Grace Henley was at the dinner table with her parents, celebrating the Jewish New Year, when the news of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death broke Friday night.
“Oh my god, RBG is dead,” she remembers her dad saying. She said she had to ask him to repeat it about four times before she actually registered what had happened — and when she did, she sobbed.
Crying is not especially characteristic for Henley, who learned to stay calm during crises through nearly 10 years of working in the nonprofit sector before starting law school. But as a second-year law student and a Jewish woman with an interest in social justice work, Henley has long viewed Ginsburg as a role model.
Ginsburg died Friday at age 87 of complications from cancer. Amid national conversations and debates about the potential political consequences of Ginsburg’s death and a vacancy on the Supreme Court, some law students at UNC, like Henley, are grappling with the loss of a woman they’ve long looked up to.
Third-year law student Rachel Grossman was similarly shocked when she heard Ginsburg had died. She was at a socially distanced backyard gathering with some other women who are finishing law school — and though none of them could believe it, she said it was helpful to be surrounded by other female future attorneys.
“We could see that RBG’s legacy is already living on,” Grossman said.
That night, Grossman tweeted, “May her memory be a blessing.” She said she wanted the content to honor Ginsburg, rather than jumping to the political implications of her death.
Like Ginsburg, Grossman is a Jewish woman with a background in advocacy work. Ginsburg, who worked at the ACLU before becoming a judge, was the second woman on the Supreme Court and the first Jewish woman — and Grossman said seeing someone with a similar background to hers on the court was important to her.
Alexis Pendergraft, a third-year law student who hopes to work in civil and human rights law, grew up paying attention to Ginsburg’s civil rights work before she even wanted to go to law school.
Pendergraft looked up to how strong, compassionate and courageous Ginsburg was and said she hopes to emulate that and honor Ginsburg’s memory in her own law career and life.
“I’m going to vote and I’m going to pass the bar, hopefully, and I’m going to pursue justice in every way that I can,” Pendergraft said.
Henley said Ginsburg personifies the value that Jewish people should participate in social justice work, which she and her family hold. Henley was raised with gratitude for the work of Ginsburg and others like her, she said. She is a stepmother now, and she bought her 9-year-old stepson a book about Ginsburg when he was just 5 to teach him about her.
When she heard Ginsburg had died, Henley thought about saying Kaddish, a Jewish prayer, every day for 11 months — the tradition when a loved one dies. But that didn’t feel like enough, she said.
Now, Henley plans to say this prayer each day for 11 months on Ginsburg’s behalf — and then call her senator. That, she hopes, will help honor the legacy of her role model.
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