What’s in a Name?

by Robert Sherman

A few months ago, our newly merged agency (Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York and SAJES), took on a new name to match its newly rebranded identity: The Jewish Education Project. Believe me there was plenty of not so dispassionate debate before the board agreed to accept the new moniker. There were those who loved it, those who hated it, and a good number of people who had an opinion based upon parsing the meaning of the words. We heard, “Wow, that’ different!” “Too small sounding.” “We’re not a “project”!” “I like it, it has energy and focus.” “Where’s New York?” “Aren’t projects temporary?” “Cool.” “It sounds current and forward thinking.” And many, many more reactions. What’s in a name anyway, right? Some are very evocative and fun to say: The Joshua Venture, Jdub, Livestrong, etc.. Some are highly descriptive: The Foundation for Jewish Camp, The American Cancer Society. Many have been turned into alphabet soup, into acronyms with no inherent meaning, like UNICEF or WWF (a name so generic that for many years it was used by both the World Wildlife Fund and the World Wrestling Federation, two organizations with vastly different priorities). The name of an organization often provides the first glimpse into an agency’s mission or message. When choosing a new name, we sought to ensure that we were capitalizing on that opportunity to express our sense of purpose. We wanted and want to avoid being reduced to generic and meaningless initials.

We changed our name three years after setting out to reshape our agency by developing a more focused strategy, hiring new leadership, and merging two agencies. The name came as the capstone to the Herculean effort to rebrand a 100 year old agency, the first central agency for Jewish education in North America.

In its origin, the Bureau of Jewish Education (as it was then called) in New York was created to meet the demand for a new system of Jewish education compatible with the reality of American Jewish life in New York City in the early 20th century. Over the subsequent century the BJE, as did its counterparts across the country, became more and more serviced-based, focusing on “professional development” and “curriculum resources” and “consulting” to support existing educational delivery systems, especially in synagogues, day schools and early childhood settings. That was the need at the time, and therefore the agency went out to meet it. But, let’s face it, over time, the name “Board of Jewish Education,” whatever it was intended to mean, came to be associated with maintaining the status quo, bureaucracy, and providing a helping hand to those who needed or wanted it. As the world we live in has changed, the needs of the community have changed as well. To meet the new and diverse needs of American Jewish life in the early 21st century, the focus of our work shifted from those areas, and into sparking and spreading new models in Jewish education. We needed a new name that would capture our new focus.

We chose “The Jewish Education Project” because we believe in the ongoing project of relevant and inspiring Jewish education. We believe that Jewish learning leading to meaningful and purposeful Jewish living, rooted in acts of compassion, a demand for justice and other Jewish values, is a core project of the Jewish people. We believe that projects have sharp focus, goals and results, and we are bringing this attitude into our approach to our work. Communities, especially one as diverse and immense as ours, deserve educating systems driven by visions of excellence and the ability to embrace the changing realities of Jewish life today. This is what leads to the promise a vital Jewish future. Present and future depend upon Jewish education that is “oxygen” to those who breathe it. It is a project that has fueled great Jewish communities across history. We may not complete it, but that’s no excuse for not acting upon it, when we wake up and when we lie down, in board rooms and classrooms, on the internet and in the home. That, we believe, is what’s in our name.

Robert Sherman is Chief Executive Officer, The Jewish Education Project.