Yesterday, President Biden signed a bill establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. The day marks the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when formerly enslaved Black people in Texas were freed. While this has long been a day of celebration for many Black people, especially in the South, it is another example in the history of racism and slavery in this country of which many Americans were unaware of until recently.
Juneteenth is an opportunity to celebrate Black history and the end of slavery, as well as to commit to ongoing learning about the history of race and racial injustice in this country. It is also an opportunity to acknowledge that, more than 150 years later, racism, inequity, and inequality still plague our nation, and we all have a role to play in working toward the ideal of liberty and justice for all.
The Jewish People understand what it means to celebrate liberation. Since the time our ancestors first sang the Song of the Sea after the exodus from Egypt, remembering the experience of oppression and rejoicing in our freedom have been part of our collective memory and our ritual lives. “Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” is the existential underpinning of our ethical mandate to treat all human beings with dignity and compassion.
Facing history, indeed, forces us to face ourselves — to ask where and how we contribute to the oppression and suffering of others, even unintentionally. Like Passover in the Jewish tradition, Juneteenth also inspires hope that liberation — physical and spiritual — is possible, as well as a sense of responsibility and urgency to help bring it about.
Rabbi Marc Baker
About the Author
CJP President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker is an educator, writer, and leadership mentor who is devoting his life to Jewish learning and building Jewish communities.