Our Yavneh Challenge: The Intersection of Philanthropy, Crisis and Imagination

By Josh Peskin

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

While Juliet’s words are true in many ways, names, nonetheless, evoke powerful memories, associations, allusions, and calls to action. Anyone who has ever organized a social, political or philanthropic campaign knows that choosing the right word rarely achieves an objective, but selecting the wrong one can end the campaign before it begins.

In the Jewish world, deciding upon a dynamic name for a development effort isn’t easy – many terms have been used time and time again. At the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, we faced the naming conundrum with respect to an initiative to cultivate donors to make first-time gifts of $1,000 or more.

After much discussion, we settled on a framework that mobilizes our movement’s essential mission, a title we believe will inspire potential donors to invest in Reconstructionist Judaism. With it, we are looking toward a past moment in our history when crisis led to renewal. We’re not the first to invoke this name, but it’s our hope that we will conjure a powerful mixture of tradition, imagination, and possibility that ultimately prompt North American Jews to rebuild and renew. We call it Our Yavneh Challenge.

In the first century of the Common Era, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire. Under the most difficult circumstances, a religious system that previously focused on the Temple sacrifice of grain, oil and animals was reborn. The Talmud tells the dramatic tale of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai being smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin, then slipping away to Yavneh to build a school and reconstruct Judaism for a new era. At Yavneh, the story goes, our sages laid the groundwork for what we now refer to as rabbinic Judaism, with its focus on Torah, prayer, mitzvot, and layers of commentary and text study.

This story is part of our legacy. We like to say that the tale of Yavneh is a blueprint for our people and that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai may very well have been our first Reconstructionist.

As an institution, under the leadership of Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., we continue to explore what it means to focus on “generative” ideas for Judaism, on harnessing new energy to inspire our generation and future generations. We are well aware of the need to continually reconstruct our tradition.

Today, we have our own Yavneh challenge – to Reimagine, Recommit, and Reconstruct Judaism in such a way as to make us better human beings and the world a better place. We have our work cut out for us.

In North America, our people are largely secure and free from persecution. There’s no Roman Empire to grapple with. Yet we must admit that the accepted Jewish model for all of our denominations – the very DNA that has led our synagogues and organizations to be successful – appears to be fraying. Many of the assumptions, obligations and attachments held by a previous generation appear to have little influence over millennials. That doesn’t mean our culture and traditions are facing the same magnitude of existential crisis, but it does mean that Judaism in the twenty-first century, if it is to thrive, must look and feel very different from the way it did in the twentieth. Just as Rabbinic Judaism created new uses for the synagogue once the Jerusalem Temple no longer stood, the Reconstructionist movement is now playing a role – a leading role – in reimagining and reframing a Judaism that resonates with new spiritual and demographic realities.

We believe that the Yavneh framework is far larger than our fundraising initiative. Yavneh, in fact, should be the rallying cry for contemporary Jewish philanthropy today. These early decades of our century will doubtless be studied by historians. They will ask whether we, the progressive elements of the Jewish people, fully embraced our own Yavneh moment. Did we act when we were shown evidence that the status quo was no longer tenable? Were we courageous and creative when confronted with the need to reimagine?

In the Talmud’s story, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai stared into the breach and called forth a radical new vision. He mobilized leaders and inspired people to believe in this vision, to reimagine Judaism and recommit their resources in support of this new direction.

What’s in a name? Whether you’re a Reconstructionist, part of different movement, or “just Jewish,” you’re in a Yavneh moment. The crisis may not look the same as the destruction of the Temple. But in order for the next generation to inherit a vibrant and exciting Judaism, we need to act today by staring into the breach and responding with courage and creativity.

Josh Peskin, Ph.D., is Vice President for Strategic Advancement at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.