Northampton rabbi wins human rights award

  • Northampton Rabbi Justin David being arrested in February 2017 after a protest in front of Trump International Hotel. Submitted photo

  • Springfield Police officers prepare to arrest 18 activists seated outside the Federal Building on Main Street in Springfield at the offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Monday, October 16, 2017. The non-violent action followed a larger protest by about 140 people calling upon ICE to grant Lucio Perez of Springfield a stay of deportation and to request that his case be reopened.

  • T'ruah board member Ayalet Cohen, left, presents the Rabbinic Human Rights Hero Award to Rabbi Justin David, of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, in New York City, Tuesday. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 5/8/2018 8:29:56 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The city has a new “human rights hero.”

Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel has been awarded the seventh annual Rabbinic Human Rights Hero Award from the organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

“I feel like I’m joining two homes,” said David, who was in New York City on Tuesday evening to receive the award at T’ruah’s gala. The first home is Northampton, whose community members — including the mayor — nominated David. The second home is T’ruah, a network of almost 2,000 rabbis and cantors from different streams of Judaism dedicated to expanding and protecting human rights. “I’m tremendously honored.”

David’s work is wide-reaching. He has worked to build bridges with the local Muslim and LGBTQ community, and has taken steps to make his synagogue a sanctuary congregation. T’ruah has also praised David for his work on B’nai Israel’s Abundance Farm.

“Obviously he has been, in the time I’ve been a mayor, one of our inspiring community leaders,” Mayor David Narkewicz said Tuesday. “He has really taken courageous stands on any number of issues, and has really led his congregation in that same direction in terms of living their faith, and social justice.”

With that spirit for social justice, David often engages in direct action on pressing political issues, both in the Pioneer Valley and beyond.

In October, David was one of 18 demonstrators arrested after blocking the doors of the local Department of Homeland Security office in Springfield, calling for local immigrant Lucio Perez to be granted a stay of deportation. He was arrested in February 2017 outside the Trump International Hotel in New York City, where he was protesting President Donald Trump’s effort to ban travelers from six predominantly Muslim nations.

But David said social justice work is much more pedestrian than may be suggested by the big, dramatic moments the press covers. It’s about going to meetings, responding to emails and “a lot of showing up” when it comes to quotidian organizing.

“It’s really everything beforehand that goes into those moments,” David said. “This award is really more of a reminder, setting a fire under my feet to keep doing this work.”

Much of that work involves members at Congregation B’nai Israel, many of whom traveled to New York City on Tuesday to see David accept his award.

One was Pamela Schwartz, who was with two fellow members in a car traveling to the New Haven, Connecticut, train station when the Gazette reached her via telephone.

“I am going along with a group of about 12 others representing the entire congregation of B’nai Israel who are just so proud of our rabbi’s leadership, both within the congregation and in the community,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz co-chairs the congregation’s social justice committee — the Tikkun Olam committee, which she said means “heal the world” in Hebrew. The committee works together with David on issues ranging from climate justice to immigration.

“He is both our leader and our partner,” Schwartz said. “I think the thing that is so meaningful for all of us is to do this social justice work with the foundation of Judaism behind us and defining our efforts in the wider world.”

That’s a sentiment T’ruah evidently shares.

“The Torah commands us, ‘V’ahavtem et ha-ger, kid gerim hayeetem b’Eretz Mitzrayim. You shall love the outside, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,’” reads a statement from T’ruah announcing David’s win. “Rabbi David has spent his career seeking out this front line, drawing attention to violence and oppression against those most vulnerable, and working for a world in which all people are treated with dignity.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


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