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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

URJ Presidential Installation Sermon of Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Shelach Lecha: A Glimpse of the Future
June 9, 2012-19 Sivan 5772

Installation Sermon (35 mins)

Highlights from Rabbi Jacobs’ Installation (5 mins)

Extended Highlights from Rabbi Jacobs’ Installation
(10 mins)

After showing the above video, use
these questions
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As your new president, I am humbled by the task before me, even as I'm inspired by those who have brought us to this moment. Sixteen years ago I served on the Union's board and was deeply moved to witness Rabbi Alexander Schindler Z"L passing the Torah to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, marking the formal beginning of Eric's presidency.

That is why it is so meaningful to me that this installation service is being led by a Rabbi Schindler. Judy is a gifted leader in her own right, but today she also brings us her father’s blessing. Alex defined Jewish leadership for many of us. His eloquence, vision, and audacity set the bar for everyone who will ever lead our Movement. May his spirit continue to compel us to act as boldly and wisely as he did, as we work to shape the Jewish future.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, you are a brilliant and wise Jewish leader. Your legacy is deeply implanted within our Movement. May the holy one continue to bless you, Amy and your growing family.

More than a few people have commented that since my brilliant predecessor Rabbi Eric Yoffie began his sabbatical almost six months ago, he looks happier than ever.  He came in to see me a few weeks ago, and I’m pretty sure I saw him skipping out the door.  During that same time, my hair has gotten greyer, and I look like I’m carrying the weight of the world.

I am reminded of a letter that President James Buchanan wrote to Abraham Lincoln on the eve of his inauguration: "If you are as happy to become president as I am to leave it, you're a very happy man."

Now, I’m no Abe Lincoln…but he and I do have some things in common. At 6’4”, he’s still on record as the tallest president in U.S. history. At 6’4”, I’m the tallest president in URJ history. He dedicated himself to the preservation of the Union, and I have dedicated myself to the preservation of the Union. And we are both inclined to invoke Scripture on occasions such as this.

Which brings me to the parasha for this Shabbat afternoon, Shelach Lecha.  Towards the end of their 40-year trek through the desert, the Israelites are panicked about what awaits them in the Promised Land. God tells Moses to send twelve tribal leaders to scout the land of Canaan. After traversing the land for forty days, they return with a detailed report. They all agree on the facts: the land is flowing with milk and honey and the fruit is sweet and plentiful, but the inhabitants are giants and their cities heavily fortified. Ten of the scouts are terrified by what they have seen, while two, Joshua and Caleb, return confident of victory and excited about the prospects of a new chapter in the journey of the Jewish people.

In our own day, a 40-day expedition of the American and Canadian Jewish landscape would no doubt reveal giant challenges as well. Ties that once bound Jews to each other and to our tradition are fast fraying. While 80% of American Jews affiliate with a synagogue at some point during their lives, their engagement tends to be temporary and tenuous. No more than 50% of North American Jews are members of synagogues at any one time. A 1957 survey found that only 3% of North Americans said they had no religious affiliation. By 2008 17% said so.   For those in their twenties and thirties, that figure can be as high as 40%.  Unless we change our approach, there is little chance that many Jews in their twenties and thirties will even enter the revolving door of synagogue affiliation.   Our post-WWII models of membership are less relevant to the next generation.   Technology has changed how we access Jewish knowledge and experience community.  

Like Caleb and Joshua, I acknowledge the obstacles facing the Jewish community. And like them I do not doubt that we can and will overcome them. We have a phenomenal opportunity to revitalize Jewish life. Rarely has Jewish history known an era of so much creativity or innovation. And no previous generation has possessed our resources and potential. I too say we can and we will prevail. I firmly believe that the best is yet to come.

In our parasha two distinct paths are offered: the optimism of Caleb and Joshua, who proclaimed “Yachol nuchal—Of course we can,” and the pessimism of the other scouts, who concluded, “Lo nuchal—no way can we possibly do this.” (Numbers 13:30-1)

I would add the path of hope. As Harvard professor Jerome Groopman has taught us, “Hope differs from optimism. Hope does not arise from being told to ‘think positively,’ or from hearing an overly rosy forecast. Hope…is rooted in unalloyed reality….Hope is the elevating feeling we experience when we see—in the mind’s eye—a path to a better future. Hope acknowledges the significant obstacles and deep pitfalls along that path. True hope has no room for delusion.”

I ask you today to join me in adopting a stance of hope for a better Jewish future. Will you?

Let me be absolutely clear. Jewish life isn’t about organizations or fundraising or buildings. It is not about survival for the sake of survival. It’s about living a life of depth, purpose, and character. Leibel Fein wrote that the Jewish establishment seems surprised when invitations to unaffiliated Jewish youth to “come survive with us” are met with indifference. “Come survive with us” is hardly an inspiring call to Jewish commitment and connection. We can do better.

Shelach Lecha echoes the parasha Lech Lecha, when God tells Abraham, “Leave your native land and go to a land that I will show you.” Both underscore that we are here for a deeper purpose—a mission—and that sometimes that mission requires us to explore uncharted territory, to take risks.    Through Abraham all of us have been given our charge: “Nivrechu becha kol mishpachot ha’adama—through you shall all of the families of the world be blessed.   What we do together is meant to shape a world of holiness, dignity, and equality for God’s children everywhere.

That is exactly what our 19th-century Reform forbearers did when they took Jewish tradition in an entirely new direction, reinvisioning our sacred texts and practices in the light of scientific inquiry and the new frontiers of human thought.  In our sacred study no questions are off limits.   In America, our early leaders defined our core mission largely in social justice terms: “to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by…the evils of the present organization of society.” That sacred mission still inspires commitment among Jews of all ages.

It’s not an accident that this installation service is taking place here at Congregation Beth Elohim. Brooklyn was a very different place in 1861 when this temple was founded. For the past 150 years CBE has responded to the constant changes in the world beyond its walls. This magnificent building reflects the grandeur of the early 20th century, and yet the building is not what makes this place so special. This great Reform synagogue refused to allow its evolution to be thwarted by those who venerate only the past. All along the way its leaders renewed their sense of purpose and mission.

At first our host Rabbi Andy Bachman wasn’t sure that CBE would be right for us this afternoon because the building is undergoing renovation.  But we came to agree—CBE today is a fitting metaphor for our Movement, which is undergoing a different kind of renovation as together we reimagine Reform Judaism for the 21st century.

It so happens that a wonderful lay leader with whom I worked during my twenty years at Westchester Reform Temple grew up here at CBE, a flagship of Classical Reform. Knowing how much she still missed the elegance and eloquence of the Union Prayer Book, I was concerned when she asked to see me about some of the changes we were making in worship at WRT. When we met, she told me how she and her grandson had attended one of the new prayer services with a guitar and more participatory music. She watched as his face lit up, as his feet tapped along, as he sang his heart out. That’s when it “clicked” for her. Many, if not most, of the liturgical changes have been hard for her, she said. “But now I get it. I may not like all of the changes, but now I understand them. And if they hold the next generation closer to the Jewish tradition, then that is a very good thing.” That moment was one of the high points of my rabbinate, not many people, rabbis included, can see beyond their personal preferences to glimpse the larger picture.  

Ritual can also play a powerful role in inspiring ethical living. Take this tallit. Many people have asked me, “Where did you get your tallit?  It’s so unusual! Where can I get one like yours? Queens?  New Jersey? I’ll even go to Brooklyn?  I really want one like yours!”  I answer, “There’s only one like it.”

As some of you know, a few years back I traveled to Darfuri refugee camps in Eastern Chad, Africa with Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service and a small group of rabbis including David Saperstein, David Stern and Lee Bycel. In our last few hours in Chad, I stopped to shop for some African fabric in the open market of Ndjamena. I wanted to make a tallit out of a bright, multicolored cloth to remind me daily of our Darfurian brothers and sisters. When I returned home, my daughter Sarah and I tied the tzitzit onto the four corners, which symbolizes for me—and I hope others—our obligation to bring the four corners of the earth together in our hearts and deeds. I made a vow to wear this tallit until the genocide in Darfur is finally stopped. It is almost worn out. Tragically, the slaughter continues now in South Sudan.

Too often Reform Judaism is regarded as Judaism lite. What nonsense! We embrace 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.

The 17th Century Polish Torah commentator known as the Kli Yakar wrote that instead of sending men to scout the land, “it would have been better to send women” because so powerful is their love of Israel that all difficulties pale in comparison. The Kli Yakar suggested that as leaders, Jewish women would see the future with new a vision.   It would take two more centuries to translate his insight into action.   Last weekend marked the 40th anniversary of HUC-JIR’s ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand as the first woman rabbi. Reform Judaism is unafraid to change our tradition when it holds us back from growing and deepening our faith. In our reading of the Jewish tradition, this change was not only permitted but obligatory.    That’s Reform Judaism.

For too long the Jewish community had no place for interfaith families and LGBTQ Jews.  But then Rabbi Alexander Schindler taught us the sacred power of inclusion.   Our loving embrace of all who had been previously kept out has not only added to our numbers but has made our community stronger.     That’s Reform Judaism.

Just as our ancestors were liberated from Egyptian slavery, we Reform Jews were liberated from the yoke of traditional Jewish life that had stifled those who founded our Movement.  Still the Jewish tradition and the Jewish community make serious claims on us.   Our texts and our history call to us to live lives of courage and conviction.  That’s Reform Judaism.

Reform Judaism teaches that each of us is an autonomous individual, able to make thoughtful, religious choices.  And yet, there is more.

If you are like me, relationships with our loved ones make claims on us. Your daughter has the lead in the school play. For months she’s been practicing her lines almost every night in the family room. The kids even made their own costumes—some will be little pilgrims, while others will be Native Americans. The play is scheduled during one of the busiest weeks in your year, but still you mark the date of the performance in your calendar with red ink. Are you obligated to be there? Is there any question as to where you’ll be when the curtain goes up?

Or how about the time you were at a meeting in Chicago, when all of a sudden it hits you: Oh my God, today isn’t just Thursday—it’s our anniversary! You quickly wrap up the meeting, hop a cab to the airport, and sweet talk your way onto the earlier flight.
You race home, picking up a bouquet of flowers on the way. You made it just in the nick of time. If nuclear war had broken out, you’d be off the hook, but anything short of that probably wouldn’t do. You and I know very well that some things in life are not optional.

The Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas taught that we come into the world already obligated by the mere gaze of the other, a gaze that demands a response from us. By this Levinas means that relationships always come with obligations. Is it written somewhere that we have to go to our child’s school play or celebrate anniversaries? No. Some of the covenants in our lives are unwritten, others written, but they are all binding. Reform Judaism, when practiced with commitment, is no less demanding than other expressions of Judaism—and some would argue even more demanding because we do not practice our religion by rote but by informed choice.

And informed choice invariably leads to change.  To those who claim, “Reform Judaism ain’t what it used to be,” I say, “Reform Judaism ain’t supposed to be what it used to be, it’s supposed to be in a constant state of change, adaptation, and growth.

This Shabbat afternoon service reflects the openness and passion of our uniquely Reform spirituality.  Cantor Angela Buchdahl has inspired all of us to find our voices even as our hearts soared listening to hers.  Liz Lerman is truly a genius!  Artists like Liz can open us to the power of spirituality in the most surprising and exciting ways.  And our musical artists, led by Josh Nelson, helped ignite our prayer with their soulful playing. 

And God surely smiled, as we all did, listening to the spirit of my friends in the choir from Greater Centennial AME Zion Church in Mt. Vernon.  What a sound!  To my partner in spiritual leadership, Pastor Darin Moore, with whom I’ve had the privilege of building bridges of understanding that are shaping a more just community in Westchester County I say:  Darin, God is counting on us to work even more closely together on the journey ahead.   And Evan Traylor, our new NFTY president, I must say that when I listen to you chant Torah, I have no doubt that we will succeed in engaging the next generation in Jewish life.     Friends, do not doubt the power of our spiritual practice.  Reform Judaism is strong and getting stronger by the minute.

Joshua and Caleb left their families for one 40 day mission, while I traverse North America at least two weeks of each month.   My family is unbelievably supportive of the new demands of reconnecting our Union and building a new URJ for the challenges of this moment in Jewish history.   Susan, Aaron, David and Sarah thank you for sharing the journey, especially this latest part of my calling. I love you with all my heart.

Brooklyn has a special place in my heart. I began my rabbinical career at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, just a few blocks from here. I remember in my second year after Rosh Hashanah services, a congregant asked me what I was doing to help the homeless in NYC. I suggested she was using the wrong pronoun. What are we doing? Either way, the answer was nothing. Our small congregation was busy enough just trying to stay afloat, and I was only its part time rabbi. Nevertheless, once the question was raised, our sense of obligation kicked in.

In short order, we opened one of the first NYC homeless shelters to be housed in a synagogue. Four nights a week throughout the winter two members slept at the shelter with our eight homeless guests. Our youth group shopped for the food, other members cooked delicious meals.

I remember one blustery, cold winter night as we welcomed our guests, one of them wrote a 10-digit number instead of his name in our log book. When I asked him what that number signified, he said it was his processing number in the city homeless system. I was horrified. A person reduced to a number was a painful echo of the Holocaust. I told our guest that we wanted to know his name and that was the only identification required in our home. Now in its 28th year, the shelter has informed and inspired a second generation of the congregation to make the world a more just and compassionate place.

What would the Israelite scouts make of today’s Brooklyn?  We’re just a few blocks from 770 Eastern Parkway, the international headquarters for Chabad.  Yes, they are known for their army of dedicated emissaries who cover much of the globe with their mission to bring Jews into the fold of ultra-orthodox Judaism.   We can learn important lessons from Chabad about creating non-judgmental opportunities to experience Jewish practice and build sacred relationships.

Let me be clear: there are many authentic ways to live Jewish lives, including the Chabad way.  But today on college campuses and in the public square, Chabad is working with little competition.  No more.  When Jewish seekers Google Shabbat or the weekly Torah portion, we are what they’re looking for but cannot find.  For this next era of Jewish life, the Reform Movement will create a robust presence in digital media, on campus, across town and around the world so that all who are hungry for inspiring spirituality, passionate prayer, probing study, and social justice can find their way to us.

Joshua and Caleb were sent on their mission to scout the future with other leaders who did not see what they saw.   I am far luckier.  I have a group of leaders with me who are nothing short of spectacular.    Over this past year my core URJ team has helped to chart the course for our holy work. Thank you Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Rabbi Dan Freelander, Barbara Saidel, Mark Pelavin, Donna Stein, Stefanie Jarrret and Juli Schnur and the rest of the remarkably talented and dedicated staff who are already shaping tomorrow’s URJ today.   And I am grateful as well for the devotion of our Chairman Steve Sacks and to all of the Union’s lay leaders.  They too give all of us hope for the Jewish future.  And to our Movement partners, together we will respond creatively to the myriad challenges and opportunities before us.

The sacred mission of our Movement transcends the walls of the synagogue, and we must get that message out to all who want to join us on our journey of hope and healing in the world.

A few months after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, just before the High Holy Days, I was invited to be part of a Jewish mission to assess the recovery and strategize how more could be done to help the people living in tent cities without clean water and other necessities. I called my physician’s office to make sure I had all of the required shots. The friendly receptionist inquired where I was going. When I told her Haiti, she said, “Rabbi, you know that there are no Jewish people there!” “That may be true,” I said, “but that is not the only reason I would go there. God’s children are suffering mightily, and I have a Jewish obligation to respond to those in need.” 

Our tradition calls us to do holy work each and every day. Some of that work is right here in North America, in our neighborhoods, and a big part of our holy work is to be done in the land that Joshua and Caleb traversed.

Israel is filled with more natural beauty and scientific know-how than just about any other place on God’s earth.  As Joshua and Caleb discovered, there are plenty of challenges there, but when it comes to hope, there is no place like Israel. But hope is not enough. Israel needs us to stand up for her in a world that rarely gives her a chance.  Guarding Israel’s security is our sacred responsibility. So too is the need to ensure that the values we hold dear—equality, tolerance, pluralism, democracy—are understood and protected in Israel.   We support the state of Israel, a state that is Jewish and democratic, that one day soon will live side by side in peace with the state of Palestine.

Just last week our Movement won a great victory for all non-orthodox Jews when the Israeli government finally agreed to pay Rabbi Miri Gold for her service to her community.  Years of petitions and legal battles preceded this historic decision but we’ve still got a long way still to go to make sure that Israel protects and supports all expressions of Judaism.

Our sacred mission in the world includes strengthening our place within Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.  Ever since Abraham and Sarah, being Jewish has meant being part of something larger than ourselves.  We are responsible for our people no matter what their practice of Judaism, no matter where they call home.  Our circle of Jewish responsibility includes those we may not know by name, those who think, earn, believe and vote differently than we do.  

Before the establishment of the Jewish state, David Ben Gurion sought the wise counsel of his trusted colleague Yitzhak Tabenkin in making a crucial decision. Tabenkin asked for a day in which to consider his response. At the appointed time, Tabenkin gave Ben Gurion his counsel and Israel’s first prime minister said, "I accept –what you say, but from whom did you seek advice?" "From two people," answered Tabenkin. "From my grandfather who died ten years ago, and from my grandson who is not yet born."

As we chart a new course for our Movement, we must look both to the past and to the future. Like the tribal leaders who were sent in to scout the land of Israel, I see the daunting obstacles facing us, but like Joshua and Caleb, I say “Yachol Nuchal—we can and we will succeed.”

Shelach lecha—could mean “you have a mission.”   That depends on us.   When God called to Isaiah, the prophet answered Shalcheini—Send me.    Just as surely, each of us is called to sacred service. 

There is a story of a man who looked up at the heavens and said,

“Dear God, there is so much pain and anguish in your world. 

Why don’t you send help?” 

And God answered,

“I did send help. I sent you.”

Rabbi Jacobs
Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Rabbi Judy Schindler, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie

Greater Centennial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Mass Choir of Mount Vernon, NY
Greater Centennial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Mass
Choir of Mount Vernon, NY

Rabbi Rick Jacobs Installed as URJ President
Rabbi Jacobs lifts the Torah as URJ President Emeritus Rabbi
Eric Yoffie and Chairman of the URJ Board of Trustees
Stephen Sacks look on.

Copyright © 2012 Clark Jones


Eliyahu Orantes

June 12, 2012
07:19 PM

Congratulations, Mazal Tov!

Success in his new position, must go on "Kadima"! Greetings from Guatemala Central America.


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