This Friday night, Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor will host a very special guest speaker: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). Those who attend services will have the opportunity to hear Rabbi Jacobs speak about “Renovating Jewish Life: The Reform Movement at a Crossroads.”
The URJ movement is often described as one of the more liberal parts of Judaism; the URJ spoke out strongly in support of gay marriage during the Supreme Court rulings last month. With more than 1.5 million estimated Reform Jews in North America, Reform Judaism is considered the largest Jewish movement in North America. Rabbi Jacobs has served as president of the URJ since June 2012, following other successful positions, including 20 years serving as leader of the Westchester Reform Temple (WRT) in Scarsdale. “I’m looking forward to getting to know the [Temple Adas] congregation and the wider community,” Rabbi Jacobs said last week.
The way in which Rabbi Jacobs’ guest appearance came about was coincidental. Last summer, Rabbi Jacobs happened to attend Saturday morning Shabbat services at Temple Adas Israel. “He sometimes finds himself on the East End,” explains Rabbi Leon Morris, the leader of Temple Adas Israel. Last year’s visit came at a less-than-auspicious time—the Saturday morning after the largest Friday night services the Temple had seen, so few people attended. But Rabbi Jacobs accepted the invitation to return, and will discuss the crossroads at which many religious communities find themselves today, hopefully to a larger crowd.
“People are not going to automatically join today as they might have in a previous generation,” he explains. This drop in religious affiliation means that some synagogues, both in the Reform movement and those outside the movement, often have dwindling numbers, and some have even had to close their doors. This development, combined with other challenges that the Reform movement faces—how to engage more young people, how to improve upon outdated structures—are large issues that Rabbi Jacobs spends much of his time thinking about and analyzing. Rabbi Jacobs outlines three strategic areas that the URJ sees as critical to improving the functioning of this body, which was formed in 1873 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“We want to catalyze congregational change,” Rabbi Jacobs explains as the first pillar. He poses the question, “Is Hebrew School still a model we suffer through?” Engaging the next generation is the second pillar, helping engage teenagers and young adults fresh out of college who might have lost connection with their synagogue after their Bat and Bar Mitzvahs. As a third objective, Rabbi Jacobs wants to “extend our reach beyond the walls of synagogues.” This could mean offering classes for interfaith couples seeking to raise their children Jewish, or welcoming LGBT individuals.
“He was always a model of the best that’s out there—the most innovative programming, the most innovative synagogue,” Rabbi Morris explains. “Almost everything we’re doing is a kind of outreach to Jews who haven’t connected with their Jewishness.” He sees this visit as “an opportunity to reflect on what the meaning of our affiliation with the Reform movement is.”
In another realm, Rabbi Jacobs has worked with the Reform movement to make sure that even beyond the Jewish community, that the URJ reaches out to other faiths to forge stronger connections in an increasingly diverse United States. The Reform movement organized the first interfaith response to the Newtown shooting, “We’re definitely involved in working across the waterfront of the interfaith world.”
Visitors are welcome at Shabbat services this Friday night at 8 p.m. to hear Rabbi Rick Jacobs speak. 30 Atlantic Avenue, Sag Harbor.