ToI podcast'This is a moment of mutual strengthening'

What Matters Now to Rabbi Rick Jacobs: Coalitions of faith and conscience

The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents some two million Jews in North America, makes an onsite tour of Israel to be able to report back and shore up support

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.

The ripple effects of Hamas’s massacre of 1,400 people in Israel on October 7 are still being felt. The dead were mostly civilians — many entire families — whom Israel continues to identify and bury.

Israelis were the primary target of the barbaric attack, but their pain is shared by Jewish brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, just as, five years ago this week, Israelis shared the shock and pain of the deadly shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue.

Here this week from New York to show his love and solidarity with Israelis is Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism which represents some two million Jews in North America. He sat with The Times of Israel after touring the country and getting briefed on the situation here on the ground.

We speak about how Jews — even some from the most progressive edges — are pulling together today, with some humanitarian caveats.

“This is a moment when we have to be leaning into the kind of response that the world doesn’t like to see from us — when we have a strong military response to protect our community, our families, our country. And at the same time, can we hold, in whatever portion of our moral stance in the world, that we do not look at the suffering of innocents, not the suffering of those who are bringing this assault? That’s part of us retaining our Jewish religious sensibilities, which we can’t lose ever,” said Jacobs.

So this week, we ask Rabbi Rick Jacobs, what matters now.

The following transcript has been edited.

The Times of Israel: Rick, thank you so much for joining me today in Jerusalem’s Nomi Studios.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: It’s an honor to be with you.

Our lives have changed since October 7, everyone here in Israel feels it, I’m sure Jews around the world do, too. So I ask you Rick, we’re now 20 days into this war, what matters now?

What matters is something profound shifted on October 7. Obviously, the State of Israel and the Jewish people have known challenges. Israelis have known challenges pretty much every day, but when we awoke to the news of what was transpiring and what was still transpiring throughout that Shabbat, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, it literally went through us and shook us to the core. Obviously, how much the more so here in Israel.

Listen, before October 7, we were arguing and debating about everything. We’re Jewish people, we’re Jewish leaders, we debated the judiciary, halacha, everything. But, in that moment, something just shifted to say: There’s a more profound call at this moment, which is to stand intensely with the people and the State of Israel and to galvanize our community in every way. There’s no left and right, there’s no Orthodox and secular and Reform. There’s just a community that understood that we just witnessed the slaughter of our people in their homes. In the celebrated Jewish state which has the ability, we thought, to defend our citizens everywhere, every moment. It just awakened the sense that we’re vulnerable, even when we’re strong. I think it also reminded us that underneath it all, there’s something that does bind us together. And I think we know that in our intellectual selves, but we now know it at a very deep, visceral level. I think that this tragedy will be recounted for centuries to come.

Eight children were found dead in this house at Kibbutz Be’eri, killed by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023. (David Horovitz/Times of Israel)

I agree with you. To me, it’s one of those moments like watching the Twin Towers fall, and, I understand from my father, when JFK was assassinated — things of this stature. I want you to just take me through how you learned of this massacre.

Well, certainly it’s not the case that on Shabbat I’m glued to media, but I check my phone because we have a vast movement and we know that there are often times things that happen that we need to respond to. So on the morning of Shabbat, Simchat Torah, when I checked my phone, it had just exploded with direct texts and emails from friends in Israel saying something horrific and overwhelming is happening.

And then I just stayed glued to technology to find out what we could do. In those first moments as we were just discovering the extent and hearing the accounts of some of our friends who were in their safe rooms right along the border in Kfar Azza, in Nahal Oz, and we witnessed in real-time, their desperation, their pleading, “somebody come and help us.”

And then, of course, right away we had to try and figure out how do we mobilize our community on a holiday, on a Shabbat when people are doing what they should do, which is to celebrate and to be in that joyful moment. So that was that Shabbat that was not Shabbat.

So, immediately after seeing what was happening in Israel, your head went to protecting your communities throughout the Diaspora?

My thoughts went first and foremost to trying to understand what we needed to do to be helpful to our people here in Israel. They were the ones literally on the front lines. So let me be really clear, that was number one, two and three on the to-do list. And also to figure out, in terms of the US government — we are a North American movement, we’re Canada and the US — but in that moment we had to make sure that the US government was tuned in. We don’t have an [US] ambassador here at the moment. We hope that we soon will. But really to make sure that the powers that be were closely monitoring the situation — and obviously, as we’ve seen in recent days, there’s been quite a lot of strong support from the US government.

But in that moment we felt so anxious and vulnerable and we didn’t know the extent of the attack. So the first news reports said 100 were murdered and then 200, and it just kept growing. And the desperation of the people who were in their safe rooms with their kids telling them to be quiet. I’m thinking to myself, how would I, when my kids were little, ask them to be quiet for 10 minutes let alone nine hours? Soon it ratcheted up to a full emergency on every level. And I think the question of how to protect our communities here was in that mix. But it was clear where the absolute danger was, where the slaughter was happening. And we didn’t yet have a full sense of the many hostages. It just unfolded and got more horrific as more accounts and more news came across.

And still is. And pretty much immediately your movement, along with other movements throughout the US, started holding vigils. Tell me about how that unfolded.

So if you think about it, we were actually pretty organized about vigils before October 7. And they were obviously pro-democracy, pro-Jewish/democratic state. And we had a wonderful, amazing partnership with the Israelis, who are not just in New York, but also in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Florida, all around. That same network, in one second, pivoted from pro-democracy protests to large-scale public rallies for the physical safety of the people of Israel.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (left), with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, October 25, 2023. (courtesy)

Right away, there were counter-protests by pro-Hamas activists. Right away — I’m in New York City — there were people who were not protesting on behalf of the dignity and well-being of the Palestinian people. That’s legitimate. We can actually bless respectful protests. These were not. These were pro-Hamas. They were celebrating the butchering of our people.

So, on a very basic level, we were not prepared that anyone who would be part of our modern world could celebrate the mass murder of babies, women, and whole families but that’s what we saw. And it just encouraged many, including very progressive members of our community, to say: “This is different. Something has now changed in terms of our understanding of our role, as Jews, as supporters, progressive supporters of Israel.”

Quickly, it was understood that this was a war against Hamas. They had done something so egregious, so beyond what anyone could imagine, that we knew that there had to be a response other than just hoping things would get better. That’s not a response. It’s not a plan. And that’s not what the Jewish community in North America is busy doing.

You are obviously part of coexistence efforts, and I wonder if there was any kind of conversation between you and any kind of Muslim leadership to come out and condemn what is happening.

I will be clear that most of the immediate expressions of solidarity were from colleagues in the Christian community. My phone was filled with those expressions of solidarity, including from people who would not be called strong supporters of Israel. They understood however that something quite different was unfolding, and I was heartened by their response. And my request [to them was] not just to say thank you, but could you post that? Could you say it publicly? It would really be important.

There are Muslim colleagues with whom I have that close of a relationship. Some of them are not Middle Eastern Muslims, and for them, it’s usually a little bit easier to navigate Middle East politics. But there were also expressions of solidarity from Muslim colleagues. Again not, that they supported the whole project of the Jewish people or the whole project of the State of Israel. But, they expressed “We are outraged. We cannot imagine what it’s like to go through this as a Jewish community.” And they expressed the same thing that Joe Biden said when he was here: “You’re not alone.” Those are expressions that we received.I did hear from rabbis across North America that it took a while for them to hear from their interfaith partners. Some of my rabbinic colleagues put the word out that they’d love to hear from their partners..

I think for people who are very involved in the political world, who probably define themselves on the very progressive side of the spectrum this horrific attack affected many of them to move to a different mindset. Not that they forgot or let go of their political commitments, but they couldn’t tolerate the butchering of innocent civilians.

And the people who live along the Gaza border, are as you know — I’ve spent a lot of time in those communities — they are the most idealistic, and the most committed to building a shared society.

It is ironic in a way that these people who are being held captive by Hamas are also the people who drove perhaps their family members to the hospital to get treatment for cancer. They are the peace activists of Israel — so many of them living in these kibbutzim along the border, these secular kibbutzim. I want to drill down a little bit more on the progressives, though, and many people have privately said to me: “Hey, we Jews showed up. We showed up for Black Lives Matter, we showed up for many other different movements, and we’re just not seeing our partners in activism show up for us.” Do you feel that is true?

I don’t feel that in a general sense. I think there are certainly many people who did show up, many people who did reach out. There are people with whom we work shoulder to shoulder on civil rights and on making a society in North America that is a place where people of color, all backgrounds, all genders, all sexualities can live in dignity and peace and equality. And I think that there are people who previously only related to Israel’s political establishment. The voices of this current Israeli government have not been voices that have, frankly, agreed with liberal Jews. It hasn’t agreed with a lot of progressives.

Illustrative: Israel supporters during a vigil in New York City, October 8, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

But this war wasn’t about seeking a new politician or a policy of this government. This was an attack on human beings, on families. And so I would say, some of the most progressive were the ones who reached out and expressed in no “clouded, both-sides language.” None of that. Also [many said]: “Are you okay? What can I do?” And in that moment I did not just want to thank them, but to ask them to express their support in front of their congregations, in front of their wider communities because this war was likely not going to be a day or a week. And we understood that immediately there would be a whole lot of solidarity, a lot of empathy, but over the course of a campaign, a war, as we have at this moment, the tide of opinion would turn quickly against Israel as Israel did what it needed to do, which is to push back against Hamas, not against all Palestinians. This is a war against Hamas.

So at this moment, frankly, I would argue it’s more challenging and [asking for solidarity is] more required. And that’s where we’re really trying to work hard — to solidify some of those coalitions of faith and conscience.

For sure. We definitely see it on the international stage that the tide has turned. I wouldn’t say, “is turning.” The tide turned perhaps even a week ago in terms of international media. And of course, there is so much suffering in Gaza. There is no doubt, there’s no objective doubt about that. But yet we wonder here in Israel, so many of us, how can we lose this moment of moral clarity? That children were decapitated, raped, taken hostage, grandmothers, Holocaust survivors put on motorcycles, beaten with sticks? We’ve heard the testimony already of those who were freed. How can it be that Israel is not able to operate in Gaza without world condemnation?

Well, I think you’re absolutely right. And as we stand 1000 percent with Israel in this crisis, this disaster, this moment of overwhelming pain and loss. At that same moment, we are a people who also know that the suffering of the innocent is painful. There’s a commentary on this week’s Torah portion in Parshat Lech Lecha, in Chapter 15, right after Avram — he’s not yet Avraham — rescues his nephew Lot, who’s been taken hostage. (Like you open the Torah, you say, excuse me, how did they know that we’d be reading this week and need to hear these words?) And Avram gets a military band together and fights and wins and liberates his family member. So the Torah is telling us that’s what’s needed in such moments. Sometimes I think of Avram more like Elie Wiesel or Martin Buber, But here he’s more like Gary Cooper. He’s out there fighting.

In Chapter 15, it opens with “Al tira, Avram.” Don’t be afraid. And the midrash says, why was he afraid? Not that he was afraid there was going to be another attack. It says in the Midrash Rabbah, he was afraid because he might have killed an innocent person in the war that he just fought. That wasn’t written by a Reform rabbi in the 21st century. It was written centuries ago. This is also part of our DNA. It’s part of what makes us who we are.

We can be 100% supportive of Israel and the IDF as they respond as they must. They have to protect Israeli families, their country. And it’s not going to happen by letting Hamas continue with its military strength, keeping millions of people hostage in Gaza. They’re not trying to make life “unpleasant” for Israelis, they would like us not to be here. They’d like to wipe us off the face of the earth. And they don’t only focus on Israel, they are against all Jews. So this is a moment we can’t just sing “Oseh Shalom, od yavo shalom” (Make peace, peace will surely come). This is a moment when Israel has to respond in a way that the world doesn’t like to see from us — when we have a strong military response to protect our community, our families, our country. And at the same time, can we hold, in whatever portion of our moral stance in the world, that we are not callous to the suffering of innocents, which is different from the suffering of those who are bringing this assault? That’s part of how we retain our Jewish religious sensibilities, which we can’t lose ever.

Hamas terrorists cross the Israel-Gaza border fence on October 7, 2023 (Kan TV screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

There are so many who say Hamas was voted into power in a free-ish election in the Gaza Strip, voted in 2006, then assumed power in 2007. So in this way, every resident of the Gaza Strip is a Hamas supporter. What would you say to that?

I think that’s a very simplistic read. I’ve heard it before. I’ve heard it from some people during the last few days here. I don’t think that there’s something called free elections in Gaza. I mean, the last elections were 15-plus years ago so you can’t claim that the people of Gaza have endorsed what Hamas is doing now. I don’t think that Hamas can claim that the people of Gaza are behind their brutal war.

One of our remarkable URJ staff members here is doing his miluim, doing his reserve duty in an education unit, and they work on the ethics code of the IDF reminding the soldiers of their ethical obligations as they’re about to go into battle. This is also an important part of what it means to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. This is part of who we are and I think that’s critical. So we don’t target civilians.

Are civilians harmed in the conduct of war? Yes, but Israel is not deliberately targeting them. That’s a key difference. It’s one thing to say you voted or you didn’t vote, you currently support or you don’t support, but the safety of civilians should always be an urgent priority. Hamas targets civilians deliberately, we know the plans that they had when they came across the border. They were looking for families, they went into these communities with accurate maps, they knew where people were. So to me, that’s the morally opposite approach. These are complex issues on some level, but on another level, they’re not.

Hamas is embedded within the civilian population. It’s like sifting for gold to find Hamas, versus the rest of the population. Of course, there’s going to be collateral damage. And already you talked about the progressives getting into the Jewish peoplehood a little bit more, but already we’re seeing splinters. If Not Now has already taken stances and had protests and things of that nature. Life on campus is always fraught, especially in this age group when everything is so clear and yet perhaps not fully understood. They’re standing up, they’re speaking out loudly against Israel right now, and many of them are Jews. How do you speak to them?

Well, first of all, let’s be clear about the size of that group. There was a small group [of Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow activists] that was in the US Capitol. They had a right to protest but as I’m traveling through Israel these last days, many Israelis assume they represent the Reform Movement. But that is not true.

Our stance: We’re the largest Zionist organization, we stand with Israel. Are there people who hold dissonant views within our movement? Yes. Within the wider Jewish community? Yes. So let’s be clear about the size of those groups. But my feeling is, I want to talk to them, I want to be engaged with them. I’m not writing them off. I’m not saying, well, we all disagree. I want to get into a serious debate and discussion with them.

A protester sets the Israeli flag on fire during a pro-Palestinian rally in Milan, Italy, on October 21, 2023. (Piero CRUCIATTI/AFP)

I also want people who are listening to the podcast to know that we’re almost 2 million people according to the Pew polling for the last two surveys. It’s not a little sliver [of American Jews] that are with Israel, it’s the overwhelming majority. And every one of our synagogues had vigils for Israel and they invited their local faith communities and they came and filled our sanctuaries and stood with us in public spaces. This is the face of our movement.

There are also some who in this moment choose to be outside that pale. But I would tell you, I think many of those progressives actually were shaken and had to rethink even some of the ways in which they speak out and when to speak out and how to speak out. So those also feel like a very important part of our conversation.

I think it’s really important for the wider Jewish community to know, in this moment, we’re organizing our communities to adopt the hostages individually so our congregations can feel a deeper sense of connection. We’re doing that with the Conservative Movement and the Orthodox Union. Why? Because outside of Israel, we all seem to work together. How about that?! That’d be a good thing for the State of Israel to notice that we actually have a greater sense of klal Yisrael, achdut Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people. And those are the things that I would put on the headlines. Those are the things I would say. This is the big takeaway. And here are some other stories that are worth hearing as well.

Life on campus over the past 20 years has been difficult for many Jews, you’d agree with that?

For sure. But I also think that the rise in antisemitism isn’t only the rise in the whole question of Israel-Palestine. We’ve also seen over the last half-decade the increase in white Christian nationalism, a very deadly form of antisemitism. And we feel that in our communities and we also feel that on campus. We also know that the sort of dominant view of the progressive world is that Palestinians are always the victims and Israel is always the aggressor. Just as we saw with the story of the hospital [in Gaza] when it was bombed: The story was already written. Most people didn’t need to know, what are the facts? They didn’t need to know the facts because they already believed that Israel must be guilty. And of course, it came out that Israel was not responsible, but the story was already out there.

I think that on campus for our Jewish progressive students who do stand with the students of color, they do stand up against the oppression of LGBTQ students and they do stand against so many of the policies of of the previous administration. For some progressives standing with Israel has not been a part of their political agenda,

Our Reform Movement is working to raise a whole new generation that knows how to hold liberal Jewish values and strong connections to Israel. And by the way, we know Israel isn’t just the government, it’s people who hold many different views. As we bring more of our students to Israel before they go to college, they gain a first-person narrative. They can say when they get to campus and someone says: “Israel is x or y” they can answer: “You know, I have friends in Israel.” That’s not something I’ve heard before. And let me tell you what I know. This approach is very different from trying to get them to memorize talking points or debating points so they can yell back, but to make their connection to Israel part of who they are.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march during a protest at Columbia University, Oct. 12, 2023, in New York. (AP/Yuki Iwamura)

We’re doing this in a wonderful way with the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. The project was created in the previous government with Nachman Shai who asked: “What can we do together?” We just had a retreat with our Israel Teen Fellows, they gathered at our camp in Georgia this past weekend and they were learning the tools that they need in their toolbox to first of all make sense of what’s happening in Israel and also in the Palestinian Territories, and how they can be leaders among their peers. Not just saying: “I went to Israel, here are my pictures, I had a great time.” That’s wonderful. But that’s not enough. Through our program, we want to give them the ability to take their core Jewish values that are consistent with who they are. We want them to be able to say: “My values lead me to love Israel, my values lead me to stand up for these commitments.”And as they get a little bit more practice, how can they also show up on social media when they see some of their peers posting really harsh things about Israel. Do they just duck and turn their phones off and hope it gets better or can we help them to find a way to engage in a constructive manner? Those are the things that we’re actually working intensely on. So we’re not just watching this thing unfold on the campuses and saying: “This is really serious. I don’t know what to do.” But what are we doing in educating a new generation so that they have facts, commitments and experiences that allow them to live their liberal Zionist commitments?

It sounds like a real plan for proactive nuance, in a way. I want to go back to the idea of antisemitism, and one of your first statements was, how can I protect my communities? Do you feel that right now during this war, that your communities are in danger?

We clearly know there are more threats, and we met with Homeland Secretary [Alejandro] Mayorkas twice in the last two weeks. He’s been monitoring and working closely with the ADL, with the Secure Communities Network. We work very seamlessly with all of these agencies. This past summer in Macon, Georgia, as our Reform synagogue was getting ready for Shabbat, the rabbi looked out her window and noticed neo-Nazis standing there. Well, in literally a heartbeat, they were able to activate our network. And law enforcement was not only there, but law enforcement that knew what to do. So that’s the garden variety. And we were pretty well prepared and effective in responding.

In the days since October 7, we’re at a whole new level. The threat level went up dramatically and our communities have sophisticated security protocols. But those protocols need to be strengthened. One doesn’t have to carry an Israeli flag to incur the kind of wrath of those who support Hamas. Just wearing a kippah or a Jewish star could be a catalyst to a violent attack. Simply identifying as a Jewish person can put a person at risk.

Now, of course, we also have the case of the 6-year-old Palestinian Muslim boy in Chicago who was stabbed to death and what was his crime? He’s part of a Palestinian Muslim family. In America, hate is a big industry, and the kind of safety we’re working on for our community, we’d like the wider community to also have that kind of safety.

But this isn’t a moment of panic. It’s not a moment to say, well, let’s stop being Jewish for the next year and then we can come back to it. We have people who are very proud of being Jewish. We’re not going to stop going to our synagogues or to our schools or to our summer camps or our JCCs, but we want to be smart about this, and we want our people to feel that it’s safe if you drop your two-year-old off at the synagogue nursery school, you want to know that there’s a protocol that really is at the level required in this moment. And I think we have that. And yet I know we must be vigilant. We’re never going to be complacent about security. However our system works, we’re going to keep improving it, because that’s also part of being in solidarity.

Again, the people along the Gaza border, in the communities that we know so well and who are within the reach of rockets, we know they are on the front lines. But we are very aware of the interconnectedness of our Jewish communities in the Diaspora and Israel. We are interconnected in all good ways and with all the challenges. It’s important for Israelis to understand the reality of antisemitism as we need Diaspora Jews to understand the violent threats against Israelis I love that this is a moment of mutual strengthening and interconnectedness.

Large crowds of pro-Israel demonstrators gather in Trafalgar Square, London, Oct. 22, 2023, demanding the release of all hostages abducted from Israel to Gaza by Hamas terrorists. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

We are marking five years to the terror shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. Can you describe to me in some ways how the Jewish community has evolved, changed, shifted in its relationship with Israel since then?

I remember when the attack happened on the Tree of Life Synagogue, I was here in Israel, and that Shabbat morning before it all unfolded, I was with our high school students at our Heller High School Program, about 70 of them, and we were having a sicha, a conversation at Shabbat lunch. What’s on your mind? And one student asked me: “Rabbi Jacobs, have you personally experienced something antisemitic in the last year?” And I answered no. But then I thought: “Be a rabbi, Rick, be an educator.” So I asked the high school students all 70 of them “How many of you have experienced antisemitism in recent days, not read about it but actually experienced antisemitism in your communities? And they’re from all over North America, little rural communities, big cities. Two-thirds of the hands went up, and they told stories of what they had experienced In their schools, in playing sports, in their communities they personally experienced anti-Jewish hate. And in that moment, not that I predicted what was going to happen later that day in Pittsburgh or in the coming years, but already that conversation signaled that something was different but also there was a remarkable response of solidarity by the interfaith community in the wake of the Tree of Life shooting.

One of the things I always want to point out to people is that on the Shabbat after the shooting, our synagogues overflowed, not just with our Jewish community, but with our interfaith partners. This had never happened in Jewish history. It didn’t happen in the 1930s when Kristallnacht happened. The whole German didn’t say: “How can we support you?” That’s what happened in our communities, and in official government responses. I want us to appreciate how transformative those interfaith relationships can be.

I don’t think there were people in the wider Jewish community who didn’t take seriously the threats of antisemitism following the Tree of Life Synagogue attack. And the shooter was not motivated by something happening in Israel-Palestine, he was angry about the Jewish community’s care for the immigrants and the refugees and many other things that our community is very proud to do. His hate was fueled by the various conspiracy theories that have been passed around through centuries. So we also knew for those who told us there are only threats on one side of the political spectrum, excuse me, we face antisemitism wherever it is and we’re going to continue taking it very seriously, but we’re also not going to stop being proudly Jewish in our homes, in our communities.

Rick, thank you so much for joining me today.

It’s been an honor. It’s a painful moment, but I so appreciate the ability to talk and to share the reflections about where we are. So, thank you.

What Matters Now podcasts are available for download on iTunes, TuneIn, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, PlayerFM or wherever you get your podcasts.

Check out the previous What Matters Now episode:

Most Popular
read more: