By Eleanor Linafelt
Amanda Beckenstein Mbuvi, who was recently appointed vice president of academic affairs for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, is the first Jew of color to lead a major rabbinical college.
And Mbuvi plans to bring her breadth of experience as a Hebrew Bible professor and nonprofit manager to build community, support students and foster diversity. She hopes to encourage students to embrace the wide range of Jewish experiences.
“One of the things I’m most excited to do is to continue to promote inclusivity,” she said. “We want to make sure that rabbis are ready to deal with the full diversity of the Jewish community.”
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the president and CEO of Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement — of which the RRC is a part — was drawn to Mbuvi’s vision.
“She’s incredibly committed to building lasting relationships with people on their own terms, across differences, in the service of building community,” Waxman said. “That’s going to serve us incredibly well.”
Most recently, Mbuvi was an assistant professor of religion at High Point University, where she helped establish their first minor in Jewish studies. Her academic work focuses on race, community and diversity.
“As a Bible professor, she cares deeply about the texts and the stories and the wisdom of the past, and she’s also intensely interested in how they can inform us in the community-building, relationship-building and justice work that we’re doing in the world,” Waxman said.
After training as an academic and before returning to teaching, Mbuvi managed a nonprofit literacy program.
“She was very interested in the practical implications of her academic training and she wanted to make a difference for people in the world,” Waxman said. “I’m interested both in the practical administrative skills that she gained in that work and also that translation from the theoretical into the living reality where the stakes are high for people.”
Waxman noted how Mbuvi’s values complement those of the RRC and Reconstructing Judaism.
“Our tagline is ‘Deeply rooted, boldly relevant,’ and that is how she moves through the world — with reverence and with keen awareness of relevance,” she said.
Mbuvi’s first formative experience of Jewish communal life was in a Conservative synagogue with a Reconstructionist rabbi.
“In that sense, certain elements of the Reconstructionist approach are baked into how I approach Judaism,” she said.
She said that she also developed similar “cultural affinities” with the Reconstructionist movement primarily through her teaching.
“I put a strong emphasis on co-creation,” she said. “I think about what happens in the classroom as a communal endeavor.”
As vice president of academic affairs, Mbuvi will oversee all aspects of the rabbinical program, which includes supervising faculty, advising students and implementing the RRC’s new curriculum. She also will collaborate with Reconstructing Judaism’s other programs.
Waxman is confident about Mbuvi’s ability to manage the RRC’s new curriculum, which centers rabbinic training in the field, emphasizes community building and offers more opportunities for remote work.
“[Mbuvi] will help us ensure that we remain interconnected and ensure that relationships are still at the center of the kind of community that we’re building, even if it looks different than it used to,” Waxman said.
Mbuvi is particularly excited about the way that the curriculum challenges students to think about tradition in a new way.
“Students aren’t just studying tradition and assuming its implications are more or less obvious, but rather studying the context in which we encounter those traditions,” she said.
“That enables students to be really effective in engaging people where they are and helping them to discover the relevance of tradition in their context.”
After a year filled with collective upheaval, Mbuvi also thinks that learning to adjust to the change in curriculum will be a positive learning experience for the RRC’s students.
“This process of adapting into a shifting curriculum is really helpful for thinking about how to live with change and learning how to lead with change,” she said. “That’s something the students will all face, wherever their paths take them.”