Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was scheduled to be in Pittsburgh this week. The COVID-19 outbreak upended those plans.
Jacobs was slated to appear at Temple Sinai at a Shabbat service honoring Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who will retire June 30 after 32 years with the congregation. Instead, Jacobs will now appear virtually April 3.
The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle spoke with Jacobs about Gibson’s retirement, the URJ’s response to COVID-19 and what Pittsburgh means to the Reform movement today. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
You were scheduled to appear at Temple Sinai in person but can’t due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Can you speak about how the URJ and its congregations have responded?
We as the Reform movement, the largest movement in North American Jewish life, have recognized the need to adapt and find our communities. We have worked to find a way to matter in this new environment. There are so many aspects of our work that have gone virtual, from worship to study to community to counseling to tutoring. I’m incredibly inspired by the ingenuity and how quickly and very effectively and lovingly congregations have adapted to a healthcare crisis. At a time when social distancing is required, we’re finding more ways to connect more completely.
You were scheduled to be here to honor Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who has been at Temple Sinai for 32 years. That’s a testament to both the man and the congregation.
I really love this man and am inspired by his rabbinic example and teaching. We studied together at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. That’s when I really got to know him as a fellow student of Torah and have come to appreciate his rabbinic gifts. It goes back to his formative years and his time with (Jewish songwriter) Debbie Friedman. Debbie and Jamie were close. His knowledge of Torah is deep and he has nourished his congregation for the last 32 years.
I have to say that after the Tree of Life shooting, I had been in Israel, and I remember turning on the news and it was Jamie speaking — so articulate, so on message and so reassuring from the depths of the Jewish tradition, and that’s how he is live. Temple Sinai is a beautiful living expression of Reform Judaism.
How does Temple Sinai replace someone who has meant so much to the congregation for so long? How does it, not fill Rabbi Gibson’s shoes, but instead, find a rabbi who can fill his or her own space and serve the congregation?
They’ve had 32 years of this exceptional relationship with Rabbi Gibson, so they know what it means to have a rabbi of depth and courage and kindness. They are going to look for a rabbi who, in his or her own way, will have their own depth and imagination and courage. When rabbis look for congregations, they look for places that know how to form that kind of relationship. The key in any transition is to appreciate the remarkable leader that Rabbi Gibson has been.
There are other leaders who will come, it’s a new day. This is important to remember. It’s an exciting proposition and it’s a little frightening, I’m sure, for congregational members who feel so close to Rabbi Gibson and don’t think they could ever feel close to another rabbi. The truth is, there will always be a very special place at Temple Sinai for Rabbi Gibson. But I think it’s the kind of congregation that, after their interim rabbi, they will be ready to find, engage and relate deeply to a terrific new rabbi.
Can you speak about what Pittsburgh means to the Reform movement today?
I have to say, we are all aware of the remarkable resiliency of Pittsburgh. It’s become a symbol for the wider Jewish community and is quite inspiring.
Nobody was prepared for what happened at the Tree of Life (building). What happened there changed much of American Jewish life. In some ways it was a rude awakening, in other ways it was a call to our core mission and core values creating a Judaism of real commitment and daily experience to the Jewish values of caring for the other and love for the other.
Pittsburgh is home to Susan Friedberg Kalson, the chair of the Commission on Social Action for the Reform Movement, and Lynn Magid Lazar, a past president of the Women of Reform Judaism. We have a great history of rabbinic and lay leaders from this community and I think it’s something to be very proud of, and hopefully to build upon as you go forward.
Rabbi Gibson’s retirement marks the second long-term rabbi in Pittsburgh to retire in fewer than five years (Rabbi Mark Mahler retired in 2018 after serving Temple Emanuel of South Hills for 38 years). Is there a new slate of leaders beginning to emerge in the URJ?
First of all, having a long rabbinic tenure is something that is quite wonderful and inspiring. People used to think that rabbis were in for a couple years at a congregation and then they were off to climb some proverbial ladder. I think that it’s a testament to rabbis when they’ve been able to establish meaningful, long term relations.
In terms of the next generation of rabbis, we see them all over. I love that some of them have very clear ideas that the walls of the synagogue are not in any way the walls that define our mission. I think that’s why Rabbi Gibson has spent so much time in the wider community building relations.
A lot of our younger colleagues have grown up in a time when you have to work to establish the relevance of Judaism and a temple community. We’re living in a time where people are not necessarily coming to synagogue. In the old days, people came to the congregation. America was a place where most people connected to their religious communities. We’re now living in a time when people are using all different types of places for more connection, more community, more wisdom and more spiritual grounding. So, I think our younger rabbis are much more tuned to the new marketplace of spirituality and they take that as an opportunity, not as a limitation. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.