Amid a national reckoning over race, Jews are embracing Juneteenth

Marchers in the 48th Annual Juneteenth Day Festival in Milwaukee, Wisc., June 19, 2019. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images for VIBE)

(JTA) — After the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic this spring delayed the launch of the website for TribeHerald, a new media company for Jews of color, founders Yitz Jordan and Rabbi Shais Rishon settled on a perfect alternative: the evening of June 18.

After all, it would be “erev Juneteenth,” Jordan said — a mashup of the Hebrew word denoting the eve of Jewish observances and the name of the holiday commemorating the day Black people enslaved in Texas learned they had been freed.

First observed in 1866, Juneteenth has experienced a surge of interest this year amid nationwide protests against racial injustice. That surge extends to the Jewish world, where a range of events are planned for this Juneteenth, which this year coincides with the beginning of Shabbat.

“The key word for this Juneteenth would be visibility,” Jordan told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Starting from the most obvious example, we got to see so much police brutality and so much inequality and so much visual evidence of disparate treatment, so the struggle became more visible. And now more people are visibly out in the streets, of all ethnicities, screaming Black Lives Matter. Now is the perfect Juneteenth to bring Jews of color into visibility and to show that our lives matter, too.”

One major event capitalizing on this year’s Juneteenth timing is an online Juneteenth Kabbalat Shabbat service. Organized by Be’Chol Lashon, an organization advocating for Jews of color, and Keshet, which focuses on LGBTQ Jewish issues, the event features two Black rabbis, Sandra Lawson and Isaama Goldstein-Stoll.

“We are celebrating what it means to live freely in the United States, and we also must remember that for many of us freedom is a journey,” Lawson wrote in the Forward last year. “The fight for freedom for all is not over. There is still work to be done. Juneteenth is an important reminder to all of us of why we fight: The struggle for freedom for all must continue because until we are all free, none of us is free.”

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