“Give me Yavneh and its sages,” Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai is said to have told the Roman general after he escaped from the besieged and doomed city of Jerusalem.
Yavneh was on the Mediterranean, a dozen miles south of Jaffa. Torah scholars gathered there in a vineyard that served as a refuge and gave the promise of renewal.
It’s no surprise, then, that just shy of 2,000 years later, in the equally dark days of 1942, the foresighted Jewish leaders who established a Jewish day school in Paterson named it the Yavneh Academy. The young generation of American-born Jews the school hoped to educate were destined to be – would have to be, for there was no other choice – a refuge for a Jewish world being snuffed out in Europe, and the source for a renewal of American Judaism.
The Yavneh Academy was not the first Jewish day school in New Jersey – that was the Yeshiva of Jersey City, established five years earlier – but give it credit for its evocative name. For its first few years school was held in Victorian houses, but before its bar mitzvah year it had moved into a building that looked to be the model of a post-war American school.
Not until 1964 did the Jews of Bergen County establish their own day school, the Moriah School, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, joined in 1973 by the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County.
But Jews don’t stay put. (Does anyone?) Two generations after Rabbi Yochanan, Rabbi Akiva taught not in Yavneh but in the Galilee. In 1981, Yavneh relocated less than 10 miles east in Paramus. Bergen County was the new Jewish center of northern New Jersey. Not long after the one-time Yeshiva of Jersey City, renamed to the Yeshiva of Hudson County, moved as well to Bergen County; it is now known as the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey.
Since then, more Jewish day schools have sprung up in the 9 miles separating Moriah in Englewood from Yavneh in Paramus, and, as we report this week, Yavneh has begun renovating and expanding its facilities.
Yavneh’s first kindergarteners must now be turning 77. They, and their successors, played a crucial role in the revival of American Judaism, and New Jersey Judaism, over the past two generations.
Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai would have been proud.