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Richard Jacobs (rabbi)

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Richard Jacobs (rabbi)

Richard (Rick) J. Jacobs
Born 1956
New Rochelle, New York,
United States
Occupation Rabbi, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)
Organization Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)
Religion Jewish
Spouse(s) Susan K. Freedman

Richard (Rick) J. Jacobs is a Reform rabbi and the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America which represents an estimated 1.5 million Reform Jews in nearly 900 synagogues across the United States and Canada. Before being installed as URJ president in June 2012, Jacobs was senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, where he served for nearly two decades.

Jacobs was among a group of American Reform rabbis that called for “urgent change” in the Reform movement. He focuses on World Union for Progressive Judaism, American Jewish World Service and the New Israel Fund.

He is listed as number six in The Daily Beast and Newsweek’s list of “America’s Top 50 Rabbis for 2013” and holds position 26 on the Jerusalem Post’s 2012 list of “50 most influential Jews in the world.”

Life and career

Early life and education

A native of New Rochelle, New York,[1] who grew up in Tustin, California where his parents had a retail furniture business, Jacobs was ordained as rabbi in 1982 by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York where he had also earned his M.A. in Hebrew Literature in 1980.[2] In the same year, he joined Avodah Dance Ensemble, a modern dance company which performs services in dance and concerts throughout the United States. He remained with the company until 1986 as dancer and choreographer,[3] working as part-time rabbi in order to continue performing after being ordained.[4]

In Jerusalem, he studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute and at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance. He considered a career as a dancer, but decided to “dedicate his life to a religious and spiritual mission, and chose the rabbinate”.[5]

Career and views

Before becoming rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in 1991, Jacobs served as rabbi at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue from 1982 until 1991, where he founded and co-directed the first homeless shelter at a synagogue in New York City and led the congregation's work with Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperatives, an interracial coalition of faith communities that built 1,200 housing units in Brooklyn.[6] Under Jacobs’ leadership, Westchester Reform Temple grew from fewer than 800 member families to more than 1,200. Advocating for the Jewish mission of tikkun olam (repairing the world), the synagogue underwent an eco-friendly renovation and expansion in 2009 and houses a ner tamid (eternal flame) powered by solar energy.[7]

Jacobs was a member of the Union of Reform Judaism′s board of trustees from 1994 through 1998 and served as the Secretary of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and on the board of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), which, in 2000, rewarded him with its “International Humanitarian Award” for his commitment to human rights and social and economic justice. In 2005 he visited the ChadDarfur border area with an international humanitarian mission, and raised more than $250,000 to aid Darfur refugees. He delivered the opening prayer for the 2006 Darfur rally in Washington, D.C. He was the only rabbi who participated in the 2009 Brookings U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar,[2] an annual conference de­signed to bring together key leaders in the worlds of politics, business, media, academia, and civil society from across the Muslim world and the United States. Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, he joined a delegation to assess disaster response.[6] In July 2010 he participated in a protest in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem, explaining: “I take issue with residents of east Jerusalem being taken out of their homes to make room for Jewish settlers;”[8] in August of the same year he spoke on CNN in support of the proposed Islamic center near ground zero.[9]

Jacobs has published several essays in Reform Judaism magazine and reportedly is pursuing a Ph.D. in ritual dance at New York University. He also is a senior rabbinic fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.[10] In 2007, he received a Doctor of Divinity honoris causa from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in recognition of his 25 years in the rabbinate.[11]

Immediately after his nomination as URJ president, The Daily Beast and Newsweek placed him at number seven on their 2011 list of “America's 50 Most Influential Rabbis,”[12] describing him as “magnetic” and “known for prioritizing social justice ... and rethinking worship to engage the disaffected.”[13] He held the same position on the 2012 list, where he was described as “a charismatic speaker and...a staunch defender of Israel,”[14] and moved up to position six in the 2013 list.[15] In 2011, the Jewish Daily Forward listed him as number three on the “Forward 50”, its list of the 50 most significant American Jews,[16] and the Jerusalem Post lists him as number 26 on its 2012 list of “50 most influential Jews in the world.”[17]

Articulating his view of the future of the Reform Movement upon his unanimous election as president in June 2011,[18] Jacobs said:

“Unless we change our approach, there is little chance that Jews in their twenties and thirties will even enter the revolving door of synagogue affiliation. Hoping is not a strategy; the Jewish world needs new approaches for engaging the future. ... Everywhere we look, there are dramatic challenges facing our people; yet each is a phenomenal opportunity to revitalize Jewish life. Only very rarely has Jewish history known an era of so much creativity or innovation; no previous generation has possessed our resources and potential. For two centuries, Reform Judaism has pointed the way forward. For the past forty years, our religious ingenuity has made us the fastest growing theologically liberal denomination in America. And yet we've become bogged down. Too many Jewish leaders seem paralyzed by fear of the future. This moment in Jewish history demands bold thinking with big ideas; this is not a time for staying the course. It's time to reinvent the architecture of Jewish life. It's a time to cast a broad net, to explore options rather than to rule things out, and to recreate a Movement which will be as meaningful in the future as it has been in the past.”[19]

Jacobs' formal installation, the first in 16 years, was held at Congregation Beit Elohim in Brooklyn, New York on June 9, 2012. In his address, Jacobs promised to turn the Reform Jewish movement into a “movement undergoing renovation that will renew Jewish life.” He called on Reform Jews to “stand up for Israel” against its critics while fighting to ensure that Israel preserves the democratic and liberal ideals dear to the Reform Movement at the same time, and expressed the hope that “one day soon the State of Israel will live in peace side by side with the State of Palestine.”[20]

Rabbi Jacobs visits and speaks frequently throughout the Jewish world. In September 2012, he was named as the scholar-in- residence for The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA)'s 2012 General Assembly, the largest annual gathering of the North American Jewish community.[21] At the URJ 2013 Biennial convention, he spoke extensively about key themes in the organization's work to re-imagine Jewish life: youth engagement, partnerships, inclusion, Israel-Diaspora relations, and religious pluralism.[22]

Personal life

Jacobs is married to Susan Freedman, president of the Public Art Fund.[23] The couple has three children, and resides in Scarsdale, NY.[6] The family also owns an apartment in Jerusalem and visits Israel often.[5]



  1. ^ Uriel Heilman (March 22, 2011). "For new Reform leader Richard Jacobs, big tent movement is the idea".  
  2. ^ a b "Forum agenda and participant biographies". 2009 U.S.-Islamic World Forum. pp. 2, 21. 
  3. ^ "History". Avodah Dance Ensemble. Retrieved April 28, 2011. 
  4. ^ Linda Kent; Joanne Tucker (December 1996). "Liturgical dance: the centuries-old partnership of dance and religion remains vital during this holiday season". Dance Magazine. Retrieved April 28, 2011. 
  5. ^ a b Shlomo Shamir (April 28, 2011). "The new leader of Reform Judaism: A Zionist and lover of Israel". Haaretz. Retrieved May 2, 2011. 
  6. ^ a b c "President-Designate Rabbi Richard Jacobs". Union for Reform Judaism. Retrieved April 28, 2011. 
  7. ^ Amy Spiro (March 29, 2011). "The Scarsdale Dynamo". The Jewish Week. Retrieved April 28, 2011. 
  8. ^ Stewart Ain (April 5, 2011). "New Reform Head Walking Pro-Israel Tightrope". The Jewish Week. Retrieved April 29, 2001. 
  9. ^ Josh Nathan-Kazis (March 23, 2011). "Once a Critic, New Leader of Reform Judaism Promises Change". The Jewish Daily Forward. 
  10. ^ Gary Rosenblatt (March 22, 2011). "Scarsdale Rabbi To Lead Reform". The Jewish Week. Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  11. ^ "Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion 2007 Graduation/Ordination/Investiture Advisory". Retrieved April 28, 2011. 
  12. ^ Abigail Pogrebin (April 16, 2011). "America's 50 Most Influential Rabbis". The Daily Beast. Retrieved May 2, 2011. 
  13. ^ "Media Gallery: Most Influential Rabbis". The Daily Beast. April 16, 2011. Retrieved May 2, 2011. 
  14. ^ Abigail Pogrebin (April 2, 2012). "America’s Top 50 Rabbis for 2012". The Daily Beast. Retrieved April 10, 2012. 
  15. ^ Gabrielle Birkner (March 21, 2013). "America’s Top 50 Rabbis for 2013". The Daily Beast. Retrieved March 26, 2013. 
  16. ^ "The Forward 50". The Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved November 30, 2011. 
  17. ^ Amy Spiro, Rachel Marder (May 25, 2012). "50 most influential Jews in the world: Complete list". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved June 11, 2012. 
  18. ^ JTA (June 13, 2011). "Jacobs unanimously elected to lead Reform Jews". Retrieved June 21, 2011. 
  19. ^ Rabbi Rick Jacobs (June 12, 2011). "Rabbi Richard Jacobs' Remarks to Board of Trustees Upon His Election as President of the URJ". Retrieved June 21, 2011. 
  20. ^ Chemi Shalev (June 10, 2012). "With prayer and gospel, Reform movement anoints Rabbi Rick Jacobs as its new leader". Haaretz. Retrieved June 11, 2012. 
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ "Profile: Susan K. Freedman, President". Public Art Fund. 

External links

  • "Union of Reform Judaism website". 
  • "Westchester Reform Temple website". 
  • "Rabbis Support Ground Zero Mosque". CNN. August 5, 2010. 
  • Rabbi Jonathan Blake (October 11, 2010). "Westchester Reform Temple Embraces Sustainability". 
  • Dana Evan Kaplan (May 4, 2011). "Reform's Distracting War Over Politics". The Jewish Daily Forward. 
  • "Urgent Change, Lasting Transformation: A Position Paper of the Rabbinic Vision Initiative (February, 2011)". Rabbi Adam Morris, Temple Micah website. March 9, 2011. 
  • Shmuel Rosner (April 4, 2011). "Interview with rabbi Richard Jacobs, the new leader of the Reform movement". The Jerusalem Post. 
  • Shmuel Rosner (April 6, 2011). "Interview with rabbi Richard Jacobs, second part". The Jerusalem Post. 
  • "Catalyst for Change. An interview with Rabbi Rick Jacobs". Reform Judaism online. Summer 2012. 
  • Berrin, Danielle (January 3, 2014). "What makes Rabbi Rick Jacobs tick?". Jewish Journal. 
  • Schwartz, David A. (January 27, 2014). "A conversation with URJ president Rick Jacobs". Jewish Journal of West Palm Beach. 
  • Goodstein, Laurie (March 22, 2011). "New York Rabbi Known as Innovator Is Picked to Lead Reform Jews". New York Times. 
  • Borodowski, Alfredo (March 12, 2013). "The Eternal Conversation". The New York Jewish Week. 


  • Alana Goodman (March 22, 2011). "New Israel Fund Board Member Tapped to Lead Reform Movement". Commentary. 
  • Martin Krossel (March 31, 2011). "Why is New Reform Rabbi Repeating Anti-Israel Rhetoric?". 
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