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Making the case for passionate, progressive Zionism
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Making the case for passionate, progressive Zionism

As Israel-diaspora rift grows, Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs plays a key role in seeking to engage disengaged young Jews

I want our young people to fall in love with Israel,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the leader of the Reform movement, American Judaism’s largest denomination. “I want them to stand up and fight out of love, not out of anger,” he insists.

The young people he speaks of — large numbers of millennial and Generation Z Jews who appear to be decidedly more distanced from the Jewish state and Jewish life than their elders — are a key target for Jacobs and the organized Jewish community. Whether or not this cohort can be engaged Jewishly is critical to the future of American-Jewish life as we know it. 

With his charismatic style and passionate commitment to Israel, Jewish tradition, and progressive ideals, the 62-year-old Reform leader plays a pivotal and delicate role these days. He promotes serious encounters with things Jewish to liberal constituents, but is not averse to criticizing some of Jerusalem’s controversial actions. Those include its treatment of Palestinians, expansion of settlements, criticism of the judiciary and the press, and efforts to deport illegal African migrants.

Most recently, Jacobs sought to walk a rhetorical tightrope by celebrating the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem while calling out the Trump administration for “lack of progress toward a long-term just solution for Israelis and Palestinians.” The rabbi also pointed out that “Israel has the right, and even the obligation, to defend herself and her borders,” but added that “we are alarmed, concerned and profoundly saddened by the growing number of Gazan dead and wounded.” His statement condemned Hamas for “encouraging incitement,” demanded that the Palestinian Authority help end the violence, “not inflame it,” and urged Israel to “take all precautions to minimize civilian casualties.”

Such statements, for all their attempts at even-handedness, have prompted strong criticism, including from liberal Jewish activists in Israel. Alan Edelstein, a former Conservative congregational president in the U.S., and Martin Karp, who worked for a large federation for many years in Israel, issued a public call in April for Jacobs to refrain from speaking out on Israeli policies regarding the Palestinian conflict. 

“Enough, already,” they wrote, especially offended by the rabbi calling for the IDF to use more precaution in confronting militant protesters. The implication, Edelstein and Karp wrote, was that Israelis need to be told to try not to harm innocent civilians. Their letter asserted that it is especially important for Conservative and Reform leaders not to offend the Israeli public and damage “the effort to make progress on the issues that are directly relevant to our movements.” They were referring to advocacy for full egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and easing fundamentalist restrictions on conversion.

Jacobs has been at the forefront of the effort for religious equality in Israel. He and other liberal rabbis and leaders, male and female, were physically confronted at a prayer service at the Western Wall last November, threatened by security guards for carrying Torah scrolls in an area slotted for male-only prayer. 

Later, when asked by reporters if he was angered by the rough treatment, “I told them I felt betrayed [by the Netanyahu government that reneged on an agreement that would have expanded egalitarian prayer at the holy site] but delighted to be in Israel,” the rabbi said in a recent interview at his Midtown office. “I can distinguish between being upset at the government and being in touch with the people and with Jewish ideals.” 

Jacobs said his response is based on “years of connection to Israel.” (He and his wife own a home there.) “It’s about loving and embracing Israel while standing up against” positions that he views as harmful to world Jewry and the concept of Clal Yisrael, one people. The rabbi acknowledges that his approach may be overly nuanced for some young people whose Western core values clash with a range of Israeli policies and who are increasingly uncomfortable to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump aligned in policies perceived as leaning toward authoritarian. 

“Rick has a real voice with progressive Jews who feel Israel doesn’t care about them,” a colleague of the rabbis said. “They trust him.”

Jacobs is outspoken in his support for more open immigration here and in Israel, gun control legislation — three of the students killed in the Parkland school in Florida were connected to the Reform community — and he criticized Trump’s “moral equivalence” after the Charlottesville march last year. “If our leaders can’t call out this virulent strand of hate,” he wrote, “we will surely fail to stop it.”

In our interview, the rabbi emphasized that “Israel engagement is a huge priority” for the Reform movement, and he cited the growth of overnight summer camps (17) where the staff has the opportunity to “go deeper than the headlines” in connecting youngsters to Israel.

He also emphasized the Reform movement’s “open, joyful approach to Judaism,” fueled by what he calls “audacious hospitality” that he said is appealing to the next generation, including interfaith families.

Raised on liberal values, many young Jews are “disillusioned” about Israel, Jacobs notes, “and the progressive case has to be made. We have to talk about occupation, about pluralism as a right of a democracy, all the issues.”

The rabbi pointed out that AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, has come to recognize the importance of progressive Zionists on campus and brought large numbers of them to its most recent annual policy conference in Washington, D.C.  

“I make a passionate Zionist case as a progressive, and when I’m asked on campus if I’m pro-Israel, I say ‘yes — and I’m pro-Palestinian.” Jacobs wants young people to see Israel for themselves in all of its beauty and complexity. “I don’t want to give them the cartoon version but the full narrative. It’s complicated and it’s flawed, and infinitely challenging. But in the end, it inspires.”

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