Welcome to our collaborative project about the history of Jews and Jewish identity at Davidson. This undertaking is a response to the broader campus climate following the unmasking of Davidson students with neo-Nazi affiliation on November 7th, 2018.
HOW WE GOT HERE
The discovery of these community members’ political affiliation (vis à vis their Twitter accounts) sparked wide-reaching conversations about identity and positionality at Davidson, especially within the school’s Jewish community.
In the days after the doxxing, Jewish students found themselves not only in conversation with their Black, Latinx, international, and queer classmates, but in a position of explaining to all of their classmates both world-historical Jewish identity and their own experiences.* Before November 2018, Davidson’s Jewish community had never considered itself a politicized group and had never had to parse out or articulate– especially to outsiders– what it meant to be Jewish at Davidson.
Perhaps not unrelatedly, it became clear that many of their non-Jewish classmates didn’t know there were Jews, let alone organized Jewish life, at the school. In one of conversation between the leaders of student-led affinity groups, a student mentioned that the first time she had ever heard of Davidson’s Hillel was at the campus rally for unity on November 9th.
As Jewish student leaders realized the extent to which their community was not only invisible to the greater community but unable to communicate with it, we began to identify critical information gaps, including the history of Jews and Jewish identity at Davidson. Members of this independent study were taken by how fluently Africana Studies students could speak to the history of Black students at Davidson; how their wealth of archival knowledge and connection to generations of alumni poised them respond to interpersonal racism and institutional neglect. It was born of a certain privilege that Jewish students hadn’t needed to know their history before, but now that we needed to but didn’t, we couldn’t help but feel utterly lost.
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
This independent study has sought to illuminate how Jews have existed at the college, what kinds of Jewish people have found or made homes here, how they’ve pushed for institutional change, or how the institution has in turn pushed them out. Our methodology has been twofold: the first part, a deep-dive into the archives to chart the evolution of Davidson’s religious identity, its position on questions of diversity and inclusion, and the meaning of its faith community; the second, collecting and preserving oral histories with key stakeholders, including Jewish alumni, as well as members of the college’s faculty and staff.
Over the course of this project, it’s become more apparent that Jewish students have never had the institutional support necessary to form intergenerational connections, to know their history, to better understand their experiences in the context of the South, North Carolina, or Davidson. Our community has been so small over the years that it’s only now that our student population has begun to ask for support from the school that pushes beyond basic sustention but strives for a thriving, robust existence.
We hope this project not only helps non-Jewish students better understand the experience of being Jewish at Davidson but the nuances, vicissitudes, and paradoxes of modern Jewish life.
We also hope this gives Jewish students a better sense of where they come from. some questions of how Jewish life at Davidson, for all its quirks and particularities, has gotten to be the way that it is. Understanding Davidson as a Christian school, whose once-explicit connection to the Reformed Tradition has left defensive triggers and atypical traditions, is integral to the story of any religious minority here. Regardless of whether the college continues to broadcast its Presbyterian identity or not, the fact remains that many of Jewish life’s idiosyncrasies have in fact taken shape to either accommodate the college or force it to change.
Moreover, this project represents an incipient era of politicized Jewish identity at Davidson, one in which Jewish students are coalition partners with other marginalized students on campus– an era in which we take an interest and an investment in each others’ existence here. This independent study, for instance, has more non-Jewish members than Jewish ones.
We would like to acknowledge the undying support and guidance we received from our advisor, Charles A. Dana Professor of German Studies Scott Denham, as well as Debbi Lee Landi, Sharon Byrd Jessica Cottle, and Molly Kunkel from the Archives and Special Collections team. We would also like to thank Chaplain Rob Spach, who dedicated substantial time on oral history interviews and gave us access to various archives, letters, and people to contact. We are also indebted to students such as Bry Reed, Jalin Jackson, and Jade Juana Polly (to name a few), not to mention the Africana Studies Department, for the inspiration for this project. Finally, we would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has worked to preserve Jewish life at Davidson, namely the interviewees for trusting us with their stories and the countless community members who supported us at our events.
There exists so much more work to be done, but we hope that our oral histories and archival research exists alongside other initiatives to buttress Jewish life at Davidson, but more broadly, helps make this institution a place more students can make their own.
WHAT YOU’LL FIND HERE:
– A detailed timeline of major events in Jewish life at Davidson
– An essay written by Brodi Madison ‘19 on the history of Davidson’s religious affiliation and how it and its changes have molded Jewish life
– Nearly 20 oral testimonies, from Dr. Ronald Linden, of Linden Affair fame, to the first Jewish Students Union presidents.
*Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t or wasn’t overlap between Davidson’s Jewish community and other identity groups, but more so that students who identified as Jewish were burdened with explaining basic facts of their existence and experience.