The selection of Rabbi Richard Jacobs last week as the likely next leader of the Union for Reform Judaism has been described as “inspired” by a local rabbi who knows him well.
Rabbi Douglas Sagal, leader of Temple Emanu-El, the Reform congregation in Westfield, went on to say he believes Jacobs “will be an outstanding president of the URJ and a visionary leader for North American Judaism.”
On March 22, the URJ announced that Jacobs, the senior congregational rabbi at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY, is the nominee to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is stepping down in 2012 after 16 years in the role.
Jacobs’ nomination requires confirmation by the URJ’s board of directors, which meets in June. In announcing the recommendation of the 55-year-old Jacobs, the URJ cited his “national leadership in synagogue transformation efforts, social justice work, and commitment to Israel.”
Sagal also knows Yoffie, who is a member of his temple and a Westfield resident. He praised him for having “the vision to re-imagine and rejuvenate Jewish worship. Thanks to Rabbi Yoffie, our synagogues are filled with the study of Torah, the observance of Shabbat, and a deep and abiding love of Israel.”
Jacobs’ selection is not without controversy. Some people praise him as a leader on social justice issues, from disaster relief in Haiti and Darfur to environmental initiatives locally. Others, however, have suggested that Richards is too far to the left, taking leadership positions at the New Israel Fund and sitting on the rabbinic board of J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby.
Sagal sees Jacobs as well equipped to bridge that divide. In answer to e-mailed questions from NJ Jewish News, Sagal said, “Knowing Rabbi Jacobs personally only deepens my appreciation of his creativity, his dynamism, and his devotion to the Jewish people.”
The old paradigms of congregational membership are over, Sagal continued, and in “a post-denominational age, the great challenge will be to reach out to people who don’t identify strongly with one movement or another. As a proven leader, I think Rabbi Jacobs has more than demonstrated his ability to work with people from a variety of backgrounds and positions.
“As far as Rabbi Jacobs’ own views,” said Sagal, “I think a leader needs to have his or her own vision and views in order to effectively lead.”
This article includes reporting from JTA.