Social justice is in David Fishback’s DNA

David Fishback. Photo by Selmo Khenissi

By Selma Khenissi

David Fishback has a dream. Everywhere he goes, he carries with him a vision of an America where everyone feels safe.

“Only when everyone is safe in America, can Jews be safe in America,” says Fishback, 72, an Olney resident and member of Temple Emanuel in Kensington. For years, he has organized the Reform congregation’s Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat Service. His steadfastness to the civil rights leader’s legacy has much to do with the time and place of Fishback’s birth.

“I was born in 1947, and my I was raised in an atmosphere in which social justice was the most important part of my identity as a Jew,” he says. “I was acutely aware of being so fortunate to be born a Jew in the United States after the Holocaust, and that good fortune made it an imperative for me to pay back the United States by doing whatever I could to erase our American stains from slavery and its legacy.  For me, they are all of a piece.”

A retired lawyer and a grandfather, Fishback grew up in Silver Spring. His own grandfather took a ship from Bremen, Germany, and arrived at Ellis Island in September 1911.

Fishback says his origin story is common among many American Jews. What is less common is what he has done with his legacy as the grandchild of immigrants.

“That is why I did anti-poverty work while in college and then served as a VISTA Volunteer in Memphis,” he says. “And why, once I became a parent, I worked against racial isolation in Montgomery County Public Schools. And why I became a member of the county’s Martin Luther King Commemorative Committee.”

Organizing Temple Emanuel’s King service “has been a way to advance the vision of Dr. King and Dr. Heschel,” he says, referring to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a civil rights activist and colleague of King’s. “These issues go to my core identity as a Jew and as a human being.”

Despite its imperfections, America is home to Fishback. To live anywhere else, he says, would make him feel like he is “in exile.”

Social justice work in much of the Jewish community now goes under the name tikkun olam, or repairing the world. Another aspect of Judaism that Fishback treasures is the Passover seder, with its theme of freeing the enslaved from the shackles of injustice.

Fishback says he is partial to the Freedom Seder Haggadah that Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, introduced in Washington in 1969.

At that First Freedom Seder, to paraphrase the traditional haggadah, anyone who wasn’t Jewish and wanted commemorate the first anniversary of King’s murder was welcome to attend.

As a law student, Fishback adopted this haggadah, with its passages from King, Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau and others. As a parent, he incorporated the haggadah into his family celebration. “It was just perfect,” he says.

Making America a more “perfect Union” involves effort, he says. There will always be “people who harbor prejudices,” which become amplified when leaders “appeal to people’s worst instincts.”

While leaders who do so “can wield great power,” Fishback believes “there are still more of us than there are of them.”

White supremacists and neo-Nazis are damaged people who want to feel a sense of belonging, he says. Undeterred, Fishback continues on, doing his part to create a community where everyone can feel like they belong. “The worst thing to do,” he says, “would be to give up.”

Selma Khenissi is a Washington-area writer.


Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here