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NEW YORK (RNS) The heady days of American congregational expansion are over.

The nation’s largest Jewish group, the 1.5 million-member Union for Reform Judaism, is now confronting the same stagnant or even declining membership trends that have become routine for Catholic, mainline Protestant and even some evangelical churches.

So when the URJ recently tapped Rabbi Richard Jacobs as only its fourth chief executive since 1943, it reflected a shift from the stability and continuity that’s deeply embedded in the Reform movement’s DNA.

Jacobs has led Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., for the past two decades, building the suburban congregation into one of the nation’s most vibrant and innovative synagogues.

Jacobs’ brand of outside-the-box thinking and willingness to experiment and ditch old ways are needed now more than ever.

Jacobs will be tasked with devoting much of his time, talent and energy to the complex tasks of building and sustaining congregational life in these financially difficult times. It’s a far different challenge than Jacobs’ three predecessors faced when they were first selected.

The three men who preceded Jacobs — Rabbis Maurice Eisendrath, Alexander Schindler and, for the past 15 years, Eric Yoffie — had the luxury of stressing “big” national and international issues as the number of Reform congregations grew on their watch. In recent years, Yoffie’s had a tougher go of things as membership and income plateaued or declined.

Also unlike his predecessors, who were well-established senior staff when they took the helm, Jacobs is much more of an outsider, even though he is widely respected among other rabbis for his track record in Westchester.

For nearly 70 years, the URJ has been in the forefront on a myriad of religious and political issues: opposition to the Vietnam War, a commitment to civil and human rights, religious pluralism, the environment and church-state separation. For the past 50 years, the URJ’s Religious Action Center in Washington has been at the forefront of progressive social causes.

There’s little doubt that Jacobs will continue the URJ’s long tradition of progressive social advocacy. But he won’t have Eisendrath’s (1943-1973) post-war boom, or the maturation of the movement overseen by Schindler (1973-1995), or even Yoffie’s national staff and organizational budget. Jacobs’ tenure will be judged mainly on his ability to strengthen and enhance rank-and-file congregations.

While Jacobs follows three outstanding presidents, leaders in all areas of human endeavor never step into the same river as their predecessors. Jacobs’ main task is to make certain that URJ synagogues do not drown in the current raging river of poor economics and religious indifference.

– A. JAMES RUDIN, Religion News Service

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published
Christians & Jews, Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future.)

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