By Josh Peskin, Ph.D. and Bryan Schwartzman
Names hold an especially important place in the Jewish tradition. There is a teaching that while prophecy ended in biblical times, parents receive a faint glimpse of divine prophecy before naming a child. In the eyes of our tradition, names truly matter.
What is it about a name that is so powerful? We recently changed our name after a yearlong process from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College & Jewish Reconstructionist Communities to Reconstructing Judaism and also adopted the tagline “Deeply Rooted. Boldly Relevant.” Throughout the process we found ourselves trying to articulate the value of a new name and also wondering how to define the value of a logo and tagline.
Revisiting our name offered us the opportunity to crystalize our identity, refine our core messages, and sharpen our thinking about exactly what we do, and how and why we do it. The more we thought about it, the more we realized how much work a core identity (name, logo and tagline) does; it casts an impression, offers an instantaneous experience, makes an introduction, and reverberates a little piece of who we are far and wide. Our new identity will serve as our emissary, bouncing around the internet and in print, calling out to those who resonate with it to join us in our work of Reconstructing Judaism for the next generation.
Several years ago, our seminary merged with our federation of congregations, and we were simply no longer only a seminary. And tacking on “Jewish Reconstructionist Communities” to “Reconstructionist Rabbinical College” was always only a placeholder, and an unwieldy one at that.
Once we committed to the rebrand, a key decision we faced was determining who should be involved in steering and providing input into the process. The firm we worked with recommended a small working group, which is designed to keep the process productive, manageable and moving swiftly. While we understood the firm’s thinking, the recommendation posed a difficult problem. A Reconstructionist approach places a high value on participatory decision-making and has a strong egalitarian ethos. We saw genuine risk in potentially grinding to a halt if we couldn’t manage the input and feedback effectively.
We also knew that involving Reconstructionists across the continent would build crucial buy-in and give us an opportunity to engage our congregations and alumni around what they love about the seminary, their own congregations, and the movement overall. In the end, we opted for a broader process with significant input and feedback opportunities, ultimately involving more than 1,000 Reconstructionists who participated in surveys, webinars, and town hall meetings. It was a values-based decision to broaden involvement, and it paid off significantly. The process energized Reconstructionists through conversations about who we are collectively and where we are going. It also helped us refine both what is essential for us programmatically and our personality, which was boiled down to five words – groundbreaking, questioning, heimish (homey, warm), eclectic, and participatory.
We’ve come to realize how powerful this moment of change can be to connect with people in an authentic way. We now use our presentations and written materials as an opportunity to illustrate how we are living into our new name, through our change-making rabbis, dynamic congregations, and new initiatives, including Evolve and a camp on the west coast that opens this summer. If we hadn’t gone through a process that our branding consultant called “the most participatory we’ve ever seen,” we wouldn’t be as confident that we effectively distilled who we are, and that lack of confidence would likely be reflected in our engaging Reconstructionists around the new identity in a more tentative way. It took a little longer, but this is a moment where process helped us reach our destination.
Organizations must weigh for themselves the costs and benefits of adopting a new name, as well as how to do it if they choose to make a change. As the Torah teaches, a name-change is a momentous occurrence. If you’re constantly having to explain who you are and what you do, if you think there’s a chance your mission could be conveyed more clearly and succinctly, perhaps it is time to give the matter some thought. What’s in a name? It could be just a placeholder, but it could mean everything.
Josh Peskin, Ph.D., is vice president for strategic advancement at Reconstructing Judaism.
Bryan Schwartzman is assistant director for media and development communications and co-hosts the podcast #TrendingJewish.