The independent study that laid the groundwork for this project set out to “find” the Jewish people who found or made homes at Davidson College, a traditionally and proudly Presbyterian school. Over the course of Spring 2019, seven then-current students dug through the college archives, conducted oral histories with key stakeholders, and corresponded with many additional alumni, faculty, chaplains and people with no “official” connection to the College. The stories that came to shape our work followed Jewish people as they pushed for institutional change– to create a more inclusive, less compulsively Christian Davidson– and sometimes, how the institution in turn pushed them out. The broader archival project hopes to share what we found with the larger college community.
HIS 396: The History of Jews and Jewishness at Davidson came to be after Carolina Worker’s Collective doxxed two Davidson students with Neo-Nazi affiliation in November 2019. It was not, however, these students, their fascist ideologies, or their violently antisemitic tweets that inspired their Jewish classmates to learn more about the history of Jews at Davidson. In the days and weeks after the doxxing, it became clear that many non-Jewish students had no clue there were any Jews at Davidson (at that point, there were about 100 in a student population of ~1800), let alone any organized Jewish life.
As Jewish student leaders realized the extent to which our community was not only invisible to our peers but unable to communicate with them, we began to identify critical information gaps, including the “history” of Jewishness at Davidson.
When people speak of small Jewish communities, the implied history is one of decline: “They were once here, then they left.” So, it was strange to join what felt like an up-and-coming Jewish population, which is exactly what Davidson’s was when I arrived in the fall of 2017. We were tight-knit, scrappy, and enjoyed the time we spent together, but our traditions were sometimes inconsistent and often poorly attended. We didn’t think to imagine a history of Jewish people at Davidson, simply because there wouldn’t be enough of us.
There were, however, some inexplicable mainstays of Jewish communal life at Davidson: a bagel brunch for parents in the fall, an open Passover dinner, and an eight hour name reading for Yom HaShoah. But why these events? Why are there so few of us? Were there any Jewish alumni? Why are there fewer than five tenured Jewish faculty members?
We did not know that for many years, students were required to attend church services on campus; or that members of the Religion Department were required to be Christian; in fact, that all tenured faculty were once required to be Christian; that the Board of Trustees only amended their by-laws to allow non-Christian members in 2005; and, finally, that the President of Davidson College is still required to be an active member of Davidson College Presbyterian Church.
Jewish community members are not the only ones affected by these mandates and by-laws. All religious minorities, and more broadly, all non-Presbyterians are. However, it was through the story of Jewish people at Davidson that this project’s researchers were able to access a history of the College’s Church affiliation, its shifting religious identity, and the competing forces and interests that led to events like The Linden Affair or the Easter Crosses Incident.
The original members of HIS396 were directly inspired by the archival work of Africana Studies students– work students have completed both independently and with the support of professors. Because of the deep and intimate knowledge they had accrued in the archive, these students and their efforts have enriched and strengthened Black student life at the College. Simply put, they had a generational memory. It was born of privilege that Jewish students had not needed to know their history before November of 2018, but as some of our classmates were asking us– sometimes literally asking– to explain how Jewish students were different from our Christian counterparts, we could not help but feel completely isolated.
The methodology for this project has been twofold: the first part, a deep-dive into the college archives to chart a general 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 the oral histories of those whose stories may not be in the archive. Namely, the Jewish students and faculty who lived through and pushed for that evolution.
We hope this project helps non-Jewish members of the community to better understand not only the experience(s) of being Jewish at Davidson, but also the inflection points and paradoxes of modern Jewish life in America and in the South.
We also hope this gives Jewish students a better sense of where they come from and 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 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 how the college continues to broadcast its Presbyterian identity, the fact remains that many of Jewish life’s idiosyncrasies have taken shape to either accommodate the college or to force it to change.
Moreover, this project represents an incipient era of politicized Jewish identity at Davidson College, one in which Jewish students are visible coalition partners with other marginalized students on campus– an era in which we take an interest and an investment in each others’ existence here. The original members of the independent study, for instance, were mostly non-Jewish students who felt this story was an important one to tell.
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.
– Dahlia Krutkovich ’21, August 2020
Dahlia Krutkovich ’21 was raised in Riverdale, a historically Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, by Indian and Russian parents. She is one of the 2020-’21 presidents of Davidson’s Jewish Student Union and is majoring in Comparative Literature. She is extremely grateful that this project has connected her to alumni, faculty, archivists, and Ron Linden. She’s also glad she picked up a few technical skills along the way.
Cathy Xu ’21 is from Shanghai, China. She is a Transnational Literature major at Davidson College. Her interests lie in literature, diasporic studies, gender & sexuality studies, and photography. On campus, she is a co-founder of the Asian American Initiative and co-editor in chief of Hobart Park. She was part of both the HIS396 independent study and the JEC grant project. Her contributions have centered on conducting oral histories, transcription, and web design.
Taylor Drake ’21 is from Maryville, TN and he’s majoring in Memory Studies. His campus involvements include serving as president of the LGBTQIA+ affinity group You Are Not A Stranger Here (YANASH) for two years and editing the Davidson College History Journal. Taylor was a part of the HIS396 independent study, JEC grant, as well as another summer’s worth of work in 2019. His work on this project is influenced by his passion for public history and community-based archives. Upon graduation, Taylor will pursue a career in LGBTQIA+ specific counselling.
Olivia Harper ’23 is a Political Science and German Studies double major at Davidson. Her campus involvements include Androgyny acappella, Davidson technical theatre, and Turner eating house. She is part of the JEC grant team for this project and also contributed to another JEC project taking the oral history of Irving Bienstock, a Holocaust survivor.
Severine Stier ’19 graduated from Davidson as an English major. She hails from Princeton, New Jersey, but currently resides in Chicago. She adores the Windy City (yes, even the winter!) and is enjoying building her life there. Outside of work as an Operations Supervisor at McMaster-Carr, she tutors students at a nearby elementary school, frequents meetings and events for JCUA (Jewish Council on Urban Affairs), and tries to go on long walks around the beautiful city as much as she can. She’s also developed a mild obsession with the Chicago Cubs. Being part of the independent study her senior spring semester was by far her most memorable experience at Davidson. She is so proud of this group and is honored to be part of this important narrative!
Brodi Madison ’19 is from Salisbury, North Carolina. After graduating from Davidson with a degree in Political Science, he started law school at Duke University. He plans to pursue a career in environmental law after graduating. Brodi was part of the HIS396 independent study in the spring semester of 2019.
Emmitt Sklar ’21 is from Brooklyn, NY. He is a political science major with a focus in international relations and public policy. He is an active member of the Jewish Student’s Union and participated in the Davidson Jewish Identity Trip to Poland in the Spring of 2020. He was part of the 2019 HIS396 independent study.