An open letter to Rabbi Rick Jacobs

(or why I fear for the imminent demise of Tikkun Olam)

Dear Rabbi Jacobs,

Like you and your constituents, Tikkun Olam is something I care about deeply. Indeed I share your concerns about a world spinning out of control, and the critical need to focus on resetting it on its proper axis — letaken olam bemalhut Shaddai, as it says in the Aleinu prayer which, after all, is the very source of Tikkun Olam as a concept; you know, the concluding prayer of every service, the one which your branch of Judaism just removed from its liturgy.

For indeed it is a branch. In fact it is the biggest branch of Judaism in America as you never fail to remind us, and it has chosen Tikkun Olam as its current raison d’etre. Hence, dropping another prayer from the service matters very little, as surely your constituents are too busy repairing the world to waste time on communal prayer, unless they are engaged in flight-testing vintage airplanes on Saturday mornings which sometimes, ends in tragedy and heartache all around.

Each branch of Judaism must choose its primary focus. The Reform movement has chosen Tikkun Olam.

The Reconstructionists have chosen the importance of placing lesbian rabbis in all their congregations (with a bit of tree-hugging as a sideline in deference to the old sage Harav Arthur Waskow shlita) believing firmly that such women are best equipped to counsel couples and families and serve as paragons of wholesome family life which can inspire the members of their branch.

And, of course, lest I forget, there is the branch known as Jewish Renewal whose rabbis are singularly active in criticizing Israel and providing moral aid and succor to heroic Palestinians engaged in acts of anti-Zionist mayhem.

And finally there is the branch known as Conservative Judaism which at present is undergoing serious soul-searching in an effort to re-brand itself and find its true purpose, or any purpose at all, in our out-of-control world.

I myself belong to none of these progressive branches of Judaism, preferring instead to be part of the tree itself – trunk and roots. As it says; Eitz hayyim hi l’mahazikim ba (it is the tree of life for those who hold it). But this is a personal preference. Far be it from me to foist my anachronistic praxis on you or anyone else.

So let’s get back to Tikkun Olam as this is our common denominator, even if we may have some slight differences of opinion as to what actually needs repair, and how to go about it.

For example you think this world will be a better place if Hanukah Menorahs were banned from the public square. I actually like seeing menorahs out in the street. I guess I’m still stuck on the notion of pirsumah nisah (publicizing the miracle) and still believe that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. But this is just a detail. So let’s just agree to disagree. I’m sure all 1.4 million of your adherents are sticklers for lighting their menorahs at home, unless of course they are engaged in an emergency act of Tikkun Olam. As you and I both know, ha-osek b’mitzvah patur min ha-mitvah (while one is engaged in a mitzvah he or she is exempt from another mitzvah)

Another major Tikkun Olam mission in your branch of Judaism is the right to abort babies. Frankly, I’m a bit squeamish, and find it hard to endorse – let alone celebrate – abortion as a form of birth control. Of course in order to save a mother’s life, or if the child has resulted from rape I can certainly countenance such termination with extreme prejudice. But really, HaRav Jacobs, how many of the 600,000+ abortions performed in the USA each year are of children caused by rape, or whose intrauterine presence poses a threat to the mother’s life? – especially when you consider all those sad couples who cannot have children of their own and would give anything to adopt these babies? So here, too, we’ll have to go our separate ways regarding what we think is best for Tikkun Olam.

Now to the issue of illegal aliens. It is admirable how your movement has helped shift the conversation by such brilliant tactics as changing the vocabulary. While, yes, they are both illegal and alien, you have since re-christened them ‘undocumented immigrants’ and more recently dropped the ‘undocumented’ part so that they are now merely ‘immigrants’. And who could possibly be against immigrants? After all, America is a nation of immigrants. Yet, and I hope you will forgive me, I cannot say I am totally comfortable with 11 million people who pushed their way into the US without permission, while so many others are waiting patiently to get their immigrant visas and green cards.

I ask myself whether I would give a free pass to someone who breaks into my home regardless of the circumstances in his or her life, and I come up short. Thank G-d there are noble people like you who no doubt would never call the police if they found strangers in their bedrooms. But I’m not quite so noble. And so my idea of Tikkun Olam is to build a wall and suggest to all those millions of impoverished Latin Americans who, mirabile dictu, have $6,000 to spend on each member of their family in order to cross the border with the help of pharmaceutical importers (isn’t ‘pharmaceutical importer’ a nicer term than ‘drug smuggler’?) like the Beltran-Levya Cartel or La Familia Michocacana.

Ah yes, but it is not only the Hispanic immigrants for whom your movement shows such stalwart Tikkun Olam spirit. It is also the Islamist immigrants who clamor for the freedom to bring their practices and values to American soil and help save America from its corrupt Judeao-Christian ways.

I must confess that, as an American who makes his home in Israel, I have a slightly different perspective on Islamic values as a result of my annual visit to the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl, not to mention what I see as a volunteer police officer in Jerusalem on a daily basis. But I cannot blame you in the slightest for striving so mightily to allow single, strapping, military age young men from Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan into the USA, especially in light of the enormous success, not to mention benefits, Germany and France enjoy from their bumper crop of Muslim immigrants.

Personally I am more concerned for the unprotected wives, sisters, mothers and daughters these brave young men leave behind to face alone whatever horrors from which their male relatives are fleeing. As well, I am concerned over the fact that just about every single act of international terror, as far as I can remember, was caused by such young men. Indeed I am reminded of this every time I have to undergo a time-consuming and degrading security check at the airport. Like you, I am old enough to remember a time when such indignity was unheard of. And we both know why it has become necessary – because of airborne acts of religious fervor and self-sacrifice performed by people whose name, inexplicably, almost always seems to be Mohammed.

And finally, there is that nuisance called Israel, which has the temerity to call itself the Jewish State. How can I blame you for using the enormous PR power of your movement, not to mention the prestige of your office, to spank that obstreperous little country every time it behaves in a manner not to your liking? Naturally, I understand your discomfort with its very existence, as it can seem (to the uninitiated and benighted) that Israel is what being Jewish is all about, and where the Jewish future is. Of course we both know that the real center of true Jewish values – as exemplified by Tikkun Olam – is America where men and women are free to pray together should they suddenly have an unexplainable desire to attend a service.

You may find it hard to believe, but I was 100% with you in support of a mixed prayer area at the Western Wall. In fact I would say the entire Wall should be open to people of all 63 genders that comprise the US population (it’s sort of like ice cream, where Americans have always been blessed with dozens of flavors, while in backward Israel, it was only recently that we got past vanilla and chocolate.) My reasons for endorsing the right of the Erev Rav (Mixed Multitude) to freely access the Kotel is because, as we both know, the progessive Jewish branch members won’t come regardless. They don’t go to their own temples why would they travel 6,000+ miles to come to the Kotel – unless, of course, the TV cameras are rolling. But it would be so easy to simply bar the news crews altogether, and voila, shalom al Yisrael (peace upon Israel). By endorsing mixed multitude prayer at the Kotel we could save so much aggravation, ill will, and negative publicity.

So now that we have pretty much spelled out our differences on certain key Tikkun Olam issues, let me get to the purpose of this letter.

I am concerned for the future of our shared value, namely Tikkun Olam. I am the first to acknowledge that when it comes to Teekoon Olaaahm (I just love the way your people pronounce it) your Reform Movement towers head and shoulders above the people who waste so much of their time studying Torah, observing Shabbat, attending tefilah (prayer services) three times a day, engaging in chesed (charitable) activities which so benightedly focus exclusively on the Jewish poor while ignoring all the suffering Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Buddhists; not to mention all those American museums, universities and hospitals that so desperately need hundreds and hundreds of millions of Tikkun Olam dollars each and every year.

What worries me is that one of the side effects of all this monumental Tikkun Olam work is that your congregants are dropping away like flies. The attrition from your ranks is terrifying. The miscegeny rate is through the roof. Within two generations there will likely be no one left who identifies as Reform. Then what will be with Tikkun Olam? Who will be left to repair the world?

Oh, I know there are virtually no third generation Reform Jews in America. The descendants of Isaac Mayer Wise are by now all Episcopalians or Presbyterians. But the movement could always count on fresh blood from a critical mass of formerly Orthodox Jews who would enter your temples on their way to the Jewish exit door. But this source of replacement numbers is now gone. Orthodoxy is ascendant in America, and pretty soon will be the only real game in town. And, let’s face it, people prefer to bet on a winner. As for those – and the are plenty of those – who drop out of Orthodoxy, there seem to be none who choose any branch of progressive Judaism as an alternative.

So before Tikkun Olam comes to a grinding halt, perhaps we should form a task force (the Reform branch has always been great at launching task forces) that will do a five-year study to explore ways to stanch the hemorrhage so that Tikkun Olam, albeit on a far more modest scale, will still be somewhat alive six years from now.


JJ Gross

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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