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Jewish Juneteenth

Black Jews mark the holiday their own way

Shoshana McKinney Kirya-Ziraba
June 18, 2024

Juneteenth, the newest federally recognized holiday on the U.S. calendar, is a celebration of freedom and the end of enslavement in America. A mashup of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” it marks the day in 1865 when General Gordon Granger and his men marched into Galveston, Texas, to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln two years earlier.

Juneteenth has long been an institution in Black communities across Texas. In recent decades, the holiday was commemorated in parades with marching bands and cheerleaders during the day and neighborhood barbecues at night. Outside Texas, some Black communities had the practice of commemorating the end of enslavement on calendar dates reflective of historical events in their own area. After the Great Migration, Black people who left Texas for the North and West in the 20th century brought more communal emphasis to the Juneteenth holiday. The Texas emancipation story eventually came to dominate because it was the last region where African Americans got to experience the freedom that they already had on paper.

Now, Black Jews are making their own mark on the holiday, sharing it with their Jewish and Black communities while deepening the connections between Jewish values and America’s ideals.

Tameika Minor, founder of Achim Sheli, an inclusion-focused Jewish nonprofit, brought this Black celebration to Congregation Beth-El, her synagogue in Voorhees Township, New Jersey. But it didn’t happen overnight. “I didn’t know about Juneteenth until I took an African American studies class in college,” she said. After a few years of home-based Juneteenth celebrations, she knew it was time to take the holiday deeper into the community when her son’s Jewish day school instructor brought challah to their Southern fish fry one Shabbat. “Being a foodie, I thought, let’s start putting all of these things together,” Minor said.

Amid the racial tensions following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Minor and a few other Black Jewish community members created a celebration of African American culture originally named “Summer Soul-stice.” Unsure of the community response to a celebration explicitly tied to Juneteenth, hedging around the theme of the summer solstice provided convenient cover. However, the event was a big hit, and since then it has been reframed as an annual Juneteenth celebration.

A diverse team of local volunteers has made the congregation’s “Juneteenth Jewbilee” festive and colorful. Attendees have enjoyed live music, kosher Southern food, kids’ activities, and vendor booths hosting the offerings of Black-owned businesses.

This year’s Juneteenth Jewbilee will focus more on the next steps needed for intercommunity relationship building. Diversity-focused Black Jewish nonprofit leaders will make public addresses. The latest version of the event will also place a much bigger emphasis on children’s activities like African crafts, face paints, and art projects that kids and parents can do together. Kosher food blogger Shoshana Turin of Cooking in Heels is slated to showcase a demonstration of how kosher cuisine does Southern favorites.

These celebrations are a great way to bring the story of Juneteenth to children, since most Americans living outside of Texas first learn of the holiday as late as high school and college.

“It’s a day of reflection and education on the meaning of freedom,” said Jared Jackson, founder of Jews in All Hues. Focused on communal inclusion, Jackson recalled several Black community summer barbecues in his youth, only to realize much later on that these were Juneteenth celebrations. Bringing their Judaism to a Black space, Jackson’s family came with their own grill and kosher meat to the neighborhood cookouts. “It’s nice to be ‘the Jew’—people were curious about us,” he said.

To Jackson, the ideal Jewish Juneteenth program would focus on the family stories and experiences of Black Jews with Texas roots. He stresses the importance of Jewish communities taking time to intentionally analyze the historical circumstances around Juneteenth. For example, enslaved African Americans, who were legally restricted from learning to read, were unaware of the decree granting them freedom, as Texas was the last Confederate holdout. Notice of the legal end of slavery wouldn’t be complete in the most remote areas of Texas an additional year after that.

Without the serious historical context, Jackson fears that Juneteenth is at risk of being just another holiday to be commercialized and trivialized with mattress sales and ice cream flavors. In his view, the national conversation isn’t ready to grasp the full weight of what adding the holiday to the calendar should mean. “It’s far too soon,” he said. A society ready to embrace Juneteenth, he said, should embrace the African American story and fulfill the promise of freedom.

For Jill Housen, a California-based diversity facilitator and senior adviser at Project Shema, celebrations of American independence focused on the events of July 4, 1776, always rang somewhat hollow. “We Blacks weren’t free on that day,” she said. Housen feels anger at the injustice behind the Juneteenth story but is glad that it’s being more widely told. Black Jewish elders, she said, have stories of trauma they are reluctant to share with their grandchildren. Juneteenth is an opportunity to heal the past with these discussions.

Housen has been skeptical of the motives behind the Biden administration’s 2021 action to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, calling it “a cosmetic gesture.” Nevertheless, Housen sees Juneteenth as an opportunity to build coalitions of Blacks, Jews, and Black Jews. Juneteenth centers the experiences of the enslaved, which she feels serves as a template for equity work in her community today. Putting a twist on the metaphorical cliché, she said, “I don’t want a seat at that table, I want everything at my table.”

In recent history, the American Jewish community showed communal solidarity with the Black civil rights movement. Times of Israel editor Haviv Rettig Gur, in his January 2024 lecture at Shalem College, said, “Making sure America’s promise comes true is the deepest anxiety at the heart of American Jewish life … Is America the liberal promise? Where goes Black America, there goes America itself, and there goes the Jews.” The Black Jewish conversation on Juneteenth is this era’s opportunity for progress toward the potential of America to reconcile with its past.

Rabbi Heather Miller, founder of Multitudes, a diversity education nonprofit, is a direct descendant of people liberated on Juneteenth. She has a sense that Jewish communities are taking on a multiracial self-concept, and observing Juneteenth demonstrates communal harmony. “We have multiple parts of our identities that are all in relationship with each other at the same time,” she said. Synagogues are finding that relationships with the Black community need to begin with their own Black members.

Miller is author of The Juneteenth Haggadah. Much like a Haggadah for Passover, it takes readers into a historical liberation journey using a tableside ceremony with beautiful songs, meaningful questions, traditional foods, and powerful storytelling. Red beverages, the most traditional being iced hibiscus tea, symbolize the blood of those who fought for their freedom.

“When I first created The Juneteenth Haggadah, I was in rabbinical school and wanted to create a ceremony,” Miller said. Jewish themes of a national liberation from slavery resonate in the Black space of Juneteenth. “There wasn’t a ritual,” she said, “to emotionally process enslavement and the epigenetic memory of it.”

The current version of The Juneteenth Haggadah, created in partnership with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, tells of historical events and the evolution of the holiday. The Juneteenth Seder has sections to discuss the inspiring metaphors in Negro spirituals and offers attendees consoling moments of silent reflection.

The Juneteenth Haggadah also contains rich segments of ritual that invite participants in the ceremony to focus on their connection to the elements of the natural world, like water and fire. The evening begins with candle-lighting, the warm-toned light and heat of the fire adding a vigil-like reverence to the Seder. A newly incorporated handwashing ceremony serves as a sensual reminder of the commonality between Hebrew and African cultures. In The Juneteenth Haggadah, Miller writes, “Water is a source of sustenance and purification, it can represent our Torah and in some Kabbalistic circles it can represent mercy and grace.” The African tradition of using a wooden vessel for the handwashing ceremony is especially meaningful, she writes, because it “is a conduit through which one can connect with and communicate with their ancestors.”

In addition to the traditional Hebrew blessings for handwashing and drinks, The Juneteenth Haggadah contains the chief source text of the holiday: General Order Number 3, which states, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

Whether it’s a neighbor’s cookout, a lively community event, or a Seder following The Juneteenth Haggadah, African American Jews are leading their communities in celebration, reflection, and finding meaning in America’s past.

Shoshana McKinney Kirya-Ziraba is the founder and director of Tikvah Chadasha Uganda, a nonprofit organization for disabled children and impoverished women in eastern Uganda.

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