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Shul program builds Jewish-Muslim ties

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From left, Rabbi Steven Sirbu, Elijah Muhammad, Imam Saeed Qureshi, and Andrea Winters stand in front of Temple Emeth in Teaneck.

In 2007, the Union for Reform Judaism urged its congregations to embrace a broader vision of interreligious understanding, says Rabbi Steven Sirbu, religious leader of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth.

In a major initiative launched at URJ’s biennial convention, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the organization’s president, declared that “Jews are not well-educated about Islam, and Muslims are not well-educated about Judaism. In our increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, we can ill afford to segregate ourselves within our mosques and synagogues.”

Heeding the call for synagogues to reach out to their Muslim counterparts, in 2008 Sirbu’s congregation began a dialogue with a mosque in Teaneck, Masjid Darul Islah, using a curriculum written and published by URJ and the Islamic Society of North America. Working from a text entitled “Children of Abraham: Jews and Muslims in Conversation,” the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Committees of Temple Emeth and Masjid Darul Islah began a series of monthly meetings.

With 12 members from each institution, the group — meeting two hours on a Sunday, sometimes at one of the houses of worship and sometimes at members’ homes — tackled “segments organized from low-tension to high-tension topics,” said Leonia resident Andrea Winters, a member of Temple Emeth and co-coordinator with mosque member Elijah Muhammad of the dialogue team.

“As we got to build trust, we could embark on more difficult terrain,” she said, citing hot-button issues such as the status of Jerusalem and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As time went on, she said, “more and more stories were shared about individual personal experiences [like] anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia.”

Winters said that as the scheduled curricular meetings were coming to an end in December, “we discovered that we were only just beginning to talk.”

As a result, the group — with members from Leonia, Teaneck, Tenafly, Fort Lee, and Paterson — opted to continue through May. Since January, she said, “we have been engaged in topics of our own choosing, such as gender.”

Up to this point, she said, she and Muhammad have served as “co-chairs, co-coordinators, and process facilitators.” The additional sessions, however, have had rotating discussion leaders.

The dialogue team began with sessions designed to “introduce us to each other and to basics such as the Torah and the Koran and issues of charity in both faiths,” said Winters.

“The goal is to listen to each other, not to change minds,” she added, mentioning an upcoming dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She noted that there had been some tension in an earlier discussion on the topic, particularly as regarded “the perception of Jews as oppressors. [The Jews] were defensive about others seeing them that way,” she said.

Another discussion involved the immigration experiences of both groups, a topic that brought the members closer, she said.

Sirbu pointed out that the clergy of the two religious institutions have fully endorsed the project but decided not to sit in on the meetings from month to month.

“We felt it would be a better process if we took a step back,” he said. He noted as well that while a dialogue could succeed only in a small and closed environment, his congregation has sought various ways to share the committee’s achievements.

In the fall of 2008, for example, “Our annual Joshua Trachtenberg Memorial Lecture was on ‘Jerusalem: Holy City in Judaism and Islam,’ presented by Rabbi Phil Lieberman, an expert in Jewish law,” said Sirbu. All members of the mosque were invited to attend the event, held during a Shabbat service, “and there was a nice turnout. We were very encouraged and heartened.”

Noting that he enjoys cordial relations with the mosque’s imam, Saeed Qureshi, Sirbu added that last Chanukah he invited all dialogue members to the synagogue to lead a discussion for the entire Temple Emeth community on what they had accomplished.

The rabbi pointed out that the dialogue members from Temple Emeth had been appointed by the synagogue leadership “because we thought they would be good representatives” of the congregation. He did not know how their Muslim counterparts were chosen.

At the Chanukah session, “we had a great turnout and very rich discussion. The congregation didn’t know what was being accomplished. [Now] they had a sense of the worth of this project.”

“We talked to the congregation about what we learned from each other,” said Winters. But even more, “we were joking around [and] the congregation observed our teasing and playfulness,” she said.

“We’re looking for more ways to share the dialogue process and its goals with the entire temple-mosque community and whole community,” said Sirbu. “It opens our eyes to the struggles of peoples of different faiths, makes us aware of our own prejudices, and promotes understanding.”

One such effort will take place on Sunday, April 25, when Temple Emeth co-hosts “Under the Veil,” an interactive theatrical performance.

According to Winters, last spring one of the dialogue members saw the presentation at a meeting of the Ethical Culture Society.

“He loved it. So I brought it to Pace [University, where she teaches] and the students loved it as well.”

The presentation is intended to challenge audience members to think in ways they haven’t thought before, she said, adding that the program is free and open to the whole community. It is the dialogue project’s first joint initiative.

Performed by the TE’A Project (Theater, Engagement and Action), the show is based on interviews conducted by the actors in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and is intermixed with facilitated dialogue between the actors and the audience.

To broaden the range of those involved in the program, it is being co-sponsored not just by the dialogue committees of the two houses of worship but by their youth groups as well.

“The performance is intended for people of all ages,” said Sirbu, noting that while it was not appropriate for the youth to be involved in the dialogue itself, “it will get them thinking about it.” The young people will also help with refreshments.

The rabbi was pleased about the “enthusiasm” the dialogue team brought back to the congregation. “They brought back the understanding that coexistence depends on relationships. They don’t meet as Jews and Muslims but as a group of 24 people who know and like one another and enjoy the chance to share ideas.”

“Under the Veil” will be presented at Temple Emeth from 2:30 to 4 p.m., April 25. For further information, call (201) 833-1322.

 
 

Exploring Jewish ancestry through food for Rosh HaShanah

Linda Morel
Published: 27 August 2010

Teiglach came along with Tina Wasserman when she moved to Dallas in the 1980s.

Wasserman, a cooking teacher and the food columnist for Reform Judaism magazine, didn’t literally transport clumps of the sticky pastries whose dough is wrapped around nuts and simmered in honey syrup. But among her most cherished possessions, she packed her recipe for the traditional Rosh HaShanah sweet hailing from Lithuania.

“No one had seen it down here,” said Wasserman, the author of “Entree to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora (URJ Press, 2010), until she served the dessert to her new friends.

She then introduced the recipe in cooking classes. Before long, teiglach became part of the Jewish culinary scene in Dallas.

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Dulce de Manzana, a variation on apple preserves, is a Rosh HaShanah treat of Turkish origin. Courtesy of URJ Press and Tina Wasserman, from her book “Entree to Judaism”

The incident is typical of how Jewish foods have traveled around the world, says Wasserman, whose goal in writing her cookbook was to educate about Jewish culture while providing sensational recipes that tell the story of Jewish history.

As Jews migrated from country to country, they carried their recipes and kiddush cups. Like Johnny Appleseed, they spread their favorite foods. But they also adapted to the cuisines they encountered wherever they went.

“I wanted to create a link to our ancestry through food,” said Wasserman, who feels that such a connection will keep Judaism alive.

“Food is the most direct connection in our brain to memory,” said Wasserman.

She began assembling recipes for “Entree to Judaism” with a question: What makes a food Jewish from a historical viewpoint? Her conclusion: Kosher laws and Sabbath observance were the reasons for the invention and evolution of Jewish recipes.

For instance, Wasserman says that caponata, the popular Italian appetizer of simmered eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers, is a 500-year-old Sabbath dish. During the Spanish Inquisition when Spain occupied Sicily, 40,000 Jews fled to mainland Italy to escape persecution, bringing with them this make-ahead recipe that can be served cold or at room temperature.

“I tried to put the foods we love into a context,” Wasserman said, explaining that she wanted to breathe life into Jewish culinary history.

Each recipe in her cookbook includes the story of its origins, when and why it was eaten, and who cherished it enough to bring the preparation method to a new part of the world.

Ever wondered why some Ashkenazim eat kreplach at Rosh HaShanah? During the Middle Ages, Jews from Central and Eastern Europe sealed their wishes for the new year in pouches of dough and wore them as amulets. According to Wasserman’s web page, http://www.cookingandmore.com, “Serving kreplach (triangles of dough sealed around a meat filling) in soup on Kol Nidre night is an offshoot of this practice.”

“Most of our food customs come from the Middle Ages,” said Wasserman.

Jews needed stories to give them hope during the Crusades, when anti-Semitism flourished.

While Ashkenazim dip apples in honey to connote sweetness in the new year, Turkish Jews convey the same wishes by partaking in Dulce de Manzana, sweet apple preserves infused with rose water, the signature flavor of many Sephardic pastries.

Dulce de Manzana is the first of 20 dairy foods Wasserman serves at the bagels-and-lox buffet she and her husband host at their home each Rosh HaShanah following the tashlich ceremony when Jews, often in large groups, cast away their sins from the previous year by throwing small pieces of bread into a natural body of flowing water such as a river, lake, or ocean.

For the past five years, the Wassermans have invited about 110 guests to the meal, including the five rabbis from their Dallas synagogue, Temple Emanuel, the fourth largest Reform congregation in America.

International Jewish foods featured in “Entree to Judaism” are found on their buffet table. Wasserman not only prepares each dish herself but posts a small sign explaining its origin. Many of the deliciously exotic recipes hail from Sephardic countries.

One of Wasserman’s favorite recipes is Syrian Eggplant with Pomegranate Molasses, which is similar in consistency to babaganoush. Pomegranates are traditionally eaten at Rosh HaShanah because their seeds symbolize prosperity in the New Year. The recipe is great as an appetizer, hors d’oeuvres, first-course salad, or part of a meze, an array of appetizers typical of Sephardic cuisine.

“I’m all about connecting to the Jewish community at large,” said Wasserman, whose website creates a community around food. “We’re a shrinking population who used to live everywhere in the world.”

The following recipes are by Tina Wasserman from “Entree to Judaism.”

Dulce de Manzana
(Apple Preserves)

Pareve

This Rosh HaShanah, try dipping challah into this sweet treat that Turkish Sephardic Jews eat to wish each other a sweet new year.

Ingredients

3 cups granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups water

2 lbs. apples, Jonagold, Gala, or Delicious

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1 tbsp. rose water or 1 tsp. vanilla

1/4 cup slivered almonds

Preparation

Place the sugar and water in a 3-quart saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.

While the mixture is heating, peel the apples and grate them by hand with a coarse grater. Immediately add the apples to the hot sugar syrup.

Reduce the temperature to medium and cook for 30-45 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated and the mixture is quite thick. Stir the mixture occasionally to prevent sticking.

While the mixture is cooking, toast the almond in a 350-degree oven for 4 minutes, or until lightly golden. Set aside.

When the mixture is thickened (it will get thicker when it cools), add the rose water or vanilla. Place in an open container until cool. The toasted almonds may be added to the mixture at this time or sprinkled on top as a garnish just before serving. Refrigerate until serving.

Yield: 3-4 cups

Syrian Eggplant With
Pomegranate Molasses

Pareve

Finding out that the great Jewish cooks of Aleppo, Syria, used this molasses with eggplant intrigued Wasserman to explore this stunningly delicious combination often served with pita bread.

Ingredients

1 medium eggplant (1 1/2 lbs.)

2 tbsp. pomegranate molasses (available at Middle Eastern stores and Amazon.com)

2 large garlic cloves, finely minced or pressed through a garlic press

1/4 tsp. dried crushed red pepper flakes

3 or 4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt to taste

Pomegranate seeds for garnish (optional)

Preparation

Roast the eggplant over a grill until all sides are charred and the eggplant is soft and deflated.

Remove to a colander, slit open on 1 side from stem to bottom. Let the juices run out for 10 minutes, or until it is cool enough to handle.

Remove the skin and stem and discard them.

Place the eggplant pulp in a clean bowl, cut in all directions with a knife and fork, and continue to mix with the fork, until no long strings of eggplant remain.

Add the pomegranate molasses, minced garlic, and red pepper flakes and combine thoroughly.

Slowly add the oil as you whip the eggplant mixture with a fork until a smooth emulsion or spread is formed. Season with salt to taste.

Spread the mixture on a 9-inch plate and make a slight well in the center. Drizzle with a little more olive oil, and sprinkle with some pomegranate seeds.

Serve with pita points or crackers.

Yield: 4 servings

Lubiya (Sephardic
Black-Eyed Peas)

Pareve

This Ethiopian recipe is a consistent winner at Wasserman’s Rosh HaShanah buffet. She prepares triple the amount but still finds there are no leftovers.

Ingredients

3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, diced into 1/4-inch pieces

2 large cloves of garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups of water

3 tbsp. tomato paste

1 lb. fresh or frozen black-eyed peas

1/2 tsp. cumin

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preparation

Heat a 3-quart pot over high heat for 20 seconds. Add the olive oil and heat for another 10 seconds. Add the onion and garlic and sauté over medium heat, until onions are lightly golden.

Add the water and tomato paste, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low. Add the peas and cumin and cook covered for 1 to 2 hours, or until the peas are tender. It might be necessary to add a small amount of additional water to the pot, if the mixture looks too dry. Conversely, if the mixture is too soupy, continue to cook uncovered, until some of the liquid has evaporated.

Remove from the heat and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serve alone or over rice.

Yield: 8 servings

Sweet Potato-Pumpkin Cazuela

Dairy or Pareve

Instead of using pumpkin, this festive casserole from Puerto Rico can be made with carrots, a traditional Rosh HaShanah vegetable that symbolizes sweetness in the new year.

Ingredients

2 tbsp. unsalted butter or pareve margarine

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup dark brown sugar

2 tbsp. all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. salt

2/3 cup unsweetened canned coconut milk (a pareve ingredient)

2 eggs

1 can (15 oz.) unflavored pumpkin puree or 1 lb. fresh carrots, cleaned, sliced, and steamed until tender

1 can (29 oz.) of yams in light syrup, drained and mashed

1/4 cup water

1/8 tsp. ground ginger

2-inch piece of stick cinnamon, broken into pieces

1/4 tsp. fennel seeds

3 whole cloves

Preparation

Place the butter or margarine in a 2-quart glass bowl and microwave for 45 seconds.

Whisk the sugars, flour, and salt into the butter to combine. Whisk the coconut milk into the mixture until thoroughly blended. Add the eggs and combine.

Add the pumpkin puree (or carrots) and the mashed yams and whisk until a smooth batter is formed.

Combine the water with the spices in a small glass cup and microwave on high for 1 1/2 minutes. Let the mixture steep for 5 minutes. Strain the spiced water through a fine mesh strainer into the sweet potato mixture and stir to incorporate.

Butter a 2-quart casserole and pour the mixture into the prepared dish. Bake covered in a preheated 350-degree oven for 1 hour. Serve immediately.

Yield: 8-10 servings

JTA

 
 

Reform looks at ways to reinvent the movement

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Rabbi Eric Yoffie, left, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, consults with members of the Reform Think Tank following the group’s online forum in Los Angeles on Nov. 21. Morgan Radmall

After the Reform movement broadcast online its first session devoted to reassessing itself, in mid-November, the comments poured in.

One viewer suggested that the movement create a network of schools, camps, shuls, and seminaries focused on “tikkun olam,” the Jewish injunction to repair the world. Another said the movement should train five times as many rabbis and cantors to provide more entryways into Judaism through music, social action, and prayer.

Another wrote to express concern about the lack of civility in Jewish discourse, particularly concerning Israel. One asked how Jews could use media and technology to create community.

It is exactly the sort of grass-roots input that members of the reassessment team — called the Reform Think Tank — want as they take a hard look at where American Jewry’s largest religious denomination is today and where it ought to go in the future.

“Five years from now, congregations won’t look like they do today,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the longtime president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA in an interview.

Yoffie, who plans to retire in mid-2012, is one of the major players in the movement’s reassessment project.

The project is online and offline, top down and bottom up. Each of the three major Reform institutions — the synagogue movement, rabbinical association, and seminary — nominated 10 members to lead the 18-month discussion, which will be punctuated by four live streaming forums devoted to specific topics. Each is being archived online at urj.org/thinktank.

The first, held Nov. 21 in Los Angeles, dealt with the impact of social media on religious life. About 300 individual viewers watched, in addition to about 50 watching parties at Reform congregations. They could follow a blog and Twitter feed along with the broadcast, and sent in comments and questions to help direct the conversation. The team received more than 200 comments and questions even before the first forum, an organizer said.

The second forum is scheduled for April in Cincinnati, a third for December 2011, and the final for March 2012.

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Yoffie said.

“It’s kind of scary,” said Steven Windmueller, a professor at the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and one of the co-organizers of the project. “Everything’s on the table. If we reinvent this whole thing, what will it look like? We’re not moving from one place to another in linear fashion — we’re experimenting.”

Demographic changes, financial challenges, new family structures, and the changing nature of social media and how people connect to each other are just some of the pressures forcing change upon a movement founded 200 years ago in Germany but that developed its institutions in North America following World War II, Yoffie said.

Back then, the world and American Jewry had different needs and interests, he said.

“We are primarily a suburban, family-oriented movement,” Yoffie told JTA.

That’s one thing that must change if Reform Judaism is to appeal to the next generation, according to Yoffie.

“We need more synagogues in the major metropolitan centers,” he said.

The recent economic downturn already has forced changes, including the dismantling of much of the Union for Reform Judaism itself, where consultants have replaced many staff departments. That was in the works already, Reform leaders insist; the recession just advanced the move quicker and gives a greater urgency to the reassessment project.

“This is not an ivory tower think tank,” said Rachel Tasch, president of Cong. Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and one of the 33 leaders selected for the Reform Think Tank. “We’re trying to make it a grass-roots thing, so people have a voice, a way to have real input.”

Those who want to participate in the project can send in their comments anytime over the next year and a half. Pulpit rabbis involved with the project will take the conversation to their congregations and “take the pulse of the community” before the next forum, Windmueller said. The team also will consult with youth groups, synagogue presidents, and other Reform activists.

“Most of the questions we received were in line with the questions we ourselves have,” Tasch said after the first forum. “The nature of community in a world where everything is online; the tension between face-to-face communication and technology; the nature of membership; what does it mean to belong in a world where everything is out there and available?”

Yoffie believes that synagogues will continue to be the foundation of Jewish life in North America but must evolve radically to adjust to how people communicate and relate via technology.

“Social media can be contentious,” he told JTA, “and congregations are not contentious places. It’s where you go for comfort and support. So how do we deal with the contention of modern media while preserving the congregation as a place of menschlikeit and mutual respect?

“The truth is, we have to take risks if we’re not going to be irrelevant.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Temple Emeth to host choir festival

12 synagogue choirs to perform in Teaneck on Sunday

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The choir of Temple Emeth, in Teaneck, will sing at Sunday’s choir festival, hosted by the shul. Courtesy temple emeth

When the recession forced the Union for Reform Judaism to streamline its organizational structure several years ago, the annual adult choir festival sponsored by the New Jersey–West Hudson Valley region was thrown into jeopardy. That didn’t sit well with many of its participants, who were reluctant to end a tradition that dated back more than 20 years. Cantor Ellen Tilem of Temple Emeth in Teaneck was among them.

“A bunch of cantors got together to keep the festival going,” said Tilem, a 17-year veteran of Temple Emeth, which is hosting the festival for the third time. “They felt it was really important for our volunteer choirs to hear other volunteer choirs and be part of a larger component of Jewish music.”

Thanks to their efforts, 12 Reform synagogue choirs from seven counties in New York and New Jersey will gather at the Teaneck synagogue this Sunday at 3 p.m. Temple Emeth will join with two other Bergen County choirs, Temple Beth Or of Washington Township and Barnert Temple of Franklin Lakes. Other choirs joining forces are Temple Emanu-El of Livingston and Anshei Emeth Memorial Temple of New Brunswick, and Temple Beth-El of Monroe, N.Y., and Temple Beth Sholom of New City, N.Y.

Also taking part in the concert are choirs from Temple Har Shalom of Warren, Temple B’nai Or of Morristown, Temple Beth El of Hillsborough, Temple Emanu-El of Edison, and Temple Beth Am of Parsippany.

Each choir will sing several selections, with all 12 groups coming together to perform two pieces, “Mi Sheberach” and “L’dor V’dor.”

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Cantor Ellen Tilem says that volunteer choirs “make a big difference in the level of spirituality at the service.” Courtesy temple emeth

“Volunteer choirs really give a lot to a synagogue,” said Tilem, whose choir is led by volunteer conductor Jacqueline Guttman. “Besides the spiritual component, they carry on a tradition of modern Reform and traditional Jewish music in the synagogue. They make a big difference in the level of spirituality at the service.”

One benefit of the choir festival, Tilem says, is it gives her and other cantors the opportunity to discover new music for their synagogue services.

“For me, as a cantor, every single Shabbat I’m in my synagogue, so I rarely get to hear what’s going on in another synagogue, to see what their cantor feels is pertinent to their congregation,” she said. “Maybe I’d like to bring [one of those] pieces back to my congregation.”

The singing of “Mi Sheberach” will honor its composer, Debbie Friedman, who died in January from cancer at the age of 59.

“The impact that Debbie Friedman made on Reform Jewish music has been monumental,” said Tilem. “As a larger group we definitely wanted to pay tribute to her.”

In addition to organizing this year’s adult choir festival, Tilem is running a junior choir festival in conjunction with Temple Avodat Shalom of River Edge, which will host the May 15 event. Six to nine Reform choirs from Bergen and Rockland counties are expected to participate.

Admission to Sunday’s festival is free.

 
 

For Richard Jacobs, new Reform head, big tent movement is the idea

For the man tapped to lead American Jewry’s largest religious denomination, keeping the movement’s 900-plus synagogues welcoming to the unaffiliated, inspiring for members, and a home for disaffected traditional Jews may require a high-wire balancing act.

As a former dancer and choreographer, Rabbi Richard Jacobs may be just the guy.

On Tuesday, the Union for Reform Judaism announced that Jacobs, the senior congregational rabbi at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., is the choice of the synagogue group’s presidential search committee to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is stepping down in 2012. Jacobs’ nomination requires confirmation by the URJ’s board of directors, which meets in June.

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Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Scarsdale, N.Y., has been tapped to be the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Union for Reform Judaism

In an interview with JTA a few hours before the announcement was made, the 55-year-old Jacobs said his mission is to make sure the Reform movement is a big tent with its flaps wide open and its Jewish stakes planted deeply in the ground.

“There’s no anti. It’s all pro,” he said. “Nothing Jewish is alien to us. Reform Judaism is an evolving and profound expression of the Jewish tradition. Its essence is to respond to the call of God and to the imperatives of the day.”

For Jacobs, that means embracing environmentalism, helping in places like Darfur and Haiti, and speaking out in support of the Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. He speaks with pride of his synagogue’s green initiatives, noting that its Ner Tamid, or Eternal Flame, is solar powered. He is chairman of the New Israel Fund’s pluralism grants committee, which promotes religious and social pluralism in Israel. He is a board member of the American Jewish World Service, with which he visited Darfur refugees in Chad in 2005. He wears a green Darfur bracelet on his wrist.

In the synagogue, Jacobs wants to create dynamic and inspiring places for people to encounter Judaism — including non-Jewish seekers.

“The key thing is to have the doorways open,” Jacobs told JTA. “Anyone who wants to be a part, they are welcome.”

Under Yoffie, the Reform movement embraced tradition as never before, marking a stark departure from classical Reform and alienating some old-guard Reformers. Yoffie encouraged Shabbat observance, promoted wider use of Hebrew in Reform liturgy, and supported greater ritual observance.

Jacobs says he supports that direction for the movement.

“I embrace the Jewish tradition; it’s what nurtures the Jewish life,” he said. “What Rabbi Yoffie affirmed is the core affirmation of the Reform movement. I will continue to deepen our connections. We shouldn’t take off the table things that are not relevant to us today but may become relevant tomorrow.”

But Jacobs was one of 17 rabbis who issued a position paper several weeks ago criticizing the direction taken by the URJ during the Yoffie years.

“Our movement has not responded effectively to the dramatic changes in the wider landscape of Jewish life,” said the position paper, whose 17 signatories called themselves the Rabbinic Vision Initiative.

The group said the URJ’s governance structure is “large and unwieldy,” the URJ underperforms when it comes to fund-raising, and it “is not productively engaged in the real-life needs and challenges of its member congregations.”

Though the URJ underwent severe restructuring during the recession, shedding departments and staff, the rabbis’ paper called the reorganization “peremptory and ineffectively executed.”

Now set to lead the Reform synagogue association, Jacobs will bear the burden of putting some of the changes he and his colleagues suggested for the URJ into practice.

Trim and tan, Jacobs still looks the part of the dancer he was as part of the Avodah Dance Ensemble. Now, however, his focus is on the mind rather than the body, though his synagogue does weave yoga and meditation together with text study at some Shabbat services.

Jacobs cites as his mentor David Hartman, the iconoclastic, New York-born Orthodox rabbi who moved to Israel and founded Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, an educational and research institution aimed at promoting new and diverse voices in the Jewish tradition. Jacobs is a senior rabbinic fellow at the institute and visits often. He has studied there in the summer for some two decades, and he and his family have an apartment in Jerusalem.

The connection to Israel is a vital part of Jewish life, he says.

Jacobs will be a new face for the Reform movement at a time when financial difficulties, demographic changes, and the new ways that young Jews use social media and relate to communal life present new challenges and opportunities for the movement. Tackling these issues and making Jewish communal life relevant for Jews in their 20s and 30s will be one of his main areas of focus, Jacobs says.

As the incoming head of the Reform synagogue organization, Jacobs naturally sees synagogues as the linchpin.

“We want to make exciting synagogues the norm,” he said. “Synagogues cannot wait for people to walk into their buildings. The synagogue has to walk into the public square and engage people, particularly Jews in their 20s and 30s. People still crave and need a deep sense of community.”

Jacobs spent most of his career as a congregational leader, first as a rabbi at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue in the 1980s and then at the Scarsdale temple in suburban New York. He says his synagogue has been at the forefront of a transformation in worship that he hopes will spread to all of the movement’s synagogues and reinvigorate them.

“I couldn’t imagine I’d become a rabbi of a large, suburban Reform congregation because I grew up in one and it didn’t speak to me,” said Jacobs, a native of New Rochelle, a suburb that borders Scarsdale. But, he said, “I’ve led transformation without disenfranchising those who are resistant to change.”

The plan is to start with a listening tour of Reform congregations throughout North America.

“We are poised,” Jacobs told JTA, “for a great new chapter for the unfolding of our movement.”

Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes told The Jewish Standard, “Rabbi Rick Jacobs is both visionary and humble. His life’s service addresses the critical issues facing our people: the vitality of our congregations, and our obligation to respond to the needy. He will lift us to new heights.”

JTA Wire Service/Jewish Standard

 
 
 
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