“What are we going to do for Juneteenth this year?” was the question on the table. In 2021, I’d participated in a panel discussion that developed out of one of the initiatives through the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) and the Rabbinical Assembly to offer Don’t Kvetch Organize training to synagogue leaders. Juneteenth fell on Shabbat that year and several communities coined it “Juneteenth Shabbat” in an effort to show solidarity and we knew that we had to ensure that communities had tools to continue the work they were starting. The first talks between myself and Guilienne Rollins-Rishon, USCJ’s first Racial Justice Specialist, were that we would do a year 2 panel where we would reflect on Juneteenth and the progress we’d seen in our communal work over the past year. A virtual panel, however, did not feel like the highest impact idea and I knew that we needed to do more to keep the work moving forward. As we were brainstorming, I said, “what if we did a Haggadah?” and the idea was born. Guilienne consulted with Sasha King, who graciously offered her research and expertise to ensure that we were capturing the elements that were historically relevant to centering Juneteenth and not just the Black American experience.
The Juneteenth Haggadah Project was created to serve multiple purposes. First and foremost, we wanted to find a way for Jews who identify as American Descendants of Slavery to be able to ground their reflection and processing of Juneteenth within their Jewish tradition. As a descendent of Juneteenth myself, I’d never found a way to hold this holiday in the same place as my faith and I so desperately wanted a practice that allowed me to do so. We also realized that many of our Jewish communities have been engaging in meaningful REI work and needed guidance on how to mark Juneteenth without being appropriative. Our Juneteenth Haggadah begins a conversation about how to do both of those things. We see it as a living document that will grow as we receive feedback from those who are using it in hopes that next year’s version will be even more robust. One of my dreams is that we will be able to collaborate with Black communities outside of the Jewish community and create versions that can be used across cultures because while we were putting this together, Sasha King pointed out that this type of formal ritual does not seem to exist for any of us anywhere.
This past Shabbat, I led a Seder using our Juneteenth Haggadah. I debated about whether I wanted to take on the emotional labor to lead because, if done well, it would involve me putting a part of myself on display that I was not sure that I had the courage to lay bare in my own community. Ultimately, my desire to see it through won out. I knew that every part of what I was creating was going to become the definition of this ritual practice in my community and I wanted to be the one to shape that. Shopping for every detail began my processing and setting up the Seder plates centered me and was more therapeutic than I expected. As I saw each detail come together, I felt like I was honoring Marthie and my other ancestors whose names I will likely never know. The Seder itself was transformative. Never had there been a time in a non-JOC space where I was able to share so much of this side of my identity and feel seen. Participants leaned in, listened, and learned and the ADOS participants had the space to breathe. General Order Number 3 moved an elder to tears and we grappled with the original lyrics of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” that include the name “Jesus” (now edited out of the Haggadah). The Seder exemplified what it is like for me to have multiple identities, that often have competing priorities, present in the same space. I have a deep connection to two cultures that are simultaneously in harmony and at odds with each other. In that moment, the part of me that is connected to the spirituality that comes out of Black churches found itself clashing with seeing that name in my Jewish space forcing us all to work through discomfort. I’m still in deep reflection about whether there is a place within me where one ends and the other begins or whether my consciousness is constantly skateboarding on a Mobius strip. This ritual gave me the space and “permission” to openly explore all of this in a way that I did not anticipate. Experiencing this Juneteenth Seder outside of my head and in community was a start to finding the language to start healing. I hope that we will see opportunities emerge that will bring more of us together by reaching in and reaching beyond the Jewish community. As reflections begin making their way across my screens, I feel more hopeful that we are one step closer to becoming one people with one heart.