Rabbi Richard Jacobs, who will soon head the congregational arm of the largest Jewish denomination in North America, understands why so many Jews avoid synagogues.
His own experience growing up in a Reform synagogue in Southern California, he said, was “dreary” and “shallow.”
Citing Jacobs’ willingness to experiment with new approaches to traditional synagogue life, Reform Jews have generally heralded his election as a hopeful sign for the movement, which is struggling to attract millions of Jews who have expressed little interest in their religion.
“The largest growing group in Jewish life is probably the disaffected,” Jacobs said in a recent interview at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., where he’s been the rabbi for 20 years.
There are 1.5 million Reform Jews and more than 900 Reform congregations in North America.
This week, at the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism in Washington, 6,000 Reform Jewish activists are getting to know Jacobs, who was unanimously elected by the group’s board of trustees in June.
His predecessor, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the URJ’s president since 1996, captured the mood of the biennial when he encouraged his successor to “change everything.”
“The danger is never that you’re going to be too cautious. The danger is that you won’t be open enough to possibilities for change,” said Yoffie. “I don’t think I have anything to worry about in that regard. That’s Rabbi Jacobs’ mindset.”
Jacobs, 56, talks in the boldest of terms when he promises to open the doors of Reform Judaism — which has already taken pioneering steps to welcome gay Jews, interfaith families and the disabled — even wider.
“What we’re about to launch is dramatic and a paradigm shift,” he said at the biennial on Dec. 14. They key to attracting the uninspired, he said, is innovative programs that go beyond the synagogue.
Less than half of American Jews belong to a synagogue, according to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, the latest study on synagogue affiliation. Of those who do, 41 percent belong to Reform synagogues.
Jacobs’ plan to lure more Jews back into Jewish life, however, is short on details, at least publicly. As he prepares to take office in June, he said he is studying strategies that have proved successful.
Many of them, he said, are oriented toward the young — Jewish pre-schools, camps, and travel-to-Israel programs — and occur outside the bounds of a synagogue.
Jacobs sees a strand of Reform DNA in the youthful passion and social justice yearnings expressed in the Occupy Wall Street movement. “Our spirituality is about shaping a more just world,” he said.
As the senior rabbi for the past 20 years in suburban Westchester County, the father of three is credited for growing his synagogue’s membership with an array of unusual programs and attractions.
There is a retreat center on the grounds — a collection of small meeting spaces for healing and other alternative services. The synagogue is one of the first certified “green” synagogues in the nation, with a solar powered eternal flame burning in the sanctuary. And parents are encouraged to learn alongside their children at Hebrew school.
“He’s a breath of fresh air,” said Rabbi Judy Schindler, the senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, N.C. “To grow our movement we need to look critically at what we do well and the areas where we need to change. We are very ready for new leadership.”
Schindler worked as associate rabbi at Jacob’s Westchester synagogue from 1995 to 1998, and is the daughter of the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, an iconic figure in Reform Judaism and the leader of the URJ from 1973 to 1996.
“When I was ordained and looking at rabbinic positions, my father really wanted me to work with Rabbi Jacobs,” she said. “He thought he was the best mentor I could have.”
Jacobs was ordained in 1982 by Hebrew Union College. But his road to the rabbinate was unusual in that he also pursued — simultaneously — a dance career. The 6-foot-3-inch Jacobs danced and choreographed with the Avodah Dance Ensemble, a troupe that performs Jewish-oriented works throughout the nation.
Sometimes, Jacobs said, he had to tote his ballet shoes to rabbinical school and his Hebrew texts to dance class. The Ph.D. in dance that he is pursuing at New York University, he said, is now on hold because of his election as URJ president.
Jacobs’ detractors among Reform Jews are not many, but they are vocal, and focus their criticism on his stance toward Israel, which they say is overly critical.
Several dozen signed a letter last spring, published in the Jewish press, which warned that Jacobs has too often blamed Israel for the failures of the peace process, and failed to hold Palestinians accountable.
Jacobs dismisses the concern, and notes that he owns an apartment in Jerusalem, which he visits several times a year.
“I love Israel,” he said, “with every fiber of my being.”