Names are extremely important in all spiritual traditions, especially in Judaism.
The Torah teaches that when Avram made his covenant with God, his name was changed to Avraham to reflect his heightened spiritual awareness. When someone is extremely sick, there is a custom of giving them a new name to heal them. We believe that if you are named after someone, you carry a bit of that person’s soul. The concept of names is so important that the second book of the Hebrew Bible is titled Shemot, or “names.” Names carry identity, and the changing of a name is a conscious change of purpose, mission and identity.
Given this, we need to ask the question of why two of the largest nonprofit Jewish organizations in Los Angeles have recently chosen to change their names and remove any reference to Judaism.
The Los Angeles Jewish Home, known for over a century as just “the Jewish Home” was founded in 1912 to give shelter to five Jewish men. With an annual budget of more than $50 million, this nonprofit is home to 1,500 Jewish seniors and serves another 2,500 through health and community services. As should be expected, the vast majority of donors to this non-profit organization are Jews and Jewish organizations who want to help elders of their own faith in the last years of their lives.
But on July 1, a time when most people are away on vacation and Jewish clergy members are busy preparing for the High Holidays in September, the Jewish Home made a quiet but hugely significant change in their entire persona. They removed the word “Jewish” from their name. They are now known as LAJHealth.
Their fundraisers will undoubtedly tell donors that LAJHealth is still a Jewish organization that serves Jewish elders. But then, why make such a radical change?
One clue is a message from their CEO, Ilana Springer, who said in her July 1 letter to residents’ family members that the change is “really just an evolution of our brand.” She is correct that it is an evolution—an evolution away from an organization proud of its commitment to Judaism towards a more secularized institution.
It’s not just that the leaders of Jewish Home are turning their backs on a tradition of taking pride in their commitment to the Jewish community. It is that they are not alone. The subtle secularization of Jewish organizations has become widely popular over the last few years, as Jews on the boards of non-profit organizations seek to “reach out,” be “inclusive” and “diversify” rather than focus on the Jewish community.
In 1931, Jewish Vocational Services was founded to help Jews develop marketable skills and find employment. Many of the participants in their programs were new Jewish immigrants who had escaped persecution: Holocaust survivors, Russian refuseniks and Persian refugees. Jewish Vocational Services helped countless Jewish families settle in this country through their amazing work.
But in 2018, they changed their name from Jewish Vocational Services to JVS SoCal. They were very clear about their reasons for doing so. In the official announcement of the change, they said they wanted “a fresh identity and new name that more accurately defines our mission to build better lives, one job at a time.” They also redefined the abbreviation “JVS”; which, they said, now stood for “Jobs+Vision=Success.”
CEO Alan Levey was clear in a press release that “with this new identity, we will continue to leverage our legacy of positive community impact while expanding our services throughout Southern California as regional leaders in workforce development.” An admirable goal, but what about the Jewish community? Are Jewish donors, who thought they were helping Jewish families, now aware that their donations are helping non-Jewish groups and individuals, including some who may even be anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel?
Can any of us imagine other groups changing the names of their institutions and removing their cultural affiliation? Would the NAACP become the National Association of People? Does anyone foresee BLM changing its name to All Lives Matter? Is LULAC, the largest and oldest Hispanic and Latino civil-rights organization in the country, going to become the League of United American Citizens? And can anyone imagine that CAIR will suddenly abandon its connection to Islam and change its name to the Council on American Relations?
Of course not. None of these organizations would ever remove their identity from their names. It seems that only 21st-century American Jews are willing to sabotage their identities, their purpose and themselves in their quest for inclusiveness.
By changing their names and removing their Jewish identity, they are taking the first steps towards becoming entirely secular, as well as sowing the seeds of their own destruction. As Michael Klein has eloquently said, it might seem like a good idea to replace the Hebrew name of a synagogue, remove the word “temple” or entirely excise Hebrew from the liturgy, since the synagogue could thus become more diverse and attract more people. Except, as he put it, the synagogue might eventually become a church.
In this time of growing anti-religious sentiment nationwide, it is more important than ever to stay true to our core values. We all need to be proud of our faiths and cultures, and create real diversity by embracing who we are, not by letting go of our true purposes and names. In so doing, we create a tapestry of beauty composed of the many rich traditions found in this nation.
The beauty of a rainbow is found in the distinct colors that coexist next to each other. If that distinction is eliminated, then there are no beautiful colors, only a mass of grey-brown. For our own survival and for the beauty of the world, we need to retain and enhance our Jewish identities on all fronts.
May the leaders of these organizations and others like them embrace the beauty and distinction of their heritage rather than succumb to the currently popular movement towards the homogeneity of “inclusiveness.”
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village, Calif., and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together.” He can be reached directly at: Rabbi@NerSimcha.org.