Welcome to our collaborative project about the history of Jews and Jewish identity at Davidson. This undertaking is a response to the broader climate on campus following the unmasking of Davidson students with neo-Nazi affiliation on November 7th, 2018. These events catalyzed conversations between groups of students who did not otherwise engage on questions of identity and positionality. Suddenly, Jewish students were in critical conversation with Black, Latinx, international, and queer students about their experiences at our southern, Presbyterian school.
Over the course of the weeks following the Nazi incident, it became clear that Davidson’s Jewish community had never considered itself a politicized group, and had never had to articulate– especially to outsiders– the experience of being Jewish at Davidson. We were shocked to learn that many non-Jewish students didn’t know Jewish students existed at Davidson, let alone that organized Jewish life exists here. In one of these conversations, 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, particularly members of this independent study, realized the extent to which Jewish students were simply not visible to the greater community, one critical informational gap they identified was 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 generations of alumni poised them respond to manifestations of interpersonal racism and institutional neglect.
We’ve 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 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 mere tolerance or survival but toward 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, that it answers some of their questions of how Jewish life at Davidson, for all its quirks and particularities, has gotten to be the way that it is. Fundamentally, understanding Davidson as a Christian school, whose once-explicit connection has left vestigial is integral to the story of any religious minority here. Regardless of whether the college continues to articulate or broadcast its Presbyterian identity or not, the fact remains that many of the quirks and particularities of Jewish life 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 course, for instance, has more non-Jewish members than Jewish ones.
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 more welcoming place for all students.
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. In particular, we would 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.