Reflections on Juneteenth

by Beckee Birger, Director of DEIJ Initiatives

My daughter and I read a book called Juneteenth For Mazie. It’s a sweet story about how a young girl named Mazie learns about her great-grandpa Mose and the history of why her family celebrates Juneteenth. My toddler is too young to understand it right now, but I love the way the story travels through time, showing the bravery, resilience, and celebration of Black people throughout American history. The book does not shy away from talking about chattel slavery or racial discrimination, but it centers Black joy as beautiful and important.

I read this book with my daughter, even before she can comprehend it, because I want to teach her to celebrate herself and be proud of her history. This is a tradition I pass down from my mom. When I was little, she would sit me and my sister on the couch to watch documentaries about Black history on PBS. We hated it then, but now I understand exactly what she was doing. She wanted us to love being Black and to have access to stories we weren’t being taught in school. She smiles now when she sees me doing the same thing with my daughter.

My desire to create spaces of Black joy and celebration extends beyond my family, and it’s a big part of why I came to Moving Traditions to become the founding director of Kumi, a unique opportunity for all Jewish teens to interrupt racism, antisemitism, and other manifestations of oppression. Kumi creates designated space for Jews of Color to connect through our Jews of Color Empowerment track during our Kumi retreat, which allows Jewish teens of all racial backgrounds to come together for learning and solidarity. It is an environment for teens to explore their racial identity with a Jewish lens.

Growing up, I knew one other Black Jewish teen, and it often left me feeling like some oddity that no one understood. During our first Kumi retreat last year, we had a talent show, and a teen sang a song by H.E.R. I thought back to the many, many talent shows from my Jewish camp days. I never would have felt comfortable singing a Black artist my peers might not know. Today, I am creating a space where Black Jewish teens from across the country can connect, and their comfort infuses Black culture into our entire program. The beauty of this work is that by creating a space for Black teens to be themselves in our program, we are living a deeply Jewish value. The moments when Black teens are fully themselves in Jewish spaces are moments of b’tzelem elohim, moments where we uphold the holy work of seeing everyone in G-d’s image.

Juneteenth is important to me because it centers Black community and celebration as part of American history. I’m blessed to create Jewish spaces that aim to replicate the joy of Juneteenth for Black teens and that uphold sacred Jewish values. It’s an honor to share the lessons my mom taught me with a new generation of Jewish teens through my work at Moving Traditions.

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