Reform leaders fend off attack on next URJ president

An angry exchange over the Zionist credentials of the incoming president of the Reform movement has intensified and exploded onto the public stage.

The conflict pits the movement’s leadership against a group of dissidents who say they represent a growing number of Reform Jews upset by the movement’s “leftward shift.”

Rabbi Richard Jacobs photo/jta/union of reform judaism

Last week the dissident group, which calls itself Jews Against Divisive Leadership, placed an ad in the Forward and other Jewish newspapers criticizing the recent appointment of Rabbi Richard Jacobs as the next president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

JADL is led by Washington-area Zionist activist Carol Greenwald, who is chairwoman of Holocaust Museum Watch. That group’s website says it is “monitoring the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s failure to expose Arab anti-Semitism and to chronicle its dangers to world Jewry.” Greenwald also is a board member of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA.

The ad, signed by some three dozen members of U.S. Reform congregations, suggested that Jacobs is not sufficiently pro-Israel to head their religious denomination. It notes that he is on the rabbinic cabinet of J Street and the board of the New Israel Fund, two organizations that promote left-wing causes related to Israel.

The ad calls upon URJ to reconsider Jacobs’ appointment or risk driving “mainstream Zionists” out of the Reform movement.

Stuart Weil, a citrus grower in Fresno and a lifelong member of the Reform movement who signed the ad, said he is outraged by “the leftist agenda of the Reform movement,” which he says has intensified in recent years behind current URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie and Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“Yoffie and Saperstein have turned the Reform movement into an affiliate of the Democratic Party,” he said in an interview.

Reform leaders in North America and Israel quickly mobilized a response to the attack on Jacobs, circulating a letter signed by a variety of Jewish leaders affirming Jacobs’ support for Israel, as well as authoring opinion columns praising Jacobs and condemning divisiveness in the community.

Jacobs himself used a May 2 appearance at the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., to stress his Zionist credentials and advocate for “big tent” Zionism.

“In times of crisis, it is not uncommon for lovers of Israel to close in tight around only a narrow slice of the community. But Israel is not served by such a narrow tent,” Jacobs said. “I believe that Israel’s security and well-being require that Israel must become a more tolerant and pluralistic society.”

The rabbi, whose nomination must be confirmed by the URJ board in June, noted his lifelong activism in support of Israel along with his deep commitment to what he described as the state’s democratic foundation.

Jacobs, 55, is the senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y. He was tapped in March as the president-designate of the URJ, which claims 1.5 million members and nearly 900 synagogues.

“I have known Rabbi Jacobs intimately and personally for more than 15 years, and if he is not a friend and lover of Israel, then these categories have no meaning,” Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote in an op-ed for JTA.

Additionally, in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, a trio of authors — Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion; Rabbi Michael Marmur, the college’s vice president for academic affairs; and Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of its Jerusalem campus — blasted the dissident group’s “distorted caricature” of Jacobs and said the “handful” of signatories on the ad they published were out of touch with current Zionist norms.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].