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Putting the "Jew" in Juneteenth

06/15/2023 06:19:47 PM


Rabbi Steve Folberg

Dear Ones,

This coming Monday we celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday that did not really begin to penetrate my awareness until moving to Texas in 1991. I’m embarrassed to admit that prior to that time, I knew that Juneteenth had a connection to the civil rights movement, but not much more than that.

The full name of this federal holiday is Juneteenth National Independence Day. It is a date that became associated with President Abraham Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, while the Civil War was still raging. As he had promised, Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring that slaves in all Confederate states, not in the hands of the Union, were freed. But it took quite some time for the Emancipation Proclamation to be transformed from words into actual liberation.

This fact is especially poignant for “us Texans,” since emancipation did not come to the slaves of our state until more than two years after Lincoln declared that all slaves must be freed. Finally, on June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger, speaking in Galveston, declared, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor…”

Although the Lone Star State was the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday in 1980, it did not become a federal holiday until 2021!

The movement from bondage to freedom, from degradation to liberation, is a deeply Jewish theme.

Every spring, we Jews devote a weeklong festival to remembering the degradation and violent oppression of enslavement, and the joy of liberation. We do so, in part, to remember that slavery and oppression are ongoing in our world, in our day, and that we must constantly rededicate ourselves to working for the redemption of all oppressed peoples, “because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Yes, Juneteenth deserves recognition and celebration by the Jewish community because of the values it shares with our Scripture and our holy days.

But even more importantly and urgently, Juneteenth should provide an opportunity for the Jewish community to celebrate and lift up the presence, voices and experiences of Jews of color. I gave a high holy day sermon about this need several years ago, but the work of lifting up and embracing Jewish racial and ethnic diversity must be ongoing. Indeed, cutting edge organizations like Bechol Lashon and The Jews of Color Initiative are devoted to “breaking down racial inequities, centering the leadership of Jews of color, and reflecting the multiracial reality of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Levy and I are thrilled to share the news that a CBI Jews of Color affinity group is in the works. Working with some of our community’s Jews of color, a vision for what this CBI affiliate group might be is beginning to take shape. If you identify as a Jew of color within our congregation and would like to make connections with and help to shape this effort, please click on this link and send an email with your contact information to Trish Ivey, our super friendly Clergy Assistant. In this way you will be kept in the loop.

Let’s make sure that our motto, Joyful, Diverse, Inclusive, is as fully realized as we can make it!

With love, as always,

Rabbi Steve Folberg

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784