A tale of two bridges

This week, I had the privilege to spend several hours in Duxbury.

Although it was a short week of work due to Sukkot, we had been busy at JCRC - speaking out to criticize a student newspaper board at Wellesley College and welcoming the strong condemnation of said newspaper’s antisemitism by the school’s president. And, taking note of a very disturbing situation at Tufts University and lifting up our partners at ADL in their call for institutional change there.

So, you’ll be forgiven if your first thought when I say I was in Duxbury is: “Oh no! What else happened?”

And the answer is Something quite lovely.

You see, last year, Duxbury’s state representative, Josh Cutler, reached out to us with an idea: We want to remind and educate our own town and the Commonwealth about Duxbury’s own diverse history. What would you think about naming a bridge here after Cora Wilburn?

Now, I’ll self-own, with some embarrassment, that - though I consider myself a student of Jewish history and a passionate reader of American literature - I didn’t know about Cora Wilburn.  As I soon learned, Wilburn was, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive, “one of the most prolific American Jewish women writers” of the 19th century. And her novel, Cosella Wayne: Or, Will and Destiny - the first novel written and published in English by an American Jewish woman - had recently been republished with an extended introduction by Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, the pre-eminent historian of American Judaism.  Wilburn spent her later years living in Duxbury, where she died in 1906.

We quickly responded to Rep. Cutler with an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

So there we were on Wednesday, Professor Sarna and myself, along with MA Representatives Cutler and Kathy LaNatra, and MA Senator Patrick O’Connor, dedicating the Cora Wilburn Bridge. Also joining us was, among others, Phyliss Ellis, president of the Brockton NAACP, as a second bridge was dedicated to honor the Lewis Sisters - Ella, Lillian and Beulah - three Black women who founded a residential camp in Duxbury that was a major center for Black community vacationers in the early 20th century.

As I said at the dedication, a bridge is, in a physical sense, a way of overcoming a separation between two communities, bringing them together across a river or a ravine, fostering contact, exchanges, and community despite that geography that divides them. A bridge can also be a connection between our past and our future; a way of defining which parts of where we came from we want to carry forward with us, to inform and shape where we are going to.

The people of Duxbury, with the leadership of their representatives on Beacon Hill, are making the choice to foster bridges between communities, and to lift up a part of their heritage – and all of our heritage – as a bridge into the idea of who Duxbury wants to be.

It’s a beautiful idea and an inspiring vision. And Professor Sarna surprised and delighted the room by reading a letter that Cora Wilburn had written to Lilly Harris, a 19-year-old Black woman who had lived near her in Duxbury. In doing so, she herself modeled how to be a bridge builder, across a 60-year age difference and two communities in Duxbury over a century ago.

Having the honor to participate in the dedication of these two bridges will continue to inspire me, and JCRC, in our own work as bridge builders between communities in our Commonwealth. I hope that it will also inspire others, as it has for me, to re-engage with the work and the legacy of Cora Wilburn, an important and early voice in the American Jewish story.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy