Interview with URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Some 5,000 leaders and members of the Reform Jewish community are gathered in Orlando, Florida, to attend the 73rd Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) North American Biennial convention this weekend.

Speakers at the conference include Vice President Joe Biden, Ambassador David Saperstein and actor Michael Douglas. On Friday, Jodi Kantor of the New York Times will moderate a panel including Stav Shaffir, the youngest member of the Knesset and leader of the Tel Aviv Social Justice protest movement, Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit, and former URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

In an interview with Jewish Insider on Thursday, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that coming together in the aftermath of the Iran deal, expressing strong support for a Jewish and Democratic Israel, and advocating for progressive values are the highlights of this year’s conference.

“We are healing but we still have scars and there still are divisions” in the American-Jewish community in the post-Iran deal debate era, Jacobs said. “In our movement, we are working very hard to stay, in a sense, together and unified in the larger goal which is to support Israel. We cannot let divisions keep us from that deep commitment and connection to the State of Israel and to its security and wellbeing.”

“The thing that we need to heal most is the idea that Israel is a partisan issue. That is the most important issue for us to heal,” he stressed. “Israel has been a bipartisan commitment of the U.S. over decades. Over the last year, some of that bipartisan unity for the State of Israel has been weakened. Beyond pointing the finger of blame, we cannot look at Israel’s long-term security without the relationship. We want to make sure that Democratic Congress people and candidates, and Republican Congress people and candidates for president, will find the common ground and not make Israel a wedge issue.”

But, he added, that it’s equally important to be able to “say honest things about when Israel has policies that are not in keeping with the Declaration of Independence and are not in agreement with our core Jewish values, and when there are racist comments and growing intolerance.”

Reflecting on the relationship between American Jews, and the Reform movement in particular, with the elected government of Israel, Jacobs acknowledged that issues like religious freedom, the role of the Supreme court “are problematic” in the current government, “but we in our movement also feel very strongly that we need to advocate for the changes and for the strengthening of those core commitments and we can do that as Zionist movement.”

“Governments come and go, crises come and change with the time, but the relationship with the State of Israel is fundamentally deep within. It is not simple a headline,” he asserted. “It is obviously challenging when the current government has a Religious Affairs minister who can’t understand why Reform Jews is part of the Jewish community. But we do believe that we still can help people to understand; we can continue in the wider Israeli public, help to put an alternative for people. There are ways for us to advance the issues, not only within the legislative and governmental process but also in the wider cultural society.”

Jacobs also commented on the 2016 presidential race, as well as the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who would be the first Jewish president if elected.

“For us, it is very important that we not only follow the candidates but we attempt to share with them our core commitments. I know Bernie Sanders has been a very loud spoken advocate for social justice and many things are within keeping our core Jewish tradition,” he said. “At the same time, we want to make sure that any candidate who’s going to be seriously considered for president is somebody who will understand and support the State of Israel. It doesn’t mean they have to agree with every policy and governmental decision. But I think that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, as well as many of the Republican candidates are talking about Israel – they are talking about the aftermath of the Iran deal. We want to help put on the agenda for the entire political spectrum things that really are critical, not only to the Jewish community, but to the American community in terms of what we stand for and our values.”

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