Juneteenth matters to me as an American Jew, and I hope you will find meaning in it from what I share with you here.   Juneteenth is the day that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. It is also referred to as Emancipation Day and Freedom Day and serves as a celebration of Black history, culture, and progress. The holiday was first celebrated in Texas to mark the events of June 19th, 1865, when the Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed in 1863, was finally enforced in the aftermath of the Civil War. The name “Juneteenth” comes from the conjunction of June and nineteenth.

On June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, more than two years after the Confederate Army surrendered, and five months after Congress passed the 13th Amendment, Union General Gordon Granger took federal troops to Galveston and announced that the slavery of Black people was over, finally putting into effect the monumental, presidential mandate for the more than 250.000 black people still enslaved throughout Texas.

While I was incredulous when I first learned of this 2-year delay in ending slavery for the black people in Texas, the Black community has chosen to mark Juneteenth as a day of celebration of freedom, traditionally marked with parades, prayer services, cookouts, and picnics. Many of the celebratory elements draw from the history and strength of the Black experience, sometimes deliberately highlighting the freedom of Black people to participate in activities that were once forbidden to their enslaved ancestors.

The Jewish organization Be’chol Lashon (Hebrew for “in every language”) celebrates and prioritizes diversity as a Jewish value by uplifting the historic and contemporary racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity of the Jewish people and in doing so, strengthens the entire Jewish community. At least 18% of all U.S. Jewish households contain at least one person who is Hispanic, Black, Asian, or another race or ethnicity, including those who are multiracial. Using the broadest definition of racial and ethnic diversity, one-quarter of Jewish adults under 30 (26%) fall into this category, have ties to a region outside the U.S. or Europe within the last generation, or identify as Sephardic and/or Mizrahi. We see this in our local Jewish community and our congregation.

 As Jews, we know the value of marking the end of slavery with a yearly celebration. Juneteenth has much in common with Passover as a holiday of thanksgiving, joy, ritual, and remembrance. On both holidays, people come together, share food, and sing songs. Those gatherings, rituals, foods, and songs have symbolic meanings that give shape to the memory, sacrifices, and resilience of our ancestors. They connect past and present, inspiring us to give thanks for what we have and encouraging us to continue to work towards change. As a multicultural Jewish community that includes Black and Brown American Jews who descend from those who were enslaved in the United States, this essential date in American history is vital for all American Jews. Celebrating Juneteenth allows Jews to focus on the multicultural nature of our community and the variety of ways American Jews have experienced the American past and experience the American future. Raising our awareness can help us focus our attention on the need to work together as Jews to ensure a future that includes attaining the American vision of freedom and equality for all– values that remain fundamental to our collective Jewish experience as well as the principle of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).

In honor of Juneteenth, Be’chol Lashon commissioned writer, actor, director, educator, and filmmaker Rebecca S’manga Frank to write this psalm I share with you:

Juneteenth Prayer Graphic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clap Your Hands, All You Nations: A Psalm for Juneteenth
by Rebecca S’manga Frank

Clap your hands, all you nations
Shout to God with cries of joy
Black is Queen!
Black is King!
Black is Free!
Black is Free.

Why is this day different from all other days?
On this day the message of freedom was no longer delayed

Galveston, Texas 1865, and Today

May I carry the message of freedom
May I receive the message of freedom

May I stretch my arms wide, breathing deeply
May a gust of wind blow boundless through my mind
May I remember forgotten dreams
May tears escape from my eyes and evaporate on my cheek
May I feel joyful shouts escape from my mouth as freely as birds fly into pink sky over salty water
May I lull myself and others into a peaceful sway by singing:
Oh Beautiful, Willow Weep For Me, The Sweetest Sound, Go Tell It On The Mountain of This
Little Light of Mine…

May our teeth shine as we smile at one another
May we cook, may we potluck together, giving thanks to the God in each of us

On this day we eat soul food, infused with the spirit of freedom
On this day we relax in the spirit of freedom
On this day we dance in the spirit of freedom
On this day we laugh in the spirit of freedom
On this day we tell the story in the spirit of freedom, we spread the news!

And as we clasp hands, all you nations
Our palms transmit an inner whisper
No words of false equivalency are shared
Only the inner language of God
Heard in silence:

Freedom.

@Be’chol Lashon 2021

(Sources:  Bechol Lashon  GlobalJews.org and the 2020 PEW Study)