JFREJ’s Juneteenth Seder

Last week JFREJ celebrated Black Liberation and Jewish identity at two extraordinary Juneteenth Seder events (more photos and video here). The seders and the accompanying Juneteenth Haggadah charted brand new territory for our community and provided a powerful forum for the Black members of the JFREJ Jews of Color Caucus to engage the entire JFREJ family in celebration, reflection and reckoning.

On June 14th, over 200 JFREJ members and friends turned out to the Solar 1 plaza at Stuyvesant Cove Park on the East River on a perfect spring day. The space had been transformed with magnificent flags in the colors of African Liberation which danced in the breeze.

After picking up their boxed dinners, which contained a lovingly curated and prepared meal of foods from our Juneteenth seder plate, attendees took their seats on chairs and picnic blankets in front of the designated stage and altar — two large stones with the river as a backdrop.

The start of the program was signaled by the first of the many songs that would grace the evening, all provided by singer/songwriter Ashley Phillips, who was an indispensable part of a magical night. Then we lit candles and said the first blessing and the seder began. Caucus member Shoshana Brown led a Blessing for the Ancestors, joined by Victoria Davis, sister of Delrawn Small. We honored his memory and Victoria asked us to join her fight to hold the NYPD accountable for his death.

Led by some (but by no means all!) of the many Black JOC Caucus members who crafted our Juneteenth Haggadah, the program wove together stories of Jewish liberation from Egypt and Black liberation from enslavement in the United States. We celebrated resistance and the ancestors who taught us how to survive; we celebrated freedom while also questioning its meaning. The Haggadah used the theme of water — the Middle Passage, the River Nile — to surface truths and contradictions in our stories of liberation. With ancient rituals, oral histories, and participatory visioning, the seder ranged from the distant past, to a hopeful future.

We invited Rabbi Barat Ellman to challenge the audience to think about the special responsibility that Jews have to fight for economic reparations, bringing our Spring4BlackLIves series to its conclusion. Starting with Counting the Omer, and continuing through Shavuot, we have been engaging the entire community in a process of reading the Vision For Black Lives platform, specifically the Invest/Divest section. At Juneteenth, we challenged the assembled crowd to commit to ongoing efforts to divest from policing and mass incarceration, and invest in Black futures and Black communities.

Then we ate! The most important part of the evening — an incredible Juneteenth Seder dinner including black-eyed peas, sweet potato, beets, cornbread, hibiscus tea and more.

We closed with a final blessing and a moving performance of “Wade in the Water” as the sun began to set.

Finally, on June 19th, we held an intimate dinner for Black Jews and other Black friends in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, featuring music by caucus member Leah King, as well as Ganessa James.

These extraordinary events were only possible because of the scores of JFREJ members who volunteered, organized and contributed their labor and vision to make it happen. From the incredible crew who created the gorgeous decorations to the folks who made it possible for over 200 people to enjoy a unique Juneteenth dinner together, and everyone else who helped to set up, clean up and make this possible. And of course, the brave, visionary members of the Jews of Color Caucus who dreamed this into life as a gift to themselves and our entire community. Thank you. And happy Juneteenth!