(Editor’s note: This is the second part of a wide-ranging interview with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. In this story, Jacobs addresses the future of the American synagogue and 2020 Vision, the Reform movement’s blueprint for growth and change.)
Organized Judaism may be experiencing a concerning decline in affiliation, but Rabbi Rick Jacobs isn’t overly concerned.
As the president of the URJ, the synagogue organization for the North American Reform movement, Jacobs is mindful that the Jewish people have been here before.
“In the year 70 of the Common Era, by all historical predictions, we should have disappeared,” He told Community in an exclusive interview. “We reinvented Jewish life. The rabbinic Judaism we know … was a radical reinvention of Jewish life. That has happened, not once, not twice, it has happened periodically throughout our history. We are at, I believe, such a moment today.”
That doesn’t mean Judaism should not plan for the future. In fact, Jacobs, who leads the world’s largest Jewish denomination, is doing just that.
He has traveled the country touting 2020 Vision, the Reform movement’s plan to reinvent the synagogue – indeed, Judaism – in the 21st century.
The four pillars of 2020 Vision are:
• Strengthen and reinvent congregations – a continuation of what’s been done throughout Jewish history;
• Reinvent learning – a reexamination of the service model, how Jews care for one another, learning in a structured environment and sharing what works with other congregations.
“They can learn from the congregation in Portland, Oregon, that may have something that a temple in Louisville can say that’s exactly the kind of thing we might use,” Jacobs said.
• Social Justice – not a substitute for religion, social action has become a primary way people express religion.
“In 2013, the Pew Study said when asked what’s the most important expression of religion, people didn’t say fasting on Yom Kippur lighting Shabbat candles,” Jacobs said. “It was ethics, equality and social justice – values.
“I’m not going to say for anyone that ritual doesn’t matter,” he continued, “but the majority of Jews, many of whom are not connected, would still identify Judaism as an ethical, moral tradition. We know that that’s a huge portal through which people can enter and express Jewish commitment, and we want to expand it.”
• Audacious hospitality – Interfaith families are now the majority of the movement, Jacobs said. Jews of color compose 10 to 20 percent of the members.
“Audacious hospitality says, ‘you know what? We’re not going to be just nice and let them in. We’re going to say we can’t be who were meant to be without them.”
These pillars are not cosmetic changes, Jacobs said.
“This is a moment to say, what is it that is at the core of Jewish community and how are our institutions succeeding to make that the part that will be preserved.”
The synagogue that generations of American Jews have known must change to meet the needs of Jews of today, he said.
“Is the idea that the synagogue has to be a [place] where you pay dues in a kind of more formal way? Is that what defines a synagogue?” Jacobs asked rhetorically. “Is that what defines Judaism? We didn’t have dues in synagogues a couple hundred years ago. We didn’t actually have religious schools, certainly not in a supplementary way where kids were dropped off; that’s not what synagogues did.”
To say Jews of today will become just like previous generations as they get older is to misrepresent who they are how they think, Jacobs said.
“Young adults are not simply younger than their parents and grandparents,” Jacobs said. “They are different; we know that…. Sociologists tell us it’s not just a function of their age, they are different, so do we make presumptions?”
The URJ, he said, is trying speak to those differences. For example, 50 of its congregations have young adult outreach – not junior congregations – reaching out to people ages 23-39, many of whom are not settled in their careers, have not found a life partner and have no children.
“They’re in that in-between period of their lives a lot longer than their parents were,” Jacobs said. “So congregations are meeting their young adults where they are.”
As affiliation rates dip across North America, the URJ’s 2020 Vision plan is designed to “strengthen the flow into Jewish life,” Jacobs said.
“The flow is going too much out of the Jewish community; people are opting out,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that the interest is down, it doesn’t mean the hunger is down, or that people are not finding the institutional ways of learning and expressing their Judaism less fulfilling.”
One Jewish institution – overnight camps – is growing. The URJ has added four new camps to its network in recent years, including specialty camps.
“Our teens aren’t all the same. We’ve got teens who are science and technology students, we’ve got teens who are artists, who are athletes,” Jacobs said. “I think the theme here is meet young people where they are. Don’t have one size fits all; don’t have one doorway that
everyone has to walk through.”
A congregational rabbi longer than all his predecessors combined, Jacobs said he knows there are many ways to keep b’nai mitzvah students engaged.
And he knows that services, the very heart of religious life, have always evolved. The Reform movement had very little Hebrew in its 19th century liturgy and the organ was the primary sanctuary instrument of the day.
“That’s not at all the Reform movement of today,” he said. “Change is fundamental to the living, breathing organism that is the Jewish community.”
Synagogues approach education differently today. “Hebrew, as we knew it, is really no longer the way young people learn. Families learn, we learn in informal settings. Camp works because it is an immersive experience.” Jacobs suggested that if synagogues threw away their formal curricula and took families away for five weekends a year, more “impactful learning” would take place then coming to synagogue Tuesdays and Thursdays for two hours.
He rejects the notion that unaffiliated Jews should be ignored.
“There are more Jews outside our walls today than inside,” he said. “There are people who have said let’s just work with the people within ours walls, give them all our resources, all our attention, but I see people who come from outside our walls who don’t just get involved, they become the rabbis and the presidents and the cantors, the educators and the heads of the ritual committee. There are people beyond the walls who we should be engaging.”