“The tall, lanky dancer-turned-rabbi…”
It seems like every press mention of URJ President Rick Jacobs includes some version of those words. I’ve always found it a bit odd, and maybe somewhat patronizing, the way reporters focus on Rick’s physical traits. Perhaps I’m just jealous. After all, “the short, stocky rabbi who ran cross-country in high school before completely letting himself go in his 20s” doesn’t have the same ring (and fortunately, never shows up when people write about me).
But if they’re going to obsess about your physique and former vocation, you might as well get some mileage from it. Rabbi Jacobs did just that in his 2015 Biennial address. Form followed function, as a sermon designed to highlight the ways in which we are a movement was delivered by a person in constant motion. Eschewing the lectern, Rabbi Jacobs owned a good chunk of real estate on stage, never standing still, rarely bringing his hands to rest. It was brilliant, and inspiring (watch the address here).
Rabbi Jacobs drew even more explicitly on his training at the end of the talk. To illustrate the relationship of Reform Judaism to the forms which preceded it, he brought out two dancers who performed ballet and modern dance. The teaching: just as the early Reformers rebelled against the Tradition in nearly every way, so too did the first modern dancers reject and even mock the rigidity of ballet. But over time, the two forms of dance learned from each other, and in the present day they inform each other. We too must be in constructive dialogue with our tradition. As a spoken lesson from behind a lectern, it would have made a nice illustration; delivered by the “tall, lanky dancer-turned rabbi” as the illustration played out on the stage, it was really unforgettable. Yasher Koach!
So much for form. What about content? Rabbi Jacobs’s message to the leadership of the Reform Movement was simply this: we need to be about transforming lives and transforming our world. Survival isn’t enough. No one goes to eat in a restaurant whose pitch to customers is “come eat here, so we don’t have to go out of business.” Reform Judaism is a delicate dance of universalism and particularism, grounded in self-awareness. We care about all people, which compels us to work for justice around the world and in our own communities, allying ourselves with immigrants, the poor, and people of color. We care about the Jewish people, which compels us to stand up for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine and to fight for a State of Israel which embodies our democratic, pluralistic values. And we know that it all proceeds from a healthy spirit, so we must tend to our souls through study, prayer, and the development of our souls.
And all of this, now. Now is the moment for our movement.
I am heading back to Durham for Shabbat, inspired by so much of what I’ve learned and experienced during my brief Biennial stay. I’ll miss davvening with 5,000 of my closest friends, but am excited to be on the bimah at Judea Reform Congregation, putting the learning into practice. And I’m already thinking about Boston in 2017.