prime minister could pick any one of the promises: [Jacobs addresses Netanyahu] Match the funding for the Jewish Agency for the streams, actually build the mikvaot [ritual baths] that you promised, speak out against the next chief rabbi that calls us by names that we should never call any human being, and not fellow Jews. Please stand up, and let us know in real terms, in concrete ways, that we matter.
By choosing Robinson’s Arch as the specific pinpoint, I wonder if today, in retrospect, if anyone in your movement, if you yourself, wonder, “Maybe we should have chosen marriage equality as the one to be on the forefront of the change we hope to make in Israel.”
First, we would always preference something as dramatic as marriage equality; this current government has coalition agreements not to touch marriage equality.
The Kotel chose us. The prime minister was the one – because it was at that moment when [Women of the Wall head] Anat Hoffman was arrested in 2013 and spent the night in jail with a prostitute and a car thief. In the morning it came out, and I think the prime minister just said, “This is a bad story. Natan Sharansky, make this go away. Figure out a solution. This is not what we want the pages of the world’s newspapers to cover.”
That was the moment and the prime minister set this as the task. And at that table, we all sat in good faith for a number of years working very respectfully, [Attorney General] Avichai Mandleblit, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Conservative movement, the Reform movement – in North America and here – and Women of the Wall. That was an unbelievable coalition. And we worked together. It itself was a symbol of what could be possible.
We’re interested in equality, and not in one place, but everywhere. For North Americans, the Kotel had a larger resonance [than for secular Israelis], it still does.
Because it is the symbol we’re been praying towards for 2,000 years? Or because it was just broadcast to them?
And they’ve had real life experiences. I remember in the middle ‘70s being here as a student at Hebrew University and a friend of mine, his son was having his bar mitzvah at the Kotel – you know, the northern plaza. It was during the rabbinical conference, there were probably 500 Reform rabbis, but they decided they were going to do it traditionally. He was in the men’s section. His mom, and sisters, and all the friends were there, they used the traditional siddur, and he was in the middle of his Torah reading, and this whole group of Haredim were screaming at the top of their lungs, “Reform Jews go back to Germany, Hitler killed the wrong Jews.”
I was here last summer with one of our NFTY groups, I had three buses, we were at the wall, and before I know it there was one of the wonderful kiruv [missionary] rabbis asking our boys who had Jewish mothers. And they’re like, “That’s a weird question, I mean, we’re all here.” But you know why he was asking about Jewish mothers.
And there’s also been a history – Women of the Wall have had very alienating experiences – and many of us want to be able to have an experience like we have all over the world, in freedom and openness and joy.
The Haredim deserve every inch of a place for them to pray and express themselves as they do, and I would defend that right to my death. But the truth is, let there be a place for everyone. Natan Sharansky was the one who really coined, “One wall for one people.”
The compromise was on all sides. All the rabbis who said they didn’t know about it – they knew about it. And, to be honest, there’s a basket of issues that are really important – the equal funding, the teaching in Israeli schools, there are options. We’re still committed to the whole basket of change.
I think that at the Western Wall, it’s not just about making it a little prettier. It has to be open, and we have to be able to set what happens there. And it should be a symbol for the rest of the country that everywhere, for everyone, you choose. There are many authentic ways to be Jewish. Let’s affirm that.
There’s little or no concept of Liberal, egalitarian Judaism in Israel among the youth. But now that you’re seeing that the numbers are growing, at least in terms of like-minded individuals, strategically, how are you going to piggyback on that?
We announced yesterday that we’re doubling down, but we’re also committing to raise more funds to grow our movement on the ground here. That’s social change. The experience of options and of egalitarian living, breathing, communities creates possibility. Creating more opportunities, more options, more of a footprint, grows more experiences that actually open people and plant the seed. We want that to be also within the school system much more.
How are you working towards that? Schools seem like the place for change.
We’re working also with the Jewish Agency. It is to figure out how to, with our different youth movements, to be able to really do not just a “Hinei mah tov” [Kumbaya] moment, but, what are the ways in which we are different, and what are the ways in which we are actually very similar.
We have all these shlichim [emissaries] who go abroad from Israel. They bring a love of Israel. Many of them actually for the first time discover Shabbat, prayer, community, and they say, “I wish we had this in Israel,” and you go, “Well you do, you just don’t know about it.”
I’m sitting with some of these shlichim, and they’re going “This is tefillah? This looks like we’re singing and people are joyful, and now they’re getting up and dancing. This is not what I remember – I went with my grandfather and it was not like this.” And I say, “Well, this is also one way.”
This is a moment where North America, in particular, and Israel – the two largest communities – they’re strong. There’s vitality and vibrancy. And let’s actually bring the best of our community, strengthen the Jewish people, and actually, in our differences, find commonality and be able to affirm that.
What you’re talking about is a mutual respect that is so difficult to find here.
My rabbi was Rabbi David Hartman, of blessed memory, who founded the Hartman institute, and was ordained by Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University. And my rabbi, with whom I studied when I was a junior at college at Hebrew University, he just pounded into us that there has never been one authentic way to be Jewish. He said, you go back, pick the Tanach, pick the Talmud, pick the Rambam, and this isn’t just being kind to people who are wrongheaded. Out of that diversity actually comes more learning, more understanding, and more commitment.
And you know, pluralism is different from tolerance. Tolerance is, “You’re wrong, but I’m gonna be kind to you.” By the way, it’s better than hostility – I’ll take tolerance over hostility any day. But pluralism says, “Your way is legitimate. It’s not my way, but it’s a legitimate way to express the Jewish traditions.”
To me, that’s the higher bar, and I think there are places where we do have pluralism here in Israel – but it’s not official pluralism.
The fact that people don’t have the choice to have a Reform or Conservative rabbi officially do their wedding, is just unthinkable. And when people ask me, for instance, what can’t Reform rabbis do, and they hear they can’t perform weddings, they just look at me, like, “That’s crazy, Israel’s a democracy.” These are absolutely stunning realities to North Americans, they can’t imagine.
Which is why I wonder again, in pursuing the Robinson’s Arch so seriously, perhaps at the expense of basic religious freedoms, which are intangible, has there been a bit of a disservice done to the pluralism of Israel?
I have absolute confidence that we, the Jewish people, will ultimately have an equal place there [at the Western Wall], and everywhere else. You have to have – not patience, you have to have a little impatience – to keep fighting, but also keep seeing the big picture, where’s the next opportunity, and to keep pressing. At the same time, to keep the connection strong.
Pluralism is not a North American issue. It’s an Israeli issue. The growth of our movement to 13%, that’s Israeli. These are things that you do in a Jewish democratic state because it’s right, and it’s good for the Jewish people. All the issues need to be addressed – and they will.
What are other challenges facing the two communities?
We have to know that we have other disconnects: We have a very liberal Jewry in North America – politically and religiously – the overwhelming majority of Jews in North America, in Canada and the US, are Reform, Conservative, or somewhere in that mix. And they’re overwhelmingly liberal. And we have now an Israeli government that’s illiberal.
The truth is, the connection to Israel can’t be through a prime minister or through a party, it’s got to be with the people, with the ideals. Because sometimes you’ll love who’s leading, sometimes you won’t. And that’s true in the US. I’m an American, and I love America, and I’ll fight harder when there are things that are against my values.
I think that building the bridges now, at a time when there are real political differences, and religious doors closing and being locked, it’s especially challenging and important to build more connective tissue, which is why we announced yesterday what we announced.
Rivlin was talking about the Blaustein covenant, that it should be rewritten. Is that even a serious possibility?
I think there are a lot of things that should be rewritten and rethought, and I think one of the things that I didn’t hear today from Prime Minister Netanyahu, and I’ve said it to him directly, and I know he cares deeply about it, is the bipartisan support for Israel. The Democratic party and the bipartisan support for Israel has been so weakened in the last couple of years, and that’s long-term very, very dangerous for the State of Israel.
The bipartisanship has been weakened also by American Jews, because Jews overwhelmingly vote Democrat, and they themselves are voting for these people who may be possibly even hostile to the State of Israel.
True, and what’s also important is that we – the Reform movement – and I – Rabbi Jacobs – are every day making the case for Israel in places, frankly, that don’t want to hear it. Whether that’s a college campus, a liberal-Protestant denomination having their big convention where I’m invited to speak. And sometimes they’re heckling and booing me, because I am, in their minds, this crazy, right-wing Zionist.
I would say to Israelis of all different political stripes, we all can carry the flag for the Jewish people and the State of Israel – and we do. And there are real people who hate us, and who wish us only harm. We should focus our attention on them.
Jews who are progressive who love Israel but don’t love it in the exact way that a Likud supporter would, still love Israel, still are pro-Israel. We can’t make pro-Israel one slice of the political spectrum. We need, in the US in particular, to be able to really affirm that bipartisan is long-term essential, and there’s no debate that bipartisanship has been weakened.
Our [US] president has been very polarizing. There’s a lot of tension that we carry everywhere now, and some of that gets spilled over into the Israel-North America relationship, and that has to be repaired.
How do you see that happening?
I hope that there will be soon a recognition that a) this has happened. It’s plain as day. Talk to the people at AIPAC. People at the AIPAC conference last March were desperately afraid of the overzealous partisanship, and choosing speakers, and choosing the way that you really affirm that it’s not one side of the spectrum. When AIPAC is struggling as much as they are, I can tell you that the wider conversation is also struggling.
Do you expect the prime minister to acknowledge that this weakening of bipartisanship is happening?
He needs to acknowledge so that we can actually work to repair it. To acknowledge that the progressive Zionist is a Zionist – full-throated, strong, very committed Zionist – and that must be affirmed.
It’s not that we have one issue, that all we think about is pluralism. We think about Jewish democracy, we think about security, obviously, I mean, duh. Yes, Israel is a powerful military power – and it’s a dangerous neighborhood.
We need to be able to show up for the State of Israel when there are votes, and when there are congresspeople who are [saying], “Oh, well, I don’t know about that big foreign aid bill,” or, “I don’t know about that military assistance” that we need. We’re there. We’ll continue to be there.
There needs to be acknowledgment. And, by the way, the partisanship can be on both sides. And I think all of us who are responsible Jewish leaders, who see the bigger picture, we have to keep our eyes on that reality.
Is what you’re saying that today, in this controversial Trump era, don’t be such a flaming Democrat when you’re a Jewish leader, as well, because that is also divisive?
Here, I’ll put it in my own words – when something very positive happens, we should all be cheering. When you root for a team, you never cheer when the other team scores.
I would say, with Israel, we’re on the same team. And when President Trump does something absolutely critical, courageous, important – support it. Israelis, by and large, are overwhelmingly supportive of President Trump – and that’s understandable – because of the concrete things he’s done for the State of Israel.
This is a fraught moment, and I think we all have to be cognizant that a) this moment won’t last, and things are going to change. Some will change in a matter of days with our midterm elections. I don’t know how it will go, but I know that leadership always changes, and we have to be able to, as the Jewish people and as lovers of Israel, to support not only the country, but the values that we hold dear, the shared values, and democracy, and freedom of the press.
I’m not going to tell you, as a journalist, but when the press has been demonized as fully as it has it opens basically to violence – it’s incitement. [Editor’s note: A few hours after this conversation there was a serious bomb threat at CNN in New York, among other locations.] These are phenomena in the US, and some of these things are very familiar to our two countries.
What do you make of far-left Jewish movements, such as IfNotNow, which is meant to be a grassroots youth movement?
My thought about young people is, we should be in a relationship with them. We talk to them.
We could talk about who should be let in, whose views are okay, and you know, this country is amazing. I would bring everyone here, including some of the religious leaders in America who are very hostile. Some of them, we can’t win them over. But I do think that with young people, engaging with them is not a magic wand, but they’re forming their own opinions. They’re trying to figure out what does this place mean, they’ve heard certain things and not heard others. Can they come on a Birthright trip and have a transformative experience? Oh, you bet. I’ve seen it happen. Do some of them come and get more politically active? Yes.
But we should also know that young adults are also, many of them, just walking away from Israel. Not walking away from their core commitments – but they don’t see those core commitments here. There we have more work to do to bring them closer, and not by building a proverbial wall and saying, “These are the unacceptable Zionists, these are the unacceptable Jews and their views.”
I’m often times getting yelled at by people on the far left – they think I’m a member of the far-right party here. And I’ll stand lovingly and strongly in those settings, but oftentimes I’ll sit down and talk to one of those young adults.
Many Jewish college students have said that they’ve been lied to their whole lives by the Jewish establishment and that they’re not given the full picture of the nuanced situation here between Israelis and Palestinians. Do you feel like in your doubling down you’re going to give a little bit of a broader picture?
I hear that critique about a whole educational system. I will just tell you that for us – and I’ll get heat for this – we will make sure that young people know about the occupation. Ariel Sharon used the word “occupation,” and last I checked I don’t think he was a left-wing crazy, right? And the truth is, the occupation is real, and it’s really painful, and it’s not simply going to be eliminated because we wish it away, or because we sing “Od Yavo Shalom” [Peace is on its way].
There are really concrete things that need to be addressed before there could ever be, frankly, more freedoms and more coexistence. And I think that to be able to address those in a way that – you know, the Green Line, on the maps.
So, the Jewish organizations sent our youth group, who are having a huge convention, they sent us this beautiful, almost life-sized map of Israel. It came out of this giant box and unfolded, and it didn’t have a Green Line. It basically looked like Israel was the entire Middle East, and I said, “We actually can’t put it out.” Because we need to educate what the Green Line is.
We can argue why the reality is the way the reality is. But I think we’re doing a very good job – not everywhere, not every moment – so that you can actually fall in love with the real Israel. That you can tell the history, and you can see the current events, which is why when I bring groups we’re always in the West Bank.
People say, “Why are you meeting with settlers?” And I say, “Do you think you can understand the current reality in Israel if you don’t know how settlers think? And do you think you shouldn’t sit and talk to the Palestinians?”
Our whole Jewish community has to be more open, and more committed to making sure the Jewish case is made. But I think the Jewish case is made with all the other facts also laid out there. We don’t need to be so open-minded our brains fall out. But at the same time, I’m not afraid of the realities.
I think we should be telling a larger narrative. I think a lot of people don’t have the Israeli narrative, or don’t have the Jewish narrative, and I think we’ve got to make sure we tell that narrative strongly –
Or even the Jewish identity –
Yes. And on that we all agree. Strengthening Jewish identity, which is key. You’d think automatically that every Israeli has Jewish identity, but I would say, that’s not automatic. Even here, even speaking Hebrew, even not going to work or school on Shmini Atzeret, the truth is, Jewish identity is not the same as Israeli identity. We’ve got to figure those things out. These are big.
But the young people say, “You never told us,” and I believe they’re just correctly telling the story of how they were educated. And for those we have to make sure to reflect the compelling, and real truths and narratives, and just simply fall in love with the real Israel. You spend two weeks here or longer, you fall in love.
I did as a junior in college. I came, I’d never been to Israel. I lived on Mount Scopus with my Israeli roommates, stayed for two years, coached basketball in Jerusalem. What’s not to love?
This is an unbelievable place. It is inside of my being; we have a home, a little teeny home in Jerusalem. To me this is personal, but it’s also my role as the leader of the largest movement in North American Jewish life, and Israel is so important, so central, and we have work to do. But that’s what we do.
Deputy Jewish World Editor Yaakov Schwartz contributed to this report.