Amanda Beckenstein Mbuvi’s first day teaching a crash course in Biblical Hebrew to Sudanese seminary students went very well. The second, quite well. But by the third day, it was clear that his students were falling behind.
“Nobody was studying,” Mbuvi said. “Because when it was dark they didn’t have electricity. “
This 2005 trip helped shape Mbuvi’s views on the scope of what effective education should encompass. Now, she will bring this approach to help shape the next generation of Jewish spiritual leaders, as the next vice president of academic affairs at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside of Philadelphia.
Mbuvi’s appointment, which the college began sharing with members of the seminary community on Wednesday, marks the first time that a Jew of color will lead a major rabbinical school. But that’s not why officials chose her, according to Rabbi Sandra Lawson, the movement’s first-ever director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion.
Among a large and diverse pool of candidates, Lawson said on Wednesday, Mbuvi stood out as the person who could best oversee the movement’s responsibility for training its next generation of rabbis, and particularly impressed the students she would lead.
“The fact that the best candidate is also a Jew of color shows that this is the direction the Jewish community is taking,” Lawson said. “There are going to be some incredibly talented people in the Jewish community who are not white. “
JUNE 2021 Thursday at 2 p.m. EDT: Rabbi Sandra Lawson of Reconstructing Judaism and Tema Smith, a columnist for Forward, join our editor, Jodi Rudoren, for a conversation about Judaism and racial justice. How far have we come – and how much we still have to do. register here.
Mbuvi, 44, is a Hebrew Bible scholar and currently professor of religion at High Point University in North Carolina, where she helped create the school’s first minor in Jewish studies. She is also the author of “Belonging in Genesis,” a book on storytelling and identity formation in the Bible.
“I don’t think she was on everyone’s radar,” Lawson said, but Reconstructing Judaism found her by casting a wide net.
As vice president of academic affairs for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) outside of Philadelphia, Mbuvi will take charge of its programs and lead its faculty. She will work alongside Rabbi Deborah Waxman, who leads the movement and is ultimately responsible for both uniting the congregation and the seminary.
Mbuvi, in an interview with The Forward, said she would bring an open mindset to the work she has honed in academia and beyond. His story on this 2005 trip to southern Sudan is decisive for understanding his philosophy,
Besides electricity issues, Mbuvi soon realized that his other expectation – that students live and breathe Hebrew during the three-week program – was not a given for those unfamiliar with such programs. immersive. The trip, she said, helped her think more critically about how to approach education.
“The culture of education itself is something that exists and therefore can be reimagined in the most effective way,” she explained.
Although not a rabbi herself, Mbuvi said she was eager to train future Reconstructionist clergy to embrace diversity within the Jewish community. She plans to ensure that students are exposed to a wide range of voices in the classroom and to create an environment where they feel comfortable discussing the different ways of being Jewish in the United States.
“American culture makes it very difficult to deal with these differences because people are afraid that if they say the wrong thing it will become really offensive,” Mbuvi said. “So I see my role as creating a comfortable environment for that, modeling that and leading that. “
During his graduate studies at Duke University, Mbuvi joined Beth El Synagogue in Durham, a conservative congregation led by a Reconstructionist rabbi at the time. As she began to seek to adopt new Jewish observances in adulthood, Mbuvi said she found herself returning again and again to reconstructionist sources.
Her biography at High Point University says that Mbuvi was born into an interracial family and “grew up Jewish in the black church.” In the interview, Mbuvi was reluctant to give details of his religious education, noting that there is a problematic tendency within Jewish communities to question the origin of Jews who are not white.
“It becomes one of the first things people ask me because visually I don’t meet their expectations,” she said.
In addition to his academic work, Mbuvi managed an adult literacy program in North Carolina and was active in the Jewish community of Greensboro. She has served on the boards of directors of Beth David Synagogue and B’nai Shalom Day School, and was a member of the local federation and community relations council.
While Mbuvi emphasized that her role as a black Jewish leader was only part of her experience, she described various ways in which many white Jews continue to neglect Jews of color. As an example, Mbuvi said he received a poll from a national Jewish organization that had a way of indicating his household was “interracial,” but not that he was all black.
“It didn’t even occur to them that there could be a Jewish household without white members,” Mbuvi said. “People haven’t even gotten that far yet. “
Mbuvi’s husband, Andrew Mbuvi, teaches religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Correction: A previous version of this article listed Andrew Mbuvi’s past role as a professor at Shaw University. He is currently working as a lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
First, a Jew of color to lead a major American rabbinical school