Rabbi Justin David and Rabbi Riqi Kosovske: Seeking triumph over hatred and injustice

  • JFK Middle School Principal Desmond Caldwell addresses a crowd that gathered to denounce racism on Wednesday, Feb. 24. Gazette file photo

Published: 3/2/2021 3:30:53 PM

As rabbis who represent the two synagogues in Northampton and Florence, we unequivocally support JFK Middle School Principal Desmond Caldwell and his strong and wise responses both to the appearance of the Confederate flag at school and the appearance of a Facebook page bearing that symbol.

We agree wholeheartedly that the flag is seen and deployed as a symbol of racist hatred and has no place in schools, or anywhere in our community. And while we write these words as the leaders of our respective synagogues, we know that we echo the convictions of other houses of worship, community organizations and concerned individuals throughout the Pioneer Valley.

We laud and support Principal Caldwell’s emphasis on creating a safe educational environment through conversation, sharing of information, and the invitation to deepen understanding of one another. This dialogical and restorative approach is an ideal model for children and families in the process of learning, and can only contribute to the ongoing strength of JFK and the surrounding Northampton community.

We also offer Principal Caldwell the full and concrete support of our communities in the ongoing effort to undo the systemic racism that is endemic to our society. While our communities have historically aligned ourselves with movements for social justice, we have been particularly alarmed in recent years by the rise of racist violence in connection with a resurgence in anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

In addition to growing in our vigilance, our communities have also devoted considerable attention to examining the ways in which racism shapes us individually and collectively, and then identifying what steps we may take toward change — both internal and external — so that we can bring a measure of healing to our society. In this vein, we are ready to show up in the name of standing against racism, whether that means writing letters, serving on committees, stuffing envelopes, attending meetings, or any of the myriad tasks needed to bring about social change.

Our commitment is driven by many things: our biblical and rabbinic traditions of pursuing justice; the arc of recent Jewish history that has mostly placed Jews in the position of being outsiders and undesirables; and the embrace by Jewish communities of successive social justice movements over the past 60 years.

But in recent years, we have been witness to a rise in a new articulation of white nationalism in which the racism that hides behind various flags, slogans, codes and images also targets us as Jews. In ways that are more direct and explicit than they have been in decades, an expression of hate against one group is an expression of hate against all of us.

We write these words on the eve of Purim, a holiday that celebrates the triumph over hatred and injustice. It also shows us how the path to justice is neither simple or direct — knowing when and how to act requires discernment, courage and a belief in one’s power to bring about change.

Principal Caldwell has shown brave, strong and wise leadership in this moment. We fully support his stance denouncing the display of Confederate flags at JFK, along with his deep understanding of what an educational environment requires. We applaud his efforts to foster a critical view of history as well as a compassionate and respectful view of one’s neighbor in the service of a more just and whole world for the next generation. We are fortunate to have him as a leader and teacher in our community.

For Principal Caldwell and for any community or leader, teacher, student or family facing a similar crisis, we are here to say that we’re in this with you. Together we will fight racism and the forces of prejudice, so that all of us together will be secure, celebrated, welcomed and able to feel safe and joyous anywhere in our community.

Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel, Northampton, and Rabbi Riqi Kosovske of Beit Ahavah, Florence.

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