On June 19, 1865, the US Army announced the emancipation of enslaved people to the public in Texas – the last of the Confederate states to be liberated from slavery
That day each year became known as Jubilee Day and later as Juneteenth, and became a day of celebration, education, community, and political vision first for the African Americans of Texas and then for blacks throughout the United States. It has been recognized as a special day of celebration by 47 of the 50 states and by some major corporations. It has slowly become recognized and observed by some whites — especially this year, in the great wave of multiracial uprising against American racism.
Beginning a few years ago and increasing this year, several ways have emerged of Jewishly marking the day. A multi faith group that includes rabbis will take part in a Juneteenth protest in Chicago. Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., is partnering with Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church in Mount Vernon to hold a Juneteenth Shabbat Service. And Northern Virginia Hebrew in Reston, Va., is holding an all-night Juneteenth Tikkun, a time of learning that includes interfaith clergy.
Bechol Lashon is sponsoring a Juneteenth Kabbalat Shabbat with Rabbis Sandra Lawson and Isaama Goldstein-Stoll; in Chicago, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA) together with the Kol Or Caucus for Jews of Color is sponsoring their 3rd Annual Juneteenth Havdallah on the evening of June 20.
In 2018, Jews For Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) observed a Juneteenth Seder and then published its haggadah. As the author of the original “Freedom Seder” in 1969, the first haggadah ever to welcome the black struggle for freedom into the heart of the Passover Seder, I have been especially moved by the notion that blacks who are not Jewish, Jews of color and whites who are or who are not Jewish might find the Haggadah a welcome way of affirming and working for the end of American racism. At the same time, I encourage caution in its use, so that well-meaning people do not insensitively appropriate the symbols and practices of black Americans.
One sliver of the Juneteenth Haggadah felt to me especially relevant to the struggle to end racism, and was both Jewish and universal in its drawing on Torah and on the post-history of the Holocaust to urge a serious discussion of “reparations” for slavery.
THE SECOND CUP: Behold this cup of wine. Assata [Shakur] taught us: It is our duty to win. We drink to her, to our commitment to winning, and to our ancestors who invested in our winning and building power: Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, Pedro Albizu Campos.
Raise glass. Say one of these blessings: P’ri hagafen, ito nishteh, “l’chayim!” The fruit of the vine, with it let us drink “to life!
It goes on to quote Torah — “And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt…” (Deuteronomy 15:15) — and note that “Black liberation is something that has been compromised again and again, through actions monstrous and tiny — the incomprehensible violations we promise to never forget, and the endless diminutions we all decide to ignore.”
It also include the words of Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles, who writes: “Most American Jews came to this country years after the abolition of slavery, but we have thrived under a national economic system that was built on stolen land and stolen labor, a foundational wrong that has yet to be rectified. As survivors of generational trauma and beneficiaries of reparations [from Germany, to Israel] granted after the Holocaust, Jews have a special obligation to help advance this conversation.”
The JFREJ seder also includes the Jewish Multiracial Network’s “Black Lives Kaddish:
Creator of life, source of compassion
“Your breath remains the source of our spirit, even as too many of us cry out that we cannot breathe. Lovingly created in your image, the color of our bodies has imperiled our lives.
“Black lives are commodified yet devalued, imitated but feared, exhibited but not seen.
“Black lives have been pursued by hatred, abandoned by indifference and betrayed by complacency.
“Black lives have been lost to the violence of the vigilante, the cruelty of the marketplace and the silence of the comfortable. We understand that Black lives are sacred, inherently valuable, and irreplaceable.
“We know that to oppress the body of the human, is to break the heart of the divine. We yearn for the day when the bent will stand straight. We pray that the hearts of our country will soften to the pain endured for centuries.
“We will do the work to bind up the wounds, to heal the shattered hearts, to break the yoke of oppression. As the beauty of the heavens is revealed to us each day, may each day reveal to us the beauty of our common humanity. Amen.
I suggest that we add these readings to our Shabbat observance, either or both on Erev Shabbat (Friday evening, June 19) or Shabbat morning, fitting in with our attention to the nationwide gathering of the Poor People’s Campaign at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday at June2020.org.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the founder (1983) and director of The Shalom Center and the author of the original “Freedom Seder,” “Seasons of Our Joy,” and “Godwrestling–Round 2,” among 24 other books.