By Madison Sellers
Five days after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the Community Engagement House (otherwise known as the CoHo) organized a candlelight vigil to honor the life of the trailblazing Supreme Court justice.
The CoHo organized the vigil “to have a time and place for us to collectively grieve the loss our country is experiencing right now with Justice Ginsberg’s passing,” said Jasmine Huang (C’21), co-director of the CoHo, at the beginning of the ceremony. “This is a moment for us to intentionally reflect on her leadership and her legacy, and by lighting our candles from a common flame and spreading it throughout the crowd, this ceremony will serve as a symbolic representation of her legacy.”
Following Huang’s welcome, Assistant Counsel for Global Affairs Abby Colbert gave an introduction to the ceremony.
“It’s Jewish tradition to say, when someone dies, ‘May her memory be a blessing,’” said Colbert. “What we mean by that is, ‘May we keep that person’s goodness alive and present in the world by remembering and by acting; in the case of Justice Ginsburg, by pursuing justice and by fighting for the things that we care about with courage and with conviction.”
Dr. Shana Minkin, professor in International and Global Studies, briefly recounted the story of Ginsberg’s life, emphasizing her importance to many in the American Jewish community as a “deeply familiar and deeply familial” figure. Minkin also emphasized the numerous obstacles Ginsberg overcame in her distinguished career in order to make a difference in issues of gender equity, opening doors for women that had been closed since the founding of the United States.
By “forcing the court to see gender inequality as something that impacted more than just women,” Minkin said, Ginsburg fundamentally changed women’s rights in the US. She worked her way up until she was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Clinton in 1993, where, as Minkin described, “she became the backbone for the Court’s progressive jurists,” consistently voting to uphold equal rights on the basis of gender, race, and sexual orientation.
“It was Ruth Bader Ginsburg who understood her role as pushing for a more perfect Union, for a place wherein we, the people, continued to expand to include not only white men, but also women, the Black community, the Jewish community, the differently abled, LGBTQIA, Latinx, immigrants — in other words, to include all of us who are and are inspired to be Americans,” said Minkin. “It was Ruth Bader Ginsburg who believed in the rights of everyone to be protected by American law.”
The list of her accomplishments is too long to name, but Minkin added that everything she did, she did with “a generosity of spirit and with a sense of modesty.” Today Ginsburg’s legacy is found everywhere, and her cultural impact is apparent from the sheer number of RBG t-shirts, mugs, stickers, and more.
But it wasn’t until the Court decided on a landmark 2013 case, Shelby County v. Holder, that Ginsburg became a symbol ingrained in American culture. The case overturned two provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, getting rid of preclearance, a policy that required covered jurisdictions to be approved not to be discriminatory before implementing changes in local voting laws, leaving the American voting system vulnerable to racial discrimination.
Ginsburg dissented from the majority opinion, writing that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Her cutting dissent propelled her from progressive justice to cultural icon and national role model in the eyes of the American public.
Despite rejecting strict observance of Judaism when, as a woman, she was not allowed to enter an orthodox synagogue to say the Kaddish for her mother, “she continued to understand her work as fundamentally Jewish, as centered in a Jewish concern of justice,” Minkin said.
In 2004, at an event organized by the United States Holocaust Museum, Ginsburg said, “My heritage as a Jew and my obligation as a judge fit together symmetrically. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I take pride in it and draw strength from my heritage.”
“In other words,” said Minkin, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not just an American hero. She was a particularly Jewish one.”
Minkin concluded her speech with a call to action, saying, “It is up to us now to follow her lead. It is up to us to protect those rights, under such dire and direct threat in our country today. And it is up to us to live our lives in such a way as to expand and strengthen those rights for everyone.”
After Minkin spoke, Peggy Owusu-Ansah (C’23), the ceremony’s student speaker, shared how RBG has been a powerful role model for her since childhood, and she also offered a message of hope. “Ever since her passing, I’ve seen my social media flooded with posts and tweets of women saying, ‘Who’s going to fight for us now? We have just lost our voice for women’s rights.’ And to that I have to disagree,” said Owusu-Ansah. She continued, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg did what could for us, and now it’s our time to pick up the torch. She did what she could to the best of her ability, and it’s our job to do what we can to the best of ours. She opened the door, but it’s our job to make sure that it remains open.”
Owusu-Ansah’s speech was followed by an open mic, where a number of students shared how Ginsberg had impacted their lives, from her ubiquitous presence in pop culture, to inspiring words from her books and speeches, and even stories of meeting her in person.
Following the open mic, Max Saltman (C’21) led the prayer and candle lighting. “Because Ruth Bader Ginsburg was such a symbol and an icon and the ‘notorious RBG,’’ he said, “it’s kind of easy to forget that she was also a human being. So this prayer that I’m about to read, El Malei Rachamim, speaks to the hope that she lies now in repose and rest.”
After the prayer, everyone’s candles were lit from a single flame, until the room was illuminated by candlelight. Provost Nancy Berner then led the charge to the community, asking students to not give up and to continue to reach out for support from friends, family, and the Wellness Center.
“How can you all continue to live out and, indeed, live up to the legacy left to us by the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Stay abreast of political issues and be sure to learn the opinions of your state and local leaders on those issues,” Berner said. “Be active politically. Write letters and learn about lobbying. Through your studies and your writing, amplify the voices of those who have been historically ignored.”
Berner added that, for anyone seeking to learn more, eco-chaplain Judith Marklin can provide training, discuss ideas, and answer questions on how best to amplify the voices of others with empathy and sensitivity. Finally, she concluded by saying, “And most importantly, vote.”
Bernice Leveque (C’21) closed the ceremony. She spoke of how she also viewed Ginsburg as a role model from childhood, and she added that “just because we’ve lost an icon, a hero, doesn’t mean that the chance to be her is gone.” She concluded, “So as you put out your candles, the flame that you hold, I hope that it’s ignited in your heart.” With that, everyone blew out their candles, and the vigil came to a close.
A common theme throughout the ceremony was that we must not lose hope, and we must use Ginsburg’s legacy to motivate us to continue working towards change. Early on in the ceremony, Colbert shared the final stanza of a poem by Dr. Maya Angelou, “When Great Trees Fall.” The poem beautifully sums up Ginsberg’s legacy, serving as a call to keep her memory alive.
Colbert read, “And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly… Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.”