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Exploring Juneteenth and Judaism: A Journey of Intersection and Liberation 

As we commemorate Juneteenth, which marks the day federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people were freed, we make space to honor the end of chattel slavery in the United States while honoring the struggles of enslaved peoples. As Jews, we gather each year to retell the Exodus story of our freedom from slavery and learn from the experience of our deliverance from bondage. Juneteenth provides an opportunity for us to deepen that learning, understand how the repercussions of slavery shape civic life today, and to talk about the roots of social, economic, and racial inequality across our society. 
Today as a staff, we learned more about Juneteenth and participated in a cultural competence training with Global Inclusion Strategist, Interculturalist Trainer, and Keynote Speaker April Powers. April has spent her professional career helping organizations manage differences through training, recruiting, and diversity & inclusion strategy. April shared her thoughts below about the significance of this holiday.

April Powers was invited to be among 300 representatives from the Jewish community in the U.S. to celebrate the first official Jewish American Heritage Month at the White House.

Can you tell us about the significance of Juneteenth and why it is important to commemorate this day? 

Though the victims of chattel slavery were officially freed by the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, many did not learn of their freedom until over two and a half long years later. The official date of this final proclamation was June 19, 1865, which has been contracted to be “Juneteenth.” The name itself also reflects the scattered nature of our freedom, an approximate date. 

While this date certainly does not delineate a hard stop of the enslavement of all Black people in this country (read “The New Jim Crow” or watch the film “The 13th” for more info on this), we do have much to commemorate. 

What does Juneteenth mean to you? 

Though it is a newly recognized holiday, Black people have been celebrating in various ways since 1867. Recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday and elevating the importance of the lesson may help us to humanize and protect others. It’s also important to celebrate changes of laws that can impact hearts and minds.

April Powers leads Juneteenth JEDI session

As someone who is intimate with both your Jewish and Black identities, what would you say are some major sources of intersection between the two?

As a Black Jewish woman, on Passover I am accustomed to celebrating the liberation of our people from enslavement over 3,000 years ago. Passover is a time to ask ourselves a number of questions about who is free, how do we help others who are not free, and what this liberation has meant for us as the Jewish people. Juneteenth is a natural holiday for all of us to celebrate and recognize because “never forget” is a value. “Never forget” is a motto. “Never forget” is critical to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past.

How can Jewish values of social justice and equality be woven into the promotion of awareness and understanding of Juneteenth within and beyond the Jewish community?

If you are here in the US, you benefit from the legacy of that stain. Whether you arrived yesterday, or your family’s roots trace back to before the founding of this country, we can all pause, ask if we are all truly free, and examine how we can contribute to the liberation of others. Some people believe that because there was a proclamation and we do not directly enslave others, slavery doesn’t exist here. Unfortunately, many of us still buy goods made by enslaved people and thus participate in enslavement around the world and even in our own country.

How can the Jewish community participate in Juneteenth celebrations and contribute to the ongoing fight for racial justice and equality?

Though I have been to many a Juneteenth cookout and celebration, Juneteenth is a newer version of Passover to me. I’d like to see us retell the story and create the opportunity to evaluate our current state of affairs as we do in the Jewish tradition. I’d love to see companies adopt it as an official holiday and offer ways to reflect on our past. This is a Passover that belongs to all of us, if we choose to see it that way. But that’s just me. As with all holidays, we should make it our own. Embrace the lesson and certainly do not repeat the mistakes.

Participants of the Juneteenth JEDI session received Author Michael W. Twitty’s Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew

Could you provide any recommendations or resources for individuals who are interested in further educating themselves on Black history, with the goal of fostering a more inclusive future for everyone? 

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