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Juneteenth Shabbat, The Jewish Connection to Black Freedom

This Friday night, Shabbat coincides with Juneteenth, the commemoration of the official ending of mass enslavement of African Americans, an event which took place on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, three month after the conclusion of the Civil War and more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth is the oldest-known commemoration of the end of slavery in America, with a sordid past that continues to enslave the very people whose ancestors were forced to leave their homeland in order to build our country. Watch the video below for a good explanation, and then read 12 Things You Might Not Know About Juneteenth.

If any tribe can relate to a tumultuous journey of slavery to freedom, it’s the Jews. That’s why Jewish people have an obligation to understand and seek justice and equality for the black community who is hurting right now. Here’s how you can honor Juneteenth at home.

I have a confession. Even though “Juneteenth” appears on my calendar app as a national holiday, like Father’s Day this Sunday and Independence Day next month, I never knew what this annual holiday on June 19th was all about. We didn’t learn about these historical events in school, and as an adult I never bothered to find out more. If it wasn’t for the Black Lives Matter movement, many white people would still be clueless about Juneteenth and the continuous systemic supression of the black community.

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day, matters to all of us, and this short, fascinating video shows us why:

This Shabat is a good time to learn about this national holiday, a bittersweet day of remembrance that on one hand rejoices in the vibrant African American heritage and culture that makes up the beautiful fabric of our country, and at the same time evokes sadness and anger that black people are still fighting for their basic human rights 400 years later, with mass demonstrations sparked by brutal police killings and in the middle of a pandemic.  As we light candles, say blessings, sing songs, and break bread, the Jewish people are hungry to explore the significance of  Juneteenth, in particular how the story of the Exodus and the history of American slavery are both examples of resilience from two communities who have suffered greatly. On Passover, we recall the past and retell the story of our liberation from slavery as if we were reliving it. And on Juneteenth, black communities gather to commemorate their own journey with parades, picnics, rallies, concerts, (and even virtual shopping experiences this year) . By using our voices and getting to know each other, we are reminded that we must work together to ensure that no one is oppressed or enslaved, and we must continue to work for freedom and redemption for all people.

The Jewish community is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, and we’ve always seen ourselves at the forefront for human rights and equality. We read in Pirkei Avot words of wisdom from the rabbis of the Mishnaic period. “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it”

And in the words of Akavia Ben Mahalalel: “Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an account and a reckoning.

Also, on this Shabbat, we can add a special kaddish, written by Jewish Multiracial Network:
hand lighting candles

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.

Because until we are all free, none of us is free.

Many local and national weekend events are planned for Juneteenth, including car parades, family-friendly peace rallies, musical concerts, and even virtual shopping experiences.  For St. Louis events, go HERE.

Shabbat Shalom, may we walk this journey together, one step closer to a better world.