Northampton synagogue examining reparations from Jewish faith perspective

  • Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 7/1/2021 7:56:17 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Following a long and dedicated history of anti-racism work, Congregation B’nai Israel (CBI) of Northampton has spent the past 10 months focused closely on studying the social ethics of reparations for Black and Indigenous communities, and how they relate specifically to the Jewish faith.

The synagogue’s board of directors voted unanimously on June 13 to adopt a resolution in support of the community taking tangible steps to examine the importance of reparations, insights Jewish texts might offer about the subject, and the best ways in which the congregation should take action. The Tikkun Olam Reparations Working Group, a fusion of people from CBI’s Abundance Farm, Tikkun Olam committee, and members of the congregation, has been at the forefront of this effort.

Rabbi Justin David said he hopes the group’s reparation efforts are guided by the voices of the Black community and Indigenous peoples, and that members intend “to listen more closely, to follow their lead and advocate for the justice that they seek, that we seek along with them, and that benefits all of us.”

David believes that Judaism has a rich connection to this work, and over the course of six weeks this past spring, he and the B’nai Israel community looked over a series of sources — including Talmudic discussions on ways to deal with theft and fraud, and stories about compensations for the generation that was persecuted under Egyption rule — that compelled them to consider what reparations mean from a Jewish perspective.

On a basic level, David said reparations are about justice.

“The pursuit of justice,” he said, “is an imperative at the heart of our tradition.” And while justice plays a large role in the community’s dedication to studying reparations, David also noted a more personal connection to the issue.

“We’re also a tradition that’s built on the narrative of being the outsider, or the stranger, the economically oppressed, ” he said. If one is a part of the Jewish people, regardless of their own family’s history, this narrative “compels us to be allies with people who are seeking dignity as a form of justice.”

It is in tandem with the Jewish faith to not only welcome the stranger, but to transform society completely so that its most vulnerable members receive the justice they deserve, he said.

For David, justice exists as a combination of two Jewish concepts, tzedakah and tikkun olam. Tzedakah, a word which signifies the act of charity in Judaism, is direct service centered on momentary relief for those who are without means. Tikkun Olam is the Jewish idea that there are vulnerabilities innate to our world, and it is the role of human beings to reduce the harm that those vulnerabilities bring people.

“Tzedek, or justice, combines these things and forces us to look at the systemic problems that underlie individual circumstances,” David said. “Part of the true sense of justice is that while all people are equal, under the law, in order for the law to be equal, people who are oppressed and who are poor have to be given preferential consideration. It’s people who historically have been oppressed, whose voices have been silenced, and hindered invisible who deserve preferential treatment, special consideration and being heard.”

The synagogue’s intent to study reparations and take action aligns with other movements that are taking place both locally and throughout the country dedicated to the same cause. In Amherst, a reparations fund was established last month for its Black community. The recent reparation efforts of Evanston, Illinois have served as a guide for Amherst during this time.

David said that for the B’nai Israel congregation, these reparation efforts mean action. And while the community is not yet sure how to best aid in the work of reparations, there are many forms they can see them taking. Sponsoring bills, or supporting campaigns for financial reparations, and acknowledging and educating the public about the Indigenous land that the synagogue was built over are some ways the community can see themselves taking steps in the right direction.

“We really look forward to working with community partners in this,” said David, adding that the congregation welcomes anyone who wants to join its justice-oriented efforts.

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