Black Jews and Allies Celebrate ‘Juneteenth’ — The End of Slavery — With A Seder
Try my variation on this classic riddle:
A Jewish child gets into a terrible car accident and is rushed to the hospital. Emergency workers carry the stretcher off the ambulance and a black doctor runs over. But when the doctor lifts up the child’s oxygen mask, she gasps. “I can’t operate on her!” shouts the doctor. “She’s my daughter!”
How is this possible?
Get this — the doctor is black and Jewish.
“African Americans VS. American Jews,” screamed the cover of this June’s edition of Commentary Magazine, a conservative-leaning Jewish publication, as if announcing another installment of the “Avengers” movies. Consciously or not, the headline suggests that a person cannot be both Jewish and black. Black Jews worldwide would probably find fault in this idea. The group of young black Jews who led the Juneteenth Seder for the group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) in Manhattan this week certainly would.
On Thursday night, The Black Caucus, a subset within the activist group JFREJ, gathered beside the East River to lead an evening of music, prayer, discussion, and activism. Bikers, joggers, and dog walkers slowed as they passed a patch of cement covered in bright rugs and strung-across with banners proclaiming “Jews Support Black Lives Matter” and “Fight For Our Freedom.” I arrived at the event tired, hungry, thirsty, and cursing my decision not to go to the bathroom when I had an opportunity. Kindly, a volunteer signed me into the free event, noted the table with free drinks and vegetarian and Kosher-optional meals, and pointed out the bathroom. “It’s accessible,” she said, noting a woman marked “access volunteer” who was prepared to assist me.
Startled by her thoroughness, I asked if I could speak to her about her involvement with the justice group for my article. She blushed. “I don’t think I’m the right person for you to talk to,” she said. “I’ve never been to a JFREJ event before.” She was just happy to be put to work.
Juneteenth is not a well-known holiday. It commemorates the freedom of black slaves in America. Not the freeing — the freedom. Juneteenth does not celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, but rather June 19, 1865, when the news finally spread to enslaved people in the farthest reaches of the South that they were free, and indeed had been legally free but working as slaves for nearly two years.
“Black-ish” performs a musical explainer of Juneteenth
It’s not an event marked with fireworks or parades, despite its tremendous historical magnitude. After all, as a character notes on the “Juneteenth” episode of the TV show “Black-ish”: “Look, people are never gonna celebrate something they barely even want to admit happened.” But the crowd of young Jews parked on rugs by the river, raising glasses of sweet hibiscus tea to the first bracha over wine, were determined to celebrate.
“We memorialize the ending of chattel slavery in the way we remember our liberation from Egypt because ritual is a form of collective, embodied memory,” said Yehuda Webster, opening the seder. “We embody our experience as enslaved people on a journey to freedom.” The seder and the Juneteenth are surprisingly complimentary, though there should be little surprise, given the way Exodus from Egypt has long been a part of the African-American freedom narrative. The glossy haggadah distributed at the beginning of the Juneteenth seder interspersed Assata Shakur quotes (“It is our duty to fight for freedom”) with the words of the shehechyanu (blessing God “who has kept us in life and sustained us, enabling us to reach this season.”) “Our tradition makes room for the brokenness as well as the wholeness,” Yehudah said, with the enthused piety of a young rabbi, albeit a rabbi wearing a backwards hat and a string of beads around his neck.
Another woman, Shoshana Brown, read Blessings For The Ancestors as a seaplane alighted noisily in the water behind us. “Our name; our clothing; our language — that is all we were allowed to take out of Egypt,” she read from the haggadah. “It is exactly what we were lost when we were taken from Africa.” Behind me, a nine year-old girl named Alma followed along with her finger. “What brought you to JFREJ?” I asked her parents. They looked at me as if I had asked, “What are you doing in your house?”
“We’re Jews for racial and economic justice,” Alma’s dad said. “What about you, Alma?” I asked. Alma nodded. “I agree.” I asked Alma if the seder, which lasted about two hours, was more or less fun than services. She looked up at me. “Depends on the service,” she said, and directed her eyes back to the stage, where Victoria Davis was speaking.
Pouring hibiscus tea (red, in the custom of Juneteenth, to symbolize resilience,) into Elijah and Miriam’s bowl in a gesture to ancestors that references some African traditions, Victoria told her story. Delrawn Small, Victoria’s brother, was shot three times by a New York City Police officer on July 4, 2016. The maggid portion of the seder had begun. Security footage of Small’s death shows Smalls, who was un-armed, being shot through the window of off-duty Officer Wayne Isaacs’ car as he approached. Isaacs was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges. “He has not been held accountable in any way,” Victoria said. “We really need everyone’s support,” she added. “Police accountability fights are difficult, to say the least.”
“You can count on us,” Shoshana said, putting a hand on Victoria’s shoulder. The crowd murmured in agreement. One by one, Black Caucus members came on stage to tell stories of their families’ journeys from bondage to freedom, their eleh toldot. One reader shared the words of Cudjo Lewis, the last living freed slave in America, whose story was documented by Zora Neale Hurston in 1931. “I encourage all of us to dig deeper into the well of our history so deep that we can reach that cool and refreshing memory of liberation,” a speaker told the ashen-faced audience.
Why is June 19 different than all other nights? As a speaker asked us to close our eyes and imagine “What a future of joy, freedom, and collective liberation” looks like and then to inquire of our fantasies, “What did the Jewish community do to make that happen?”
I checked in a with Moshe, a freshly-minted Yeshiva University graduate, who was seated on the pavement in front of me. “The things JFREJ represents I consider to be Orthodox, or should be,” he said, with sudden vehemence. “I believe that the majority of Orthodox doctrine are the things that would lead someone to be here.”
Sophie Elman-Golan, a consultant for JFREJ and a prominent leader in the anti-racism and Women’s March movements, says that the first thing white people who want to assist in justice work should do is to “commit to what it would look like to divest from white supremacy.” To Sophie and the leaders of the seder that means building alternatives to a police force and to mass incarceration.
“Are there prisons in your vision?” asked the speaker leading us in the visioning exercise. (“No!” the crowd shouted.)
“Were there a lot of police officers with automatic weapons and zip ties in your vision?” (“No!”)
Elman-Golan invites white Jews like herself to “Commit to doing that work even if it is uncomfortable at times.” And to Jews of Color, she says, “Join the caucus. We see you. We love you. We want with us.” I spoke to Daniella, a recent JFREJ-member who says she feels a deep personal connection to blackness though she is a white Jew. “I think we share a lot in common in terms of the way that we’ve had to push through, the way we’ve survived through time and created tradition and ritual,” she said, noting that her astrologer has told her that she has a significant connection to a black person in her history.
“We have to materially invest in the world we want — we have to fund our movements,” shouted Yehudah from the stage. As we ate dinner (beets, okra, black eyed peas, sweet potato, cornbread, and watermelon,) wicker baskets floated through the crowd, filling with loose bills that threatened to be caught up by the breeze and lifted into the river. Around me, people shifted watermelon slices to their non-dominant hand and used their phones to direct donations in denominations of eighteen directly to JFREJ on Venmo, a money-sending application.
Twilight arrived, turning the river shades of navy and purple. Rabbi Barat Elman, Sophie’s mother, took the stage with obvious emotion, and addressed white attendees. “White supremacy is centered in Christianity, but Jews with white skin privilege has benefitted from it for years,” she said, looking around at the majority white crowd gathered in front of her. “Let’s be real,” she said. “We still benefit from the culture of white supremacy that we all live in.” She proposed that we join her in dismantling the institutions that hold up white supremacy, beginning with the NYPD and the prison system in accordance to JFREJ’s current strategy.
It can feel galling, even threatening to be told you benefit from white supremacy when you have also been a victim of it. JFREJ subscribes to the idea of intersectionality, a name coined by feminist theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw that posits that all forms of oppression are related and must be broken down together. To the Jews who see intersectionality as a threat, Sophie explains that the idea is “a necessary political framework because Jews are a multi-racial community and we believe in fighting anti semitism as it exists everywhere.” She adds, “When we talk about anti-Semitism and dismantling it but we don’t talk about anti-blackness, we’re not actually making the world safer for all Jewish people, we’re making it safer for all white Jewish people.” Intersectionality is, essentially, a political mode of Emma Lazarus’ hagaddah-echoing quote: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
The telling of the stories concluded and the seder lapsed into mingling time, with musician Ashley Phillips plucking at her guitar and JFREJ volunteers doing their best Jewish-parent impression, encouraging participants to finish the remaining slices of watermelon. I found Victoria Davis, the activist and sister of Delrawn Small, deep in conversation with a Black Caucus member near the back of the crowd. Victoria isn’t Jewish. She became affiliated with JFREJ because she kept running into them. “Since I’ve become an activist we’re usually at the same place at the same time,” she said. She recalls first meeting JFREJ volunteers at a Justice event and feeling surprised. “I was like — so! This is the Jewish community!” she said, laughing. “I was taken aback. It just seemed so inclusive.”
Torn between accepting the compliment and fretting over whether the small group of people now lounging on the cement singing “Wade in the Water” was a true representation of the Jewish people, I asked Victoria what draws her to JFREJ.
She stared at me.
“JFREJ members show up for actions for my brother,” she said. “They show up.”
I turned back to the stage, where another caucus member was leading the group in a Juneteenth rendition of “Next Year In Jerusalem.”
“We came here tonight to dance!” she said. “It is hard to dance in chains.” She looked out, over the crowd. “We have nothing to lose but our chains!” she shouted.
“We have nothing to lose but our chains!” the congregation roared.
The seder came to an end. Next year, in Jerusalem. Next year, may we be free from chains.
Jenny Singer is the deputy Lifestyle editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny