TORONTO — Rabbi Rick Jacobs will make his first visit to Canada since he became president of the Union for Reform Judaism in June, succeeding Rabbi Eric Yoffie.
The 57-year-old, now leader of the Reform movement’s North American umbrella, will speak at Holy Blossom Temple Sept. 13 on “Change and Challenge: Reform Judaism at a Crossroads.”
“I think for a host of reasons we’re at a crossroads,” Rabbi Jacobs said in a phone interview Sept. 5. “I think the Jewish community is at a crossroads… There are challenges everywhere we look.”
His priorities include outreach beyond the confines of the synagogue, and engaging the next generation, he said.
A former dancer who explored Jewish themes as part of a Jewish modern dance company when he was an undergraduate in comparative religious studies in Israel, Rabbi Jacobs was a pulpit rabbi for almost 30 years. He served most recently at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y.
His installation service included movement meditation by a choreographer. “I really wanted to send a message that the synagogue and the Jewish community are places creative people should be exploring,” Rabbi Jacobs said.
In his installation sermon, he said that Reform Judaism embraces “the best of both tradition and modernity, science and spirituality. Ours is the Judaism of autonomy, inclusiveness, creativity, passion, relevance and depth. We are the Judaism for a new era, and it’s time we let the whole world know.”
To that end, the URJ, which has almost 900 affiliated congregations in North America, including 25 in Canada, is creating a new website that is “really meant for the seeker – [for example] the young family thinking about Rosh Hashanah and wondering if there are some prayers we can say at our table.”
Most often, he said, such seekers find websites representing more traditional Judaism, such as Chabad. But he believes that unaffiliated Jews “are looking for what we are about… They’re looking for a connection.”
Other aspects of his work include Israel – he noted that he’s on the board of the Jewish Agency and has a small apartment in Jerusalem. “Much deeper Israel engagement” is a major goal of his.
“We’re positioned to be able to deepen and strengthen the Zionist commitment of North American Jewry,” he said. “I’d like to create multiple ways for people to connect to Israel.”
A senior rabbinic fellow of the Hartman Institute, Rabbi Jacobs said that the sense of respect among the different streams of Judaism at the institute has become an important part of his rabbinate.
Rabbi David Hartman, the Orthodox rabbi who founded the institute, taught Jacobs at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “He inspired me to become a rabbi. He got me so excited about Jewish philosophy and text study.”
Rabbi Jacobs also credits the Reform Jewish summer camp that he attended in California for conveying to him the “vitality” of Judaism, as well as his parents for teaching him “the value not only of hard work but a deep sense of integrity and ethics whatever you’re doing… some of my deepest lessons as a person and as a person of faith.”
Rabbi Jacobs – a native of New York whose family moved to California when he was 10 – said he is excited to travel to Toronto twice this fall. The second time will be in November, when he plans to visit local Reform congregations and the Leo Baeck Day School, and meet with Reform clergy and lay leaders.
“We’re delighted by the strength of our Canadian congregations,” Rabbi Jacobs said. “It will be an important part of my presidency to be in Canada.” He expects to visit other Canadian cities after his trips to Toronto.