A mensch preps for new role: Rabbi Justin David to leave B’Nai Israel for Hebrew College

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 04-25-2023 8:57 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Ever since his childhood days growing up on Long Island, Rabbi Justin David always felt drawn toward his family’s faith as a door to community action.

“Before going to college, I just had a kind of personal makeup that made me seek out a sense of belonging,” David said. “I knew toward the end of undergrad that I wanted to become a rabbi, based on earlier experiences I had as a teenager.”

Now, at 54, he’s ready to move on to the next stage of his career, to educate a new generation of faith leaders.

David, who has held the position of senior rabbi of Congregation B’Nai Israel in Northampton for more than 20 years, is leaving his post to serve as a rabbinical dean at Hebrew College in the Boston suburb of Newton, though he intends to stay in the Northampton area.

During his time at B’Nai Israel, David has transformed the congregation beyond a vibrant faith community to an actor in vital causes in the local community and beyond.

“When I first got here, there were a lot of people who were involved in different social justice causes, but it was outside the synagogue,” David said. “They didn’t see the synagogue community as a nexus for their involvement, and that was a cultural shift that I really wanted to change.”

David is no stranger to the front lines of protest. In 2017, he was arrested in New York City as part of demonstrations against then-President Donald Trump’s policies barring refugees from several Muslim countries. Just last month, he found himself protesting while on sabbatical in Israel, joining thousands of other Israelis marching in opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial changes.

Local activities launched by the congregation under David’s tenure include Abundance Farm, an enterprise owned by the synagogue that advocates for food and environmental justice, and various youth programs that have centered on social justice and advocacy. According to Meredith Lewis, one of the co-presidents of the congregation’s board of directors, the synagogue has seen roughly 100 new members over the last ten years under David’s presiding. 

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“He has always shown that leadership while providing space for so many other people to find their voices,” said Lewis. “He does it with a quiet, strong attitude, which I think gives people a lot of strength, and it gives a lot of people room to also step into leadership roles.”

For David, these actions fulfill the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, translated as healing or repairing the world.

“We’re very much facing forward and see ourselves as a place that is doing a number of different things,” David said. “One is to be an ongoing advocate for social and environmental change in the community, to be a connector for people who might be seeking those Jewish connections and to show people actively how they can make those connections happen.”

Stan Schapiro, the other co-president of the congregation’s board of directors, said David is exemplary of a mensch, the yiddish word used to describe a person of great integrity and honor, worthy of emulation.

“I would describe him as an extremely warm and inspiring leader,” Schapiro said. “He’s taken strong stands on a number of issues, starting with anti-war issues, and more recently with women’s rights and abortion rights.”

A new opportunity

Although David said he had no particular desire to leave the congregation, it was an unexpected phone call from Hebrew College that ultimately set him toward his next career step.

“Once I got the call, I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he said. “It set off a whole thought process where I realized I had an opportunity to do something that’s really rare, which is to not only be a rabbi to the school, but to train people who themselves are going to go out and become visionary leaders in the community.”

As dean of the college’s rabbinical school, David will serve as a mentor to people who themselves plan on becoming rabbis, working with faculty to support the college’s curriculum and tasked with administrative roles and securing funds for the program. He will begin his new position on June 1.

“[Rabbi David] brings more than twenty years of rabbinic experience in a vibrant and creative congregational setting, a passion for rabbinic and cantorial education, and a commitment to a blend of intellectual rigor, spiritual depth, social responsibility, and concern for the quality of human relationships,” said Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, the president of Hebrew College, in a statement put out by the school.

Once David starts his new position, he will split his time between Newton and Northampton, although he says he hopes to remain part of the Congregation B’Nai Israel community if possible.

“I would very much aspire to be an active member here and involved in the anonymous things,” he said. “The acts of supporting people that no one sees, or stepping up at the last minute if they need a leader to be part of a service.”

In David’s absence, a search committee will be started by the congregation to look for a new senior rabbi to fill his shoes, as well as a transition committee to chart a course for the future of the congregation.

“We’ll be working to identify our needs both in the short term and in the longer term,” Schapiro said. “I’ll be reaching out to the whole congregation to think through what our needs are and what the next steps are.”

The congregation also plans to go through an interim period, with the congregation’s other rabbis, Jacob Fine and Ariella Rosen, filling in various roles until a replacement for David can be found. Lewis said that Congregation B’Nai Israel hopes to have a new senior rabbi in time for the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the fall of 2024.

“It’s certainly bittersweet — he [Rabbi David] has been here for a long time,” Lewis said. “At the same point, it is a really exciting opportunity for Rabbi David to take his wisdom and share that with so many other rabbis that are starting their career and be able to spread that wisdom.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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