Jacob played an indispensable role in creating a generation of Reconstructionist rabbis that is moving this community forward. When Rabbi Ira Eisenstein retired as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in 1981, it marked the end of a generation of professional Reconstructionist rabbinic leaders that Mordecai Kaplan led; that generation also included Milton Steinberg, Jack Cohen and Eugene Kohn. The gap in age between that generation and the graduates of the RRC was 40 years — two full generations. The future of the small and fragile Reconstructionist enterprise depended upon the emergence of a new generation of professional leaders, and Jacob stepped up.
Ordained by the RRC in 1977, Jacob finished a Ph.D. focused on medieval Jewish thought and became an assistant professor at Lafayette College. In 1983, he became editor of The Reconstructionist magazine, overseeing a vital process of redesign and reshaping its content. In its pages, a rising generation began to find its voice. Courageously tackling many of the hot topics of its days, the magazine reached every household in the rapidly growing movement, shaping the thinking of a new generation of lay readers who were quite distinct from many in the previous generation. The older generation had been dominated by people who were less observant than their parents but had had significant exposure to Jewish practice while growing up. The new generation in Reconstructionist congregations and havurot were in most cases becoming engaged with Judaism for the first time as adults. The Reconstructionist provided a contemporary way for understanding Jewish peoplehood, practice and thought.
While the works of Mordecai Kaplan will always be foundational to Reconstructionism, the movement needed a shorter introduction to its evolving thought and practice. Jacob and Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, then dean of students at RRC, agreed to take on that challenge. The Reconstructionist Press published their book, Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach, to wide acclaim in 1985. The book went through several printings, and the movement continued to thrive and change, necessitating a substantially revised edition that came out in 2000. Exploring Judaism has shaped the public understanding of Reconstructionism for more than 35 years.
At the same time that Jacob began editing The Reconstructionist, he joined the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Jacob has been an anchor on the RRC faculty for 38 years — the longest tenure in the history of the college. As the first graduate of RRC to join the full-time faculty, Jacob quickly became an anchoring presence on the faculty. He was first elected chair of the faculty and soon thereafter appointed dean. His commitment to a civilizational approach for the curriculum played a major role in its development. His efforts were critical in establishing a full range of practical rabbinics courses that could be shaped into professional tracks. And his deep commitment as dean to listening to each student and doing his best to meet individual needs helped create an atmosphere of warmth and caring that was instrumental in building the RRC as a community. Jacob’s perceptive and affectionate remarks to each student at graduation are remembered with deep appreciation by the decades of rabbis whom he addressed and all of us who were present to hear them. As dean, Jacob was the beating heart of the college.
From the time that Jacob became dean, we sought funding to deepen the spiritual work done at RRC. Early efforts included meditation, yoga and chanting; now standard in many places, at the time, they were groundbreaking as part of rabbinic education. In partnership with Barbara Breitman, Jacob then developed a Jewish spiritual direction program that proved invaluable to our students. It also greatly aided in deepening the spiritual work done in many of our congregations. Jacob’s teaching also reflected his deepened interest in connecting to the spiritual aspects of traditional Jewish texts. In combining that interest with his teaching about evolving Jewish civilization and the multiple expressions of Judaism in different times and places, Jacob explicated the Reconstructionist approach at its best.
Jacob has also been an active member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. One of the most controversial issues early in the life of the RRA was how rabbis should handle intermarriage. Jacob was asked to chair the committee that wrote that important early policy; he was the primary drafter. Another essay that has been important to the movement is his lengthy examination of patrilineal descent, which puts matrilineal, patrilineal and ambilineal descent in historical, sociological and moral perspective. It not only reflects Reconstructionist values but remains perhaps the most comprehensive and thoughtful essay on how lineality relates to identity and status.
My favorite piece of Jacob’s writing is his book-length essay about Shabbat.[i] Jacob opens the many opportunities for Shabbat celebration, provides insight into the day’s rituals and customs, provides guidance for making personal choices, engages the values relevant to the day and gives practical advice for shaping a Shabbat practice. At every turn in this essay, Jacob models the strengths of Reconstructionist thinking and action on the personal, familial and communal levels. The deepening of his thinking throughout the 30 years of his leadership is obvious in this work, with its attention to spirituality, decision-making and the necessity of balancing Jewish traditions, contemporary concerns and opportunities for innovation.
When it was time to shift the Reconstructionist voice from print to the web, Reconstructing Judaism’s president, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, charged Jacob with developing Evolve. It addresses both the challenging issues of the moment and classical questions that deserve fresh exploration. Attracting a new generation of writers and readers, Evolve is a source of energy, and fresh intellectual and moral vigor, for the Reconstructionist movement.
Jacob and I have been friends, colleagues and collaborators for 38 years. I treasure our relationship and look forward to many productive years of friendship and collaboration ahead.
Jacob is leaving the college’s fulltime faculty after 38 years of movement leadership that initially depended on a small number of individuals. He can look with pride at the large and effective group of Reconstructionist rabbis, the abundance of seasoned movement lay leaders, the increased depth and sophistication of Reconstructionist literature, and the ongoing contributions of the Reconstructionist movement to the broader world. A talented and diverse new generation has taken leadership standing on a foundation that Jacob has helped to build.
“A Reconstructionist View on Patrilineal Descent,” Judaism 34, no. 1 (1985): 97–106.
[i] “Shabbat” in David Teutsch ed., A Guide to Jewish Practice Vol. 2 (RRC Press, 2014), pp.3-200.