Reflecting on Juneteenth and Jewish Values

By Nancy B. Greer

President & CEO
On June 19, 1865, two months after the end of the Civil War, Union forces entered Galveston, Texas and issued an order proclaiming the end of slavery in America. The order was not the final nail in slavery’s coffin—the 13th Amendment was not ratified for another six months—but in the postwar years and beyond, Black Americans embraced Juneteenth as a symbolic day to celebrate freedom after centuries of bondage.

Freedom is at the core of Juneteenth and the holiday’s significance for all Americans. Our newest national holiday speaks to our past, present, and future. Juneteenth is a day of remembrance—the righting of a terrible wrong. It is a day to recognize that the freedom we have today can never be taken for granted. Juneteenth is an inspiring symbol of resolve—an acknowledgement of unfulfilled promises and a rededication to the hard work of living up to our highest ideals.

Our Jewish values mirror the day’s meaning, reminding us that we have the power and the responsibility to build a world where freedom and justice are universal. Many well-known precepts of our tradition speak to this obligation. “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” and “Do not stand idly by” are words that are as clear in their moral force today as they were when they were written by our ancestors long ago. When we celebrate our people’s Exodus from the narrow place at Passover, we retell a story with a powerful message: Freedom is not complete unless all are free.

Juneteenth was a milestone on an unfinished journey. Juneteenth is an appeal to conscience and a call to action. Your Federation takes that call seriously. Our advocacy in Olympia to correct racial disparities in public programs. Speaking out against local acts of racial injustice. JCRC’s passage of a racial equity consensus statement. Our participation in the Jewish Federations of North America’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) program.

As Pirkei Avot teaches us, we are not obligated to complete the work, but we are not free to desist from it.

May everyone have a fulfilling and meaningful Juneteenth celebration.