Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, stands in his office in New York in May 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Main image: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, stands in his office in New York in May 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

US Reform head hopeful on Israel-Diaspora ties, despite Jerusalem inaction

In extensive interview with ToI, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of North America’s largest Jewish movement, stresses commitment to Zionism, strides in improving ties with Israel

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Main image: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, stands in his office in New York in May 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Progressive streams of Judaism had high hopes when Israel’s current coalition came together last year. Gone were the ultra-Orthodox and more conservative national-religious parties that long opposed a pluralistic view of non-Orthodox Judaism, and in came a Reform rabbi and a stated intention to revive the long-frozen Western Wall compromise, giving progressive Jews a role in the management of the holy site.

But a year later, that coalition is — to put it lightly — on shaky ground. The Western Wall deal was never implemented, and the only Judaism recognized by the State of Israel is still Orthodox.

But Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism — North America’s largest Jewish movement — is nevertheless optimistic. This month, Jacobs will mark a decade at the helm of the URJ, following a long career as a pulpit rabbi in the New York area.

While little has changed legislatively to recognize non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel, Jacobs says he believes a shift has begun. After years of feeling that Israeli government officials were sidelining the Diaspora, Jacobs describes seeing renewed recognition that Jews outside of Israel do indeed matter.

Jacobs sees the current government as a catalyst of this change, moving away from the less Diaspora Jewry-focused policies of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But he stresses that this new direction extends beyond this administration and beyond the Israeli political realm.

The Times of Israel spoke to Jacobs at length in his New York office about the Israel-Diaspora relationship, about what it means to be a liberal Zionist in the United States in 2022, and about the direction of his movement in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Shortly after the interview, Jacobs traveled to Israel with dozens of other Union for Reform Judaism leaders, meeting with Israeli politicians and leaders, including government ministers, President Isaac Herzog and Knesset members. They also attended the Israeli Reform movement’s ordinarily biennial conference — the last one was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic — this weekend at Kibbutz Shefayim, outside of Tel Aviv.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

You did an interview with The Times of Israel about four years ago at the Jewish Federation of North America General Assembly. I reread it, and you could give that same interview to me today on most of the issues: The Western Wall compromise is still up in the air, there remains a lack of recognition for Reform and all non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel. So how do you see the relationship between the more progressive streams of Judaism and the State of Israel? Is it in a state of stagnation? Or do you see change?

Can I start off with an anecdote that I think maybe helps set the context for the conversation? I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember the old Diaspora Museum at the University of Tel Aviv. We’d bring groups to the museum, and you come to that section of the synagogues of the Diaspora. You walk in and that section of the museum is dark. There’s dust on everything. It basically is this sad experience. You walk in and you go, oh, my God, these poor people. It’s over. It’s dead. They’re gone. And we’re now coming to view what was.

Today, when you go to ANU [the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv], you have a museum that shows, I think, a vibrant, very accurate and compelling vision of Diaspora Jewish life, one that’s not unrelated but very much connected to Israel. And I think the shift in the museum is reflective of the shift in the State of Israel — that the Diaspora matters.

Life-sized portraits of Jews and Jewish families around the world greet visitors at the first gallery in the redesigned ANU Museum of the Jewish People (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

I brought a group to Israel in February. We were there, and we met with basically the senior leadership of the State of Israel — with real warmth. That’s something that hadn’t happened in a few years. It was six years since we had last met with the prime minister, and I sensed there was a real recognition that the Diaspora Jewish community mattered. It mattered by itself as a kind of bellwether of what was the state of the Jewish people globally, but it also mattered to the State of Israel. And I think that is a significant shift.

I always tell a story about a previous encounter I had. I was in Israel, and one of the senior Likud ministers had given a talk about basically that Diaspora Judaism was over. And the non-Orthodox movements were encouraging and strengthening assimilation. So I happened to see that person the next day in the Knesset. We hadn’t planned a meeting, but I walked past this individual and I stopped and I introduced myself. He said, I know who you are. I said, well, I heard you last night on the news, and I think there’s just a miss in an important detail. You said that we’re at the doorway of Jewish life, helping Jews out of Judaism. We are actually at the door of Jewish life, but we’re helping people in. It’s a significant difference.

I think Israeli leaders today also worry about the state of the Jewish people worldwide, as they should, as we do. They want to build a more respectful and, frankly, a more serious and ongoing relationship with the Jewish community in North America. I mean, the [Christian] evangelical community — it’s wonderful that they support the State of Israel — but we have a primary relationship with the Jewish community.

The Western Wall compromise — in which non-Orthodox streams of Judaism would have representation in the management of the holy site — has not been implemented and is unlikely to be anytime soon.

Now with the Kotel, you could argue the compromise is not any closer to being implemented. I can tell you the conversation is a different conversation, and there’s genuine support within this government. And that’s not just from the Labor Party, where my colleague, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, sits. It’s also from all corners: Gideon Sa’ar, obviously Meretz, but also Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid.

The Kotel is significant symbolically, but equality is the real issue. Equality in funding, equality in status, conversion

One of the things that actually is a uniting factor is the sense that the Kotel symbolically is one of those places where you can really make a concrete statement that all Jews have a place, not only at the Kotel but within the state of Israel.

But it’s not the sum total, right? I mean, the Kotel is significant symbolically, but equality is the real issue. Equality in funding, equality in status, conversion. Someday soon, please God, let there be civil marriage so we can stop having the one democracy currently on the planet that doesn’t allow Jews the freedom to marry.

Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman (left) and URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs hold Torah scrolls at the Western Wall complex on March 4, 2022. (Rick Jacobs/Twitter)

I think there are significant changes, and I think things are significantly stronger. Not that all the complex issues aren’t still there — they are. But I think there’s a fundamental realization that the relationship is paramount, and you’ll hear it affirmed from both sides in very concrete ways, which I find very encouraging.

While you say that you see all sides of this government supporting this type of pluralism and tolerance, that obviously does not include the Religious Zionism party or the ultra-Orthodox parties, both of whom are not necessarily on board with what you’re describing. And they could theoretically be back in power even within the next few months.

All true. The government will last however long it lasts. But I do think this idea, this sense of peoplehood is alive and well, and that one of the ways we strengthen the sense of Jewish peoplehood globally is by knowing one another better.

We try to help Israelis and Israeli schools better understand non-Orthodox Judaism, particularly non-Orthodox Judaism in the Diaspora, and more particularly in North America. I’ve just met in the last six weeks with delegation after delegation of Israeli educators who are here thinking about how do we tell the story in educational terms about, first of all, the pluralism of the Jewish people, the pluralism of Judaism, and to portray something that is accurate in terms of North American Jewish life. Honestly, there’s been more of that recently than I can remember in decades.

Also, things are growing in the State of Israel. You have a Reform movement that’s flourishing. I mean, we’re very proud Rabbi Gilad Kariv is now sitting in the Knesset, chair of the Constitutional Law Committee. But the truth is the movement that he presided over for a decade is definitely growing not only in numbers, but in strength and in influence.

So on the Israel front, in terms of the Reform movement, you’ve incorporated the Jerusalem platform. But there’s generally a bit of a disconnect between the movement and the people. And on that front, there’s plenty of polling that shows the people who identify as the strongest Zionist supporters of Israel typically are Orthodox and less so among Reform Jews in the United States.

We are the largest Zionist movement here in North America, and we are proud of that. There are lots of ways to understand that and to measure that. And I would say that last summer and this summer we’re sending larger numbers of Jewish teens, Reform Jewish teens to Israel. We’re building a deeper sense of what they do when they return.

Israel is alive and well, and we forge that relationship, not with whatever political party happens to be ascendant at the moment, but with the people of Israel, the ideals of the State of Israel. That’s a much firmer ground to anchor the relationship in.

But our Zionism is Liberal Zionism. We bring our values, the values of social justice, the values of inclusion, everywhere we go.

Political fortunes will come and go, and there will be times when the prime minister is someone that people in the liberal community really resonate with, and there will be times where it’s less so. But we want to build that relationship so that it weathers through.

People have to understand where their core issues and values are. And for us, Israel is part of that core. It’s part of the notion that we’re part of a larger people and the majority of Jews on planet Earth at the moment live in the State of Israel. That itself is an obligation of relationship.

In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, American Reform Rabbi Zachary Shapiro, center left, and other American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

We are endlessly working on how we better teach and prepare our young people and their families to both understand Israel and to relate more closely to Israel and all the different things that come up, not just when it’s a vote in Congress over Iron Dome, but that identity issues are also important. So when there’s a victory in the [Israeli] Supreme Court around conversion, it’s felt very keenly.

I had a student who made aliyah recently. She was converted as a baby by a Reform rabbi, and she could make aliyah under the Law of Return. But when she goes to get married in the State of Israel, she’s going to have a hard time. She already knows that. And it’s not something that you say, “Well, gee, that’s too bad.” That’s worth fighting for.

When the State of Israel does something that in some way delegitimizes [non-Orthodox Judaism], it also affects identity here. So on those things, it’s not just that we’re fighting for that equality and recognition in Israel. It matters in terms of the global experience of being a Jew.

While Reform Judaism as an institution is certainly embracing Jewish peoplehood and Zionism, there was the letter signed by a number of rabbinical students — many of them from the Reform movement — during the fighting between Israel and Hamas last May that was very critical, bordering on anti-Zionist or at least not Zionist. It’s certainly something that exists. Does that have a place in the American Jewish community? Does it have a place in the Reform movement?

I do think that there is a diversity within our movement around Israel. But guess what? There’s a diversity in this coalition around Israel, and that doesn’t have to be a weakness. I do think that for a long time, American Jews were held to, “If you’re a strong sort of pro-Israel person, that means you’re pro-Likud, you’re pro-this and that.”

The idea that I have to be somehow anti-Palestinian to be strongly pro-Israel, I think is a disconnect for young people, their parents, and even their grandparents.

Illustrative: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders poses with IfNotNow activists in New Hampshire, including University of Michigan student Becca Lubow on the far left, and holds a sign that reads ‘Jews Against Occupation.’ (Courtesy/IfNotNow)

And I think the question of how does one be a progressive Liberal Jew with progressive liberal commitments here in North America and also be a strong Zionist? That’s part of the education we are providing for our young people, that those are not either/ors, those are “and, and, and” when it comes to identity. And if the government of Israel or the policies of the Knesset align, even better, but if they don’t, that doesn’t mean the project is over. It means we’ve got to lean in more and work harder.

I do want to press a little bit on this point. You are describing a liberal Zionism, which there’s not only room for but is expected, that aligns with certain political opinions that are held here in the US. But my question is, is there also room for not-Zionism or anti-Zionism within the Reform movement, or is that beyond the pale?

Well, the official movement is 100 percent clear. We’re a Zionist movement. We don’t apologize about that. We’re proud of that.

There are people within the American Jewish community that would not define themselves as Zionists. I think it’s a small group. I don’t think they’re run out of town.

I think you can understand that there is that diversity, but that it’s also not a significant community. It doesn’t move us to say, well, we should be quieter about Zionism. Not at all.

The idea that I have to be somehow anti-Palestinian to be strongly pro-Israel, I think is a disconnect for young people, their parents, and even their grandparents

I think that’s the significant thing. And does that mean that everybody is going to carry the [Israeli] flag wherever they go? No. Part of our job is to inculcate that, to grow that and to nourish that, and also to show that it doesn’t mean you can’t have a difference with a policy of the government. You can. And that’s healthy. The connection is deeper than whatever new bill is passed in the Knesset or whatever Supreme Court ruling there is about prayer on the Temple Mount.

The phenomenon that is worth paying attention to is those segments of the American Jewish community that are not connected. I’m worried about those that are apathetic. I think that may be the bigger category in American Jewish life, not the strong rabid for or the rabid against, but for whom it doesn’t live personally. That’s where I want to really focus my attention. I think that’s a significant group, and that’s why bringing more Jews to Israel is so important. During the COVID pandemic that was very hard.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, left, meeting with Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on March 9, 2017. (WAFA)

What are you doing about it?

What we’re seeing already this month and next month is the numbers of travelers to Israel goes like this [moves his hand at a 45-degree angle upwards]. Over the next three months, we’re going to see the country literally filled with folks who have been kind of delayed in many of the trips that have been planned and it’s a chance to really see the country and all of its beauty, the things that you don’t read about daily in the headlines, not even if you read The Times of Israel. They’re going to see the good, the challenging, the painful, the joyful. And they’re going to come back and feel like this is really an extraordinary moment and feel this deep affinity to the state, to the people, to the ideals.

We also bring a whole group of 300 [Israeli emissaries to the US] every summer. They populate our overnight camps. They bring this love of Israel and they get a chance to share it. But they also have an experience of being Jewish that absolutely surprises them.

I love that it’s this mutuality. They bring something, but they also take something home. I think that’s also one of the great powers of this relationship. It’s not a one-way relationship. It used to be that American Jews thought they were helping their poor Israeli cousins. We are strengthened by the State of Israel, by the Jewish life that’s thriving in Israel. And I’d like to believe that Israel also can grow from some of our experiments in pluralism.

And are we different in how we view Judaism? Yes. Do we have maybe different expressions of our Zionism? Yes. But do we have a commonality that makes us feel very much responsible one for the other? One hundred percent!

[In America] you and I could right now walk to any number of places where Orthodox rabbis, Conservative rabbis, Reform rabbis, sit together, learn, plan, do things together with ease. You say that to an Israeli — that just doesn’t happen. That Orthodox Rabbi would be banished. Here that’s like, “Duh! We’re a community.”

And are we different in how we view Judaism? Yes. Do we have maybe different expressions of our Zionism? Yes. But do we have a commonality that makes us feel very much responsible one for the other? One hundred percent!

The level playing field is a pretty powerful thing here. Nobody has political power. I don’t have political power. The Orthodox rabbis don’t. We have Judaism, we have the Jewish people, and we do our work with as much creativity and inspiration as we can.

Not to make it overly political, but if you take away political power, you take away a billion dollars or more of government budgets that are funding one expression of Judaism in Israel, it changes things. Not a little. It changes things a lot.

How is the Reform movement coming out of the coronavirus pandemic?

We never lose sight of a million people who have died. I know my own family. My mom passed away early in the pandemic. And I do know that that has been a reality in every community.

But there’s also a silver lining. We had more people showing up for Shabbat prayers during COVID than were showing up in person. And some of them were people who had not been connected, but they were hungry to feel, I would say, the nourishment and the support of a spiritual community. And it also allowed them to put their toe in the water. Right? Because if I walk into the building, I don’t know if I’m going to be received. Maybe I don’t look like the other people, maybe I don’t know my way around. But I could show up on Facebook Live for that Friday night service. I could show up for that Torah study or that lecture. It actually helped us extend the tent to the folks who weren’t yet connected.

Some congregations were struggling before the pandemic. Guess what? Many of them are struggling today. But leading change is something the Jewish leaders have always struggled with

The question is, can we build that into a more ongoing and real solid relationship? That’s on us right now. But we have seen in the last couple of years during COVID a proliferation of new thinking and experiments in how to build more bridges and how not to feel that the building is the focus of our Jewish community. The relationships, the connections, homes, families, neighborhoods. Our Judaism is not within four walls. It’s in a broader context. I think that has been exciting.

Some congregations were struggling before the pandemic. Guess what? Many of them are struggling today. But leading change is something the Jewish leaders have always struggled with. Look at our history. Some of the changes that were foisted upon us with disaster, like the destruction of the first and second temples, caused disruption.

After World War II, after the Holocaust, we see a proliferation of Jewish life here in North America and many other places. We see the birth of the State of Israel. So how do we respond to events, even events like a global pandemic? And I think that we can show ourselves to be more relevant and hopefully more able to thrive in the coming years, and that’s where our focus is.

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