The Pacific Northwest was greatly honored this past month by a visit from the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Richard Jacobs. Rabbi Jacobs has quickly distinguished himself as a powerful visionary in an evolving contemporary Judaism, a leader who seeks to enable 1.5 million American Jews to practice liberal Judaism seriously, and as an ardent Zionist who practices what he preaches: “Am Yisrael chai!” — “The people of Israel lives!”
Back when I was a newly minted rabbi, Rabbi Jacobs was one of my first bosses. I am the better for having learned with him as he transformed a synagogue in New York into a vibrant, serious home of Jewish lifelong learning and practice for over 1,000 Jewish families.
One reason we brought Rabbi Jacobs to our congregation on a Sunday morning was because the Reform movement is concerned with the national issue of the “disappearance” of Jewish kids after Bar and Bat Mitzvah. We wanted him to see the large, vibrant Jewish youth culture that prevails at Beth Am with over 100 post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah teens electing to serve as teen educational leaders each Sunday morning in our religious school “madrichim” program.
At Beth Am, a teen may only enter the madrichim program if he or she is enrolled in our religious education program. Each year, in spite of our best efforts, a certain number of students do exit our program at some point in the year after Bat or Bar Mitzvah, and each departure is personally upsetting. At the same time, though, we have grown a powerful all-ages community, and we know that large numbers of our students graduate 12th grade with a strong Jewish identity based on a combination of their Jewish home experience and their religious communal experience at Beth Am, Jewish summer camp, and our regular Israel trips.
So, that’s what I wanted Rabbi Jacobs to see on a Sunday morning in January. At 9:15, we planted him at the front entrance to our building, and over the course of the next 20 minutes he shook hands with an extraordinary number of teens streaming through our building. As I tried to personally introduce him to as many teens as possible, I started to notice their great diversity. Some of these students come from interfaith homes where both parents have made a commitment to raise exclusively Jewish children. A number of the students are biracial. Even more were adopted at birth from other countries, particularly from Asia and Africa. A couple of students are uncertain whether they are male or female. A few of them already know they are gay. Some of our teens have learning disabilities or emotional disabilities or are somehow different than a stereotypical Jewish kid. Standing by Rabbi Jacobs as each student smiled and shook his hand I was overwhelmed by a diversity I had not noticed before.
During his community address, Rabbi Jacobs relayed a true personal story in which he found himself in a crowd rushing down a street in Manhattan. On either side of him were strangers, each of a different skin color. A man on the street holding tefillin looked at all three and asked Rabbi Jacobs, “Are you a Jew?” The moral of the story: As we worry about shrinking numbers of Jews worldwide, let us not overlook those Jews who do not look exactly the same as our old notions.
Let us all reflect on the diversity of the many faces of Jews in our time. There was once a stereotype of a white person of European descent with pale white skin and dark, curly hair. Now, that is simply one of so many looks that a Jewish person might have. Many of us will still look at a person of color in our shul reciting the prayers and wonder, “Is that person really Jewish?”
For the sake of a healthy Jewish future, it is vital we recognize that Jews come in all colors, nationalities, abilities, disabilities, sexual orientations and backgrounds.
Rabbi Jacobs spoke to the Jewish community about the importance of welcoming all who bring strength to the Jewish people. I am proud of our efforts here in the Pacific Northwest to empower all varieties of Jews to grow as Jews. Watching the larger Jewish community move in the direction of welcoming Jews of all different backgrounds can fill us all with great hope for the future of American Judaism.