Washington Hebrew Congregation prepares for its first Juneteenth


Last June, President Joe Biden signed into law a new federal holiday to fall on June 19: Juneteenth National Independence Day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. This weekend, Washington Hebrew Congregation will for the first time celebrate Juneteenth, with a Shabbat service, dinner and other events.

The festivities will begin Friday evening with dinner catered by local African-American catering company Avenues of the Caribbean, and a prayer service created by local Jews of color. Sabrina Sojourner, a community chaplain, will co-lead the service with Washington Hebrew clergy.

Three other Jews of color — Dee Sanae, founder of Mosaic Visions; Toreno Hebert, a member of Adas Israel Congregation; and Joe Levin-Manning, a member of Capitol Qvellers — will speak during the service.

Joshua Maxey, head of the Jews of Color group at Washington Jewish Congregation, said the entire weekend will serve as a “unifying message.”

“Seeing different denominations or different organizations that haven’t worked together before come together for this event is really awe-inspiring for me,” Maxey said. “And it’s a signal that our Jewish community here in D.C. wants to be embracing and we want to be a place of belonging for every Jew here.”

The Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center will host a film screening of “Who We Are: Chronicles of Racism in America” at 10 a.m. on June 19. It will be followed by a discussion led by Deitra Reiser, founder of Transform for Equity.

Maxey said the idea for this weekend came last year. Washington Hebrew Congregation had recently started a Jews of color affinity space.

“We started thinking: What is it that we can do, not only as a congregation, but as a Jewish community to uplift, unite and bring together Jews of color, and also bring the entire community together in celebration of Jews of color,” Maxey said.

Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. It was first celebrated in Texas, where Black people weren’t told until 1865 that they had been declared free people by the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
Maxey said the spirit of the Juneteenth is relevant to Jews.

“I think Juneteenth is about freedom,” Maxey said. “It represents and signifies the folks that were in Texas that had just found out that slavery had been abolished through the Emancipation Proclamation. I think we, as Jews, obviously know the story of freedom. The entire Jewish story is about freedom. I think being able to kind of connect those two experiences is beneficial because we do have Jews of color within Judaism.”

Maxey cited the Beyond the Count study released last year that said 80 percent of Jews of color experienced some sort of discrimination. The study sought to provide an intersectional account of American Jewish life by exploring the ways in which the identities of Jews of color influence their Jewish experiences.

“This is an opportunity for us to come together, support our Jews of color and to move from this place of having institutions being places of welcoming and moving them into becoming places of belonging,” Maxey said. “So that anyone who walks into a Jewish institution — not just Jews of color — feels like they belong there and have equal ownership of this space.”

As a federal holiday, Juneteenth is cause for a three-day weekend. Temple Micah in the District announced on its website that its office will be closed on June 20 for Juneteenth.

Other Juneteenth observances and celebrations in the Jewish community include: Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation’s discussion about “Racism in Northern Virginia Today” with the Rev. Vernon Walton, of the First Baptist Church of Vienna, at 9 p.m. on June 18.

Moishe House Mosaic Fairfax will screen and discuss the film “13th,” at 6:30 p.m. on June 20.

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