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Thursday, November 20, 2014

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Reform needs a bigger tent, new leader says

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs [Frances Kraft photo]

TORONTO — Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism, believes that the Reform community needs to broaden its “tent” to include the gamut of the Jewish community.

“Does our tent include ultra-Orthodox and humanistic Jews, gay and straight Jews, traditional and classical Reform Jews, Canadians and Americans, Likud and Labor, the devout and the disaffected, political conservatives and political liberals?” Rabbi Jacobs asked in his first address to a Canadian audience in his new role.

 Speaking at Holy Blossom Temple on Sept. 13 about “Change and Challenge: Reform Judaism at a Crossroads,” Rabbi Jacobs, who is based in New York, said that he was thrilled to see students from the temple’s Introduction to Judaism class in the audience.

Among societal changes the Reform movement needs to address, Rabbi Jacobs noted that in 1958, three per cent of North Americans said they had no religious affiliation, but by 2008, that number had climbed to 17 per cent.

“Among young people in their twenties and thirties across all religious lines, the number is 30 to 40 per cent. That means a growing number of young people don’t find a place for themselves in the religious world,” Rabbi Jacobs said.

“The fastest growing group in Jewish life is ‘unaffiliated.’ There are more Jews outside our walls than inside.”

Hebrew school is not working, he added. “There are notable exceptions, but 80 per cent of our young people drop out between bar mitzvah and 12th grade.”

This year, at his own initiative, Rabbi Jacobs is leading Reform High Holiday services at Brown University. He wanted to “figure out why there are 1,300 [Jewish] students at Brown and only a couple hundred come to High Holiday services… We have to find new ways to do this holy work.”

Other changes that need to be addressed, according to Rabbi Jacobs, include existential threats to Israel and the Jewish people, a growing aging population, and the use of technology.

“Technology changes everything,” he said, citing a new web-based curriculum called Mitkadem as one way the URJ is addressing change.

In Israel, he noted, “there are more Israelis who identify with our movement than with the ultra-Orthodox. Over 60 per cent of Israelis believe it’s a matter of justice to make Israel the inclusive country that we need.”

In his remarks, Rabbi Jacobs paid tribute to Holy Blossom and its current and past leaders, including the late Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the first president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the URJ’s predecessor. Rabbi Eisendrath served from 1943 until his death in 1973, and was responsible for creating  the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), the Reform movement’s youth arm.

The URJ has almost 900 affiliated congregations in North America, including 25 in Canada.

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