These past few weeks, our pandemically traumatized nation was further shaken to its core by the death of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the centuries-old plague of systemic racism. "I can't breathe" wrenched our hearts as protesters took to the streets to demand justice and affirm that black lives matter. Jelani Cobb writes:
"The shock of revelation that attended the video of Floyd's death is itself a kind of inequality, a barometer of the extent to which one group of Americans have moved through life largely free from the burden of such terrible knowledge."
In other words, the fact that white America was in such a state of shock that something like this could happen, simply attests to how much white America has chosen to not know.
Today is Juneteenth, that is, the 19th of June, a day that has also largely escaped the knowledge of many white Americans. It is a day that commemorates the public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in our neighboring city of Galveston in 1865. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in 1863, but because Texas was the most remote of the slave states, with a low presence of Union troops, enforcement of the proclamation was slow and sporadic. Juneteenth, as it came to be known, grew into a holiday first in Texas and then throughout the United States.
Despite being an official Texas holiday however, few people outside of the black community know about or observe it. Rabbi Sandra Lawson writes about Juneteenth:
"We as American Jews have long seen ourselves on the forefront for people's liberation. We have been the victims of centuries of discrimination, persecution and genocide and therefore we should understand the need to commemorate a day that is both rooted in reflection on the past, offers us a teaching moment and an opportunity for healing."
Today is Juneteenth and tonight is Shabbat. We read in the Torah about the twelve scouts that Moses sent to scope out the Promised Land before the Israelites' arrival. Ten of the scouts returned with a grim report of fortified cities and undefeatable foes, but the remaining two, Joshua and Caleb, dissented from the others and insisted that the land could indeed be conquered.
All twelve scouts embarked upon the same journey and saw the same land. But when that journey was over, ten of them threw their hands up in despair and two of them raised their voices up in determination. Two of them were able to see possibility, in the face of insurmountable obstacles. As a result, God decreed that the first ten scouts would perish in the wilderness. Only Joshua and Caleb would be able to enter the Promised Land.
This Shabbat, the Torah reminds us that we have an obligation to raise up our voices with determination and to believe in possibility, like Joshua and Caleb. Our Jewish identity reminds us to put ourselves, as Rabbi Lawson says, on the "forefront for people's liberation." And the history behind Juneteenth reminds us that liberation in word is different than liberation in deed.
So, this year (and beyond), the J's programming will aim to educate and motivate our community to do better. Through authors, films, lectures, classes, special events and social action, we will demonstrate our commitment to speaking up and showing up for racial justice. More information will be available soon, but in the meantime, here are some useful resources, both local and national.
Together with our black neighbors--those within and outside of the Jewish community--may we begin shouldering, as Jelani Cobb wrote, the "burden of knowledge" and stepping up to the responsibility and the possibility that this knowledge brings.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Juneteenth Shalom,
Local Juneteenth Shabbat Celebrations
- Congregation Emanu El
(All sermons and study this Shabbat will be on the subject of Juneteenth)
- Congregation Shma Koleinu, Juneteenth Shabbat
- Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism, Juneteenth Shabbat
- Jewish Multi-Racial Network (national) Juneteenth Shabbat (registration required)
More About Juneteenth
- Racial Justice Film & TV Watchlist
- Time Magazine - Books to Read About Anti-Racism
- PJ Library, Talking to Kids About Racism
- Anti Defamation League Education