Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ President, shares his views on Israel and Judaism

"Looking at Zion” is an online project that aims to present a comprehensive look into the Israel- Diaspora relationship. In order to reach this goal we present a series of questions to members of Jewish communities around the world, asking them to articulate their thoughts and feelings towards Israel.
The interviewee - Rabbi Rick Jacobs (Born 1956), the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). Rabbi Jacobs was born in the mid-fifties in New York City and was raised in NY till he was ten when his parents moved our family to southern California.
In your opinion, what importance, if any, does the existence of a Jewish state have to you personally and to Jewish people in general?
“Israel is the eternal homeland of the Jewish people. To me, Israel is also a personal home. My family owns an apartment in Jerusalem, and I find such solace there when I wander through the streets of my neighborhood, to study and to soak in the ruach, the spirit of the city and the energy of Israel.
“Each time I go there, walking from my apartment in the morning through the streets of Jerusalem’s German Colony, meeting with our rabbinic students at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, spending time with our growing congregations in cities and towns throughout Israel, I am reminded of the pull that we feel as Jews in the Reform Movement today, to promote and grow the notion of clal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people.
“For our North American movement, this has become, through the decades, an increasingly important part of our work, among all ages. Just as I found my first transforming experience in Israel when I was a college student on my first trip to Israel, I believe that the work we do as a Movement among our young people is critical for their engagement for years to come. That’s why we are enhancing our Israel engagement, especially among our youth.”
Do you feel committed in some way to defend the future existence of Israel?
“Yes, of course I do. Israel is at the heart and soul of the Jewish people. There is no negotiation with one’s self about defending Israel’s future existence. But, there is an urgent need to strengthen the role of democracy in the Jewish state, to ensure that Israel’s future is a bright one for all.”
What is your view regarding the dominance of the Orthodox division in Israel religious establishment?
“As an ordained Reform Rabbi and as someone who believes strongly in the power of building a movement for religious engagement, I am proud to be leading the Union for Reform Judaism and especially to partner with our Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism in Israel and with the Israel Religious Action Center, our social justice arm.
"It is unconscionable that the Orthodox establishment rules over Jewish life in Israel still to this day. It belies the reality in Israel and among the Jewish people globally. As the largest denomination in Jewish life today, the Reform Movement must have full access to all the legal rights of the one Jewish state. The result of this Orthodox stranglehold is, in fact, that young people in Israel are turning away from Judaism. They don’t have the options and the opportunities that we have outside of Israel. They aren’t exposed to the vibrancy of Jewish Reform life, where men and women are equal, where we seek all who want to join us with open arms, and where Judaism is a living, daily guide to how to navigate and experience modern life.”
Do you feel morally responsible for Israel’s actions (such as its management of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict)?
“I feel that all Jews have the moral obligation to love and protect Israel and sometimes that means protecting Israel from decisions she makes that are not in her best interest. Just as we are taught to love the stranger as yourself, we must practice that precept each day of our lives. It is vital for Israel that it seek peace with the Palestinians and with many of its neighbors in the region.”
In your opinion, what is the main thing Israelis fail to understand about the reality of being Jewish outside of Israel?
“There is a mistaken notion that Judaism in America is at risk. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Today, Judaism is thriving especially in North America. The two largest centers of Jewish life today are Israel and America. Because we have a church-state separation and because we are free to practice our religion as we choose in North America, there is a vibrancy to Jewish life that is missing in Israel today. This is ironic–and sad.“
How would you describe Israel’s policy (formally and in practice) regarding its relationship with the Diaspora?
“I think that it is a mixed-bag, quite honestly. Israeli leaders don’t always understand the deep beliefs that Jews outside of Israel have, especially those of us in North America who are so committed both to Israel but also to our progressive religious values. When a Minister in the government says derogatory–even incendiary — things against the majority of world Jewry, this is not only unhelpful and insulting, but it sends a message to the next generation of Jews that Israel is not a place where they are welcomed. There is less of a memory of the Holocaust and of the founding of the state of Israel, less historic and collective memory of the moments when Israel was at risk like the 1967 and 1973 wars, and for new generations of North American Jewry, they want to see an Israel that is fully committed to democracy and to a pluralistic world outlook.”
In your opinion, does Israel have an obligation to defend and help Jewish communities in need?
“I think that all Jews have an obligation to help other Jews. Israel was created as a safe haven for Jews and when there are Jewish communities in need, Israel’s role is clear. There have been historic campaigns where Israel–with the significant help of the American Jewish community–made a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Russians Jews and Ethiopian Jews, for example.”
Can you summarize your impression from the Israeli reality?
“I am often in Israel and feel privileged to have lived and studied there and to be able to come frequently. My impression of Israel is of a country that is full of energy and inspiration, though also a country that is yearning for peace and especially among young people in Israel.”
Can you tell us a bit about the Jewish community in your hometown? Is it organized? Are there community activities?
“One of the things that I think your readers should know–and Israelis should know–about North American Jewry is that while we practice our Judaism from different points of view we all, for the most part, get along together–and are respectful of our differences. We are also very engaged in non-Jewish life, in helping the poor, in supporting initiatives like civil rights, immigrant rights and the rights of women and LGBTQ populations. For our young people especially, tikkun olam, repairing the world, is a major precept of our Judaism and it doesn’t simply apply to Jews, but it gives our worship and our beliefs a universal aspect. We are Jewish and we are our neighbor’s keepers, whether they are Jewish or not.”
Is there a question you feel should be added to the project’s questionnaire?
“Yes, it would be good to ask the question: what should happen in Israel for the Jewish religion to thrive there?” looking for a sponsor or patron.”
For more interviews with prominent members in Jewish communities around the world go to - lookingatzion.com
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