‘What is my role in all this?’ Northampton’s Justin David visits national memorial to lynching victims with rabbinical group

  • Members of a trip organized for rabbis and other Jewish communal leaders to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Northampton's Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B'nai Israel was on the trip in October of 2018. Pictured here are Louis Newman of Los Altos Hills, California, Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield, front, of Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in New York City, and Jeanie Ungerleider from the Dorot Foundation. —SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Rabbi Justin David speaks during a vigil for the 11 people who were killed Saturday at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, at Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018.

Staff Writer
Published: 11/23/2018 1:42:05 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened earlier this year in Montgomery, Alabama, it quickly became informally known as the national lynching memorial. 

The museum features 800 rust-colored steel columns hanging from the roof; they represent the U.S. counties where black residents were lynched, with those names etched into each column. The counties are invited to take replicas of the columns to be displayed in their communities.

For Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, looking at those columns — and at the broader history of racial violence detailed at the museum — left him with a deep question: “Well, what is my role in all of this?”

David was part of a contingent of 18 rabbis and others who traveled to the memorial late last month with the national organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. The goal of the trip was for the group to learn about racial justice issues, past and present, in order to carry that perspective back to their own communities.

“I signed up for the trip immediately because I saw it as an opportunity to be a part of a delegation of rabbis and cantors who were making a visible statement about civil rights in our country,” David said.

In a statement about the trip, T’ruah’s director of communications, Julie Wiener, said that the Jewish community, largely white, has benefited from a society that was built “on the backs of black labor.”

“The Jewish community needs to do more to recognize its roughly one-in-five members who are people of color and the painful ways in which white supremacy and racial violence affect them,” Wiener wrote.

David said that some, like him, whose ancestors came to the United States after slavery was abolished, may be inclined to think that they don’t have a role in the historical oppression of African-Americans. But that’s not so, he said.

“There’s a way in which … the legacy of slavery transformed to really embed itself in the structures of American society, which I have benefited from,” David said.

The trip sparked conversations among the trip’s rabbis about anti-racism work in their own communities, he added. He wants to bring the kind of work done by the Equal Justice Initiative — the nonprofit behind the memorial, as well as legal services to the poor in prison — back to Northampton.

“The realities of mass incarceration are so dehumanizing and so damaging to the next generation of the African-American community, but also the broader society in general,” David said.

The community here in Northampton is a place for that kind of work to flourish, David added.

“The outpouring of communal support for the Jewish community in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre, I think, was remarkable in how unconditionally, lovingly robust it was,” David said. “I also think it speaks really well of the help of our community and our ability to work together for change.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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