Get to Know… Rabbi Dr. Dovid Bashevkin
BY RABBI DR. BENJI LEVY
I first met Rav Dovid when he was a shaliach from Ner Yisrael Yeshiva in Baltimore in Australia and I was running Bnei Akiva there. He offered to teach in our growing beit midrash, sparking a life-long friendship. Now the Director of Education for NCSY and Clinical Assistant Professor of Jewish Values at the Sy Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University, Rav Dovid is also the founder of 18forty, an innovative media company taking the Modern Orthodox world – and beyond – by storm.
It’s great to catch up with you! These days, you work in so many roles, in different spaces. But what is the essence of Rav Dovid Bashevkin?
Sheesh, Rav Benji. What an opener. My essence? That sounds quite lofty. I do like the question, but it’s hard to answer sincerely (especially since this will be in print). It’s easier to talk about narishkeit than my essence. In this moment that I’m answering the question – and this may change – I feel my essence derives from my Biblical namesake: “And I am prayer,” said King David (Tehillim 109). I don’t think this is because I am so devout. Far from it. I miss minyan, I space out. But I think my life itself is a prayer of sorts. In explaining this verse, Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa says that there are two types of prayer: sometimes someone comes to your house asking for money with brochures and testimonials explaining what they are collecting for. But sometimes someone comes to your door and their expression, their face and their brokenness obviates any need for explanation. Their life itself is a prayer. I hope the totality of my work serves as a prayer for healing and reconciliation for myself, my family, and the Jewish people.
Your latest extended prayer is 18forty, which resonates with so many. What is it?
18forty is a multimedia site that tries to build bridges and open doors. It builds bridges between different forms of media, written, spoken, and video, within different audiences, and between scholarship and more popular ideas. It is called 18forty after the calendar year 1840, a year when tradition and modernity began to collide. It also happens to be the year that Izschbitz Chassidut began a movement that has had a major influence on my life. 18forty is trying to open doors for people to engage with Jewish life with more depth and substance, confronting issues plainly, honestly, with depth and, hopefully, some measure of sophistication.
Your work in NCSY seems focused on outreach to those less affiliated, while your work at YU and in 18forty seems focused on strengthening those who are more affiliated. What are each of these groups looking for?
I don’t look at these different initiatives as different markets. I don’t think of markets or religious levels. I think of language. Different people respond to different forms of language, analogies, and examples. But the underlying struggle of finding religious meaning and nourishment is the same. It’s what we are all looking for.
How does the American Jewish experience differ from life in Israel today?
It’s hard talking in such broad strokes. The materialism of America definitely has a disproportionate gravitational pull on our religious lives. It is quite scary, and it’s reshaping religious life.
In Israel, the stakes are real, while in America, it often feels like we are just trying to preserve the communities we have – replacing our lives with the lives we provide our children. In Israel, everyone is building something new together.
Much of your formative religious development happened in Israel. What role does it play today in your Jewish life?
I have begun taking Israel much more seriously. Growing up, it was about the Israel Day parade, blue and white cookies, and political activism. These are all very important but in a way diminish the enormity of what Israel represents. The writings of Gershom Scholem have made me rethink Israel and the enormity of what it means to have a Jewish state. On a very personal level, I often reflect on the idea of experiencing a taste of exile within redemption and redemption within exile, which I think is the present situation of the Jewish people.
What role should Religious Zionism play in all this? What needs to change as society develops in new directions?
The next generation needs new language to highlight the chiddush (novelty) of Israel. Many of us take it for granted. So much of our conversation revolves around political advocacy or marveling at Israel’s technological achievements. These are wonderful, but as Israel develops in the mind of the world, we must remind ourselves of the gravity and enormous responsibility of having a Jewish state for the Jewish people. We must confront the challenges of preserving Jewish life and observance for the broader Israeli public, many of whom are not religiously committed. We need to take the gift of Israel more seriously. In a way, the extremes – rabid Zionists and anti-Zionists – have it right, because they’re taking this seriously. It is everyone in the middle that needs a wakeup call to take a second look and really figure out how to bring Jews together experientially in Israel.
You always end your interviews with rapid fire questions, so I want to pose a few for you. What books would you recommend to HaMizrachi readers?
David Biale’s Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter History is powerful and revolutionary. Also, every Jew needs to read Yehudah Mirsky’s biography of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution.
If you were able to take a fully-paid sabbatical to write another PhD, what subject would you choose?
I would love to study religious crises from a psychological framework. I wrote a book about the theological framework and my PhD discusses the organizational framework. I would love to explore this phenomenon more deeply from a psychological perspective.
What time do you go to sleep and wake up?
I go to sleep around 1:30–2:00 am and wake up between 7:00 and 8:00 am. I go to sleep and wake up too late and hope that habit changes sometime soon.
What do you think Jewish life in general and Religious Zionism specifically will look like 100 years from now?
I hope people find a way to feel the redemptive nature of religious life. I am worried that a lot of our current models and conceptions may have to crumble to make way for that. But I am certain that the revolution has begun, and it begins in Israel.
What is the defining feature of Jewish life today?
Jews seek meaning. Even when it isn’t obvious. Specifically when it is not obvious. We insist on finding, discovering, constructing meaning. It is at the center of Torah. Being a doresh (a seeker) of meaning.
What do you wish Jewish youth today would understand better?
That Judaism is much richer, more resilient, and more real than whatever current sociological conception and form Judaism takes in any particular generation.
What do you wish Jewish leaders today would understand better?
We need to promote new voices even at the expense of our own.
Looking at your life, it seems you have had success after success. Have you ever experienced failure or challenges you couldn’t overcome? What gave you the resilience to persevere?
Ha! I seriously can’t tell if this is a joke. My life is littered with failures. It is literally the topic of my book, Sin∙a∙gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. My greatest challenges have nothing to do with my career. They are me: my jealousies, imperfections, frustrations and impatience. I can’t discuss this in some short, pithy and meaningful way because it is literally the struggle of life itself. What do I do to persevere? There is no other option. Once you start seeing struggles as a function of life itself, they become easier and less surprising. Maybe more than anything else I have learned to be compassionate to myself. “In [my own impatience and] anger, I have remembered mercy” (Chavakuk 3:2).
What would you like your legacy to be? How do you want to be remembered?
Rav Benji – what are you trying to do to me here?! My legacy? I am 37! I’m trying to get through the day and stay afloat. I don’t have time to think about my legacy. I hope people see me as a mensch, empathetic, and authentic. When I have more time, I’ll let you know about my legacy. It’ll probably involve a glamourous statue. Or a street named after me in Israel. Rechov Dovid Bashevkin. It has a nice ring. In the meantime, I’ll continue to try to pave pathways – in my lifetime – for myself and others to walk upon and find nourishment from G-d and the Jewish people.
Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy is a co-founder of the philanthropic advisory: Israel Impact Partners, Keshev mental health center, and an AI summarizing start-up called Tanna. He is the former CEO of Mosaic United, Dean of Moriah College and teaches globally in person and online @RabbiBenji: www.RabbiBenji.com