Yavneh, Pioneer Group On Campus, Remembered

by Joseph Kaplan

Yavneh, a 1960s and `70s organization of Orthodox college students, is, in the words of The Greening of American Orthodox Judaism: Yavneh in the 1960s by Benny Kraut, “hardly remembered today, except perhaps by former members.”

The “perhaps” is misplaced, as can be testified to by those former member’s children, like mine, whose eyes glaze over when their parents reminisce fondly about their “days in Yavneh.” Dr. Kraut’s thoughtful and insightful book not only explains the existence of such warm memories but also highlights certain lessons this student-led organization can teach today’s Modern Orthodox community.

Kraut, a well-respected Jewish historian who had been director of the Queens College Jewish Studies Program and its Center for Jewish Studies, was an active member of Yavneh during his college years. Sadly, he died suddenly, at 60, in 2008, shortly after completing the book, which was published earlier this year. (Disclosure: He and I were college classmates and friends.) But his book is no simple memoir, dredging up hazy recollections of salad days. Rather, it is a serious scholarly study, based on an analysis of 10 boxes of primary sources and recent personal interviews with Yavneh’s leadership. And although chock-full of footnotes, the book is written in a warmly engaging and at times personal style.

There is much to be learned here, even for those who were active members of Yavneh. I know now that long before the ubiquitous gap-year programs in Israel, so popular in the Orthodox community, Yavneh initiated an innovative Israel yeshiva program for American collegiates. And before the creation of March of the Living, Yavneh organized the first Holocaust Tour for students.

In addition, although I knew that rabbinic leaders from right-wing yeshivot gave lectures and shiurim [lectures] to coed audiences at Yavneh conventions (without separate seating), I was unaware that in 1968 five Yavneh leaders from Yeshiva University, Columbia, Princeton and Brooklyn College met with Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Schneur Kotler, Yaakov Ruderman and Yaakov Weinbeger, leading luminaries of the yeshiva world, to discuss improving the relationship between that world and Jewish college students.

Times have changed. The prospect of yeshiva-world rabbis engaging that far afield, and to mixed audiences, is unthinkable today.

The book goes into great detail about the activities of Yavneh’s leadership and the speakers at its conventions and classes. But the players are a who’s who of Modern Orthodoxy; to name just a few, Rabbis Berkovits, Hartman, Blau, Greenberg, Riskin, Rackman, Pelcovitz, Lamm, and Professors Berger, Blidstein, Brody, Penkower, Shatz, Kaplan, Steiner (quiz: see how many first names you can fill in).

Yavneh bridged a period of time from the refusal of some Hillel rabbis to aid Orthodox students in their quest for kosher food on campus to the availability of kosher meal plans; from tests on Shabbat and graduations on Shavuot to daily campus services and shiurim. In the end, a combination of factors led to its demise, some positive – more accommodation for Orthodox students on campus – and some negative, like the constant struggle for finances and the fact that the student-led organization had to constantly renew its leadership.

Yavneh was in existence only twenty years, but as Kraut concluded, it “is to be judged not only a success, but one of the more remarkable and culturally illuminating student organizations in American Jewish history.”

We owe a debt of gratitude to the author for shedding that light.

Now, when my children’s eyes begin to glaze over, my wife and I have an important work of scholarship to support our memories.

For the original article from The Jewish Week, please click here.

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