It was around 2:20 a.m. when the video of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer came on the screen. That harrowing 8 minutes and 46 seconds was followed by a reading of the names of African American victims of lynching. The partial list went on for 90 minutes.
It was what Rabbi Michael Holzman described as the most powerful part of Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation’s Juneteenth Tikkun, an all-night exploration of systemic racism in the United States.
The Reston-based Reform congregation has made an effort in recent years to address politics and issues of the day in a spiritual context. So this year they decided to commemorate Juneteenth, not with a Black Lives Matter protest or rally, but with an event in the style of a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a sunset to sunrise study session.
“Creating an America without racial violence, oppression, exploitation, fear is an act of imagination,” Holzman said in an interview after the event. “It has not existed and it does not exist. We think differently when we’re engaged [for 10 hours] when we’re sleep-deprived, when the light is thin, and I think that’s what America needs — a different way of thinking about race.”
The livestreamed interfaith event began at 8:30 p.m. on June 18 with introductions by Holzman and the Rev. Michelle Nickens of the Washington Plaza Baptist Church, in Reston.
Throughout the night, Nickens shared sharing poetry, songs, monologues and readings. She read the poem “We Wear the Mask,” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, followed by a screening of “How Can We Win,” in which author Kimberly Jones compares the black experience in America to having to play 400 rounds of Monopoly without being allowed to have any money or anything on the board.
Later came “Strange Fruit: Voices of a Lynching,” about James Cameron, who
survived a lynching in 1930.
“I saw my role as being the voice of history that is weaving out this experience and drawing parallels between what we are seeing today and what the enslaved experienced,” Nickens said in an interview. “I think in this moment of re-education, it is not for black people to come and teach you and to begin interrogating your own experiences. And so I wanted to make space for that as opposed to me preaching or dictating.”
A highlight for Nickens was the participation of members of her church in the tikkun, some of whom stayed the whole 10 hours of the livestream.
Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation member Carola Seiz served on the event’s preparation team. She said the tikkun was thought-provoking and a chance for participants to question their own beliefs.
“I thought it was amazing, and I was quite surprised also, how many people were still online during this time period between 1 and 4. I saw approximately 30 computers still logged in. And that was impressive for me.”
At 6 a.m. on Juneteenth, the tikkun ended. With 20 people gathered outside Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, Holzman sounded the shofar and Nickens led an African American Ring Shout, a religious practice first done by African slaves in North America.
“What I want people to take away from this event is that Judaism has the power to shape the narrative of the United States, just as other religions do as well,” Holzman said. “When we stay true to our Judaism, we have immense ability to discover new and relevant ways to bring justice to the world It is right at the core of how we practice our spirituality.”