With a focus on environmentalism, social justice and liberal Zionism, Rabbi Richard Jacobs has left a huge imprint on his congregation of two decades.
For almost 20 years Rabbi Richard Jacobs led the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, championing social justice alongside traditional worship. Next year, the synagogue will say a bittersweet goodbye to Rabbi Jacobs, who led it through renovation, experimentation and introspection, as he leaves to head the Union for Reform Judaism.
“There is sadness for his departure but tremendous pride in his appointment,” said Lisa Messinger, president of WRT. “He really led a vision of transformation of the congregation.”
Throughout his tenure, Rabbi Jacobs has advocated for the Jewish mission of tikkun olam, repairing the world, most recently in the synagogue’s eco-friendly renovation and expansion. The new sanctuary, which was dedicated in 2009, was constructed with sustainable materials, carpeted in rugs made from recycled fibers and houses a ner tamid, eternal flame, powered by solar energy.
“We wanted a building that met our needs and also reflected our values,” said Messinger, who noted that the sanctuary is completely accessible for those with disabilities.
“It makes it such a current place,” said Helene Kener Gray, a member of the congregation for almost 10 years. “It’s so appropriate that we would have a green synagogue.”
Kener Gray, a congregant since 2002, said she joined the temple in part because “they offered so much for young families.”
Under Rabbi Jacobs’ leadership, the large suburban synagogue grew from less than 800 member families to more than 1,200 today.
In the fall of 2005, Rabbi Jacobs traveled to Chad with the American Jewish World Service (of which he is a board member) to visit the refugee camps there. Upon his return, he raised more than $250,000 to aid the refugees from the Sudan, and delivered the opening prayer at the 2006 Save Darfur rally in Washington.
“We are morally obligated … to ensure that ‘never again’ is more than just words,” Rabbi Jacobs wrote in a letter to the editor published in the New York Times in November 2005.
Since then, he has spoken widely about his experiences there and urged action for the suffering people.
“He was raising everyone’s awareness of it,” said Kener Gray, who noted that the tallit Rabbi Jacobs wears came from that region. Other members recall the rabbi selling coffee from the area, as well as popularizing the green “Save Darfur” bracelet that he still wears.
And in 2010 Rabbi Jacobs again assumed the mantle of social justice, traveling to Haiti with AJWS following the devastating earthquake there.
Throughout his time at WRT, many junior rabbis and cantors have served at the temple before going on to lead congregations in Manhattan, Los Angeles and Charlotte, N.C., among others.
“Much of the work I’ve done in my own congregation is certainly influenced by witnessing [Rabbi Jacobs],” said Rabbi Kenneth Chasen, senior rabbi at the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles. Rabbi Chasen spent five years as the associate rabbi at WRT before leaving in 2003.
“He has a pretty special combination of courage of vision and strategic instinct,” said Rabbi Chasen. “WRT is very much a laboratory for the contemporary Jewish experience.”
Even before Rabbi Jacobs became a founding member of Synagogue 2000 (which later became Synagogue 3000), an initiative aimed at revitalizing and re-imagining synagogue life, he established his own “WRT 2000,” according to several members.
“We discussed what our services should be,” said Marjorie Miller, a member of the synagogue since 1958, “we were making changes that would be good for everybody.” Discussions and experimentation led to changing the musical components of the services, testing different times for the service and even having a Kiddush before services in the summer. The temple also started a “Sharing Shabbat” service, for a family to worship together before dividing for learning and studying. “It’s really become a community on its own,” said Miller, who also served as president of the synagogue a decade ago.
During a period when support for Israel became a complicated and controversial issue, Rabbi Jacobs chose his Yom Kippur address last year to address the issue. “None of us has all the answers to the many challenges facing Israel,” he told his congregation in September, referencing organizations including AIPAC, StandWithUs, J Street (he is on the group’s Rabbinic Cabinet) and the New Israel Fund, which he has been a board member of since 1992, “but together we are unstoppable.”
Indeed, when Rabbi Jacobs leads synagogue missions to Israel, participants are introduced to a wide spectrum of Israel life. “We met with colonels in the army and journalists and professors,” said Amy Lemle, a synagogue member who attended a trip three years ago. “We met with local activists and right-wing settlers; we were given a vast and full experience.” WRT is also partnered with a synagogue outside Jerusalem, Kehilat Mevasseret Zion. Synagogue missions visit the congregation, and the rabbi has come to WRT as well.
Members of the synagogue agree that Rabbi Jacobs leaves behind a strong legacy of innovation and inclusion. “We became as a congregation, open-minded and flexible and not afraid to make changes,” said Lemle, who served as president five years ago.
“[Rabbi Jacobs] has led his congregation with patience but never with complacency,” said Rabbi Chasen, who served as his associate rabbi for five years. “He’s not the kind of guy who’s waited until things weren’t working to figure out a solution.”
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