Marcella White Campbell of Be'chol Lashon during Juneteenth Kabbalat Shabbat. (Screenshot)
Marcella White Campbell of Be'chol Lashon during Juneteenth Kabbalat Shabbat. (Screenshot)

‘Juneteenth sameach’: Local Jews mark newest national holiday with prayer and reflection

Most Americans probably knew very little if anything about Juneteenth before last summer. The holiday commemorates the date June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the freedom of Black people who had remained enslaved more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The holiday has never been widely celebrated outside of the American South. But the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and the racial justice protests that broke out around the country, brought new attention to Juneteenth. Last year, many groups — including the San Francisco-based diversity advocacy nonprofit Be’chol Lashon — observed it for the first time. Be’chol Lashon’s virtual Juneteenth Kabbalat Shabbat service in 2020 was seen on Facebook by more than 30,000 viewers.

This year’s focus on Juneteenth carried even more resonance following President Joe Biden’s signing of a bill on June 17 making it the newest federal holiday. Marcella White Campbell, who took over as Be’chol Lashon’s director earlier this year, called it an important signal to the country. “This gesture won’t redress systemic inequality, or in any way make amends for centuries of chattel slavery,” she told J. “What it will do, however, is to bring Juneteenth into everyday conversation. Subsequent generations will grow up celebrating Juneteenth.”

Campbell noted that like the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, the story of Juneteenth deserves to be told and retold. “It’s an African American story, so it’s also a Jewish story,” she said.

Be’chol Lashon’s second annual Juneteenth Kabbalat Shabbat, a prerecorded service released on June 18 on YouTube, featured many prominent Black Jews, including Rabbi Sandra Lawson, director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism; Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, public affairs adviser at the Jewish Federations of North America; and Sabrina Sojourner, a Black Jewish chaplain from Texas.

“One thing that we can learn from this holiday, Juneteenth, and one thing we can learn from this past year, is that none of us are free until all of us are free,” Lawson said before launching into a rendition of “Ella’s Song” by composer and civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Sojourner, whose parents were from Texas, recalled attending large family gatherings on Juneteenth. “I’m really excited to be incorporating Juneteenth into my Judaism, into our Judaism,” she said.

Robin Washington
Robin Washington

In his remarks during the service, Robin Washington, a Black Jewish journalist who has written about his mixed feelings surrounding Juneteenth, called it a “bittersweet” holiday. “To me, it symbolizes a great deceit,” he said. “It meant that the people who were enslaving the people in Galveston, Texas, the Black people, were violating every possible convention of human decency that I can think of … It goes to today’s argument for reparations.”

Rebecca S’manga Frank
Rebecca S’manga Frank

Rebecca S’manga Frank, an actor, writer and former Bay Area resident who graduated from Mills College, recited an original “psalm” that she wrote for the occasion: “Why is this day different from all other days?/ On this day the message of freedom was no longer delayed/ Galveston, Texas 1865, and Today/ May I carry the message of freedom/ May I receive the message of freedom.”

As Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein brought the service to a close with “Shalom Aleichem,” the chat box filled with a new greeting that is quickly catching on in the American Jewish community: “Juneteenth sameach!”

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

On June 19, another local Jewish community observed Juneteenth when Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon led about 30 members of Congregation Ner Tamid of San Francisco in a virtual Mussar session around the themes of the holiday. Mussar, according to Leon, refers to an ancient process of Jewish mindfulness. The goal is to “chart a path together toward greater soul health for our country.” During the past year, Ner Tamid has held a series of virtual events on the topics of race and racial justice in the U.S., which Leon called “the great conversation of our time.”

After playing a recording of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” commonly known as the Black National Anthem, Leon asked the participants — almost all of whom were white — to share middot, or soul traits, that could be associated with Juneteenth. The participants listed patience, responsibility, truth, silence and anger, among others.

“When we learn American history, we don’t learn … so many things about our history,” one said, mentioning 1619, the year that the first African slaves arrived on the shores of North America. “We still have so far to go.”

“No country can survive long-term without acknowledging the truth of historical events,” another participant said.

Leon replied: “So I’d say, hinenu, here we are, in our small way, contributing to that education of ourselves and one another.”

Rev. Howard Lindsay of Grace Tabernacle Community Church in San Francisco joined the session to speak about his work with the San Francisco Black-Jewish Unity Group. (Founded in 2016, it will soon be changing its name to the San Francisco Black-Jewish Unity Coalition.)

The grassroots group has brought Jews and non-Jewish African Americans together to organize on issues of concern to the Black community, Lindsay said, including eliminating cash bail, expanding the parole board and pushing for the early release of those incarcerated in California over concerns about Covid-19.

Lindsay, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica, said he didn’t grow up celebrating Juneteenth and only learned about it when he moved to San Francisco from the Bronx.

“I just think that it’s important to begin to recognize… the history of white supremacy and how it still persists to this day, to recognize the struggle for freedom, and how all of us are interconnected in this struggle for freedom,” he said. “We’re all created in the image of God.”

He added, “The rise of antisemitism, the rise of anti-Asian hatred, all of those things are connected to this white supremacy disease.”

Lindsay encouraged those who are interested in learning more about the unity group to attend one of its monthly meetings or join an action committee. Details can be found on the group’s website.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.