Every Friday night, we are reminded through the Kiddush, “His holy Shabbat as a heritage, in remembrance of the work of Creations; the first of the holy festivals, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt.” This commandment has echoed throughout the walls of Jewish homes and synagogues for thousands of years as we raise our voices to bless the wine. We are to acknowledge our past every week, with regard to the collective experience of freedom from slavery. This highlights the significance of that period of Jewish history and emphasizes the importance in Judaism of remembering past trauma and the redemption from it.
While we will be saying Kiddush tonight to remember our people’s slavery and its end, we also have the opportunity today to remember the slavery of African Americans — and its abolition — on the anniversary of Gen. Gordon Granger’s reading of the federal orders in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. This date, known as Juneteenth, commemorates the final announcement that slavery had been abolished throughout the United States, a full two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. This is a monumental day for the African American community and all Americans, representing the end of bondage for generations of a people who were treated as no more important than chattel.
We as Jews understand the significance of this form of commemoration through important Jewish traditions, including the holiday of Passover. Honoring the past, trauma and atrocities included, is a way for societies to recognize where they came from and what they have overcome.
Today, as we remember, honor and acknowledge the pain and suffering of the African American community, we are mindful that memory and collective memory are foundational components to people everywhere. Seeing into the past allows us to live in the present and move into the future.
We at the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando and its Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) are heartbroken and outraged over the death of George Floyd, an African American man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s pleas for his life as he lay handcuffed and helpless on the ground were met with silence by the police officer. This death is yet another in a disturbingly long list of inexcusable injustices that have been perpetrated against African Americans across the United States.
We call on people of all races, ethnic backgrounds and faiths to speak up now against the systemic racism that is a longstanding disgrace – one for which we all share responsibility.
As Jews we have seen how unchecked hatred can destroy millions of lives and haunt generations in its wake. Our tradition teaches us that all humans are created in the image of God. The Torah obligates us to not stand idly by.
The powerful words of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Weisel resonate at this time:
“I swore to never be silent whenever or wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
As a community of conscience, we pledge to all communities of color to work with you, not only to combat racism in all its forms, but also to remain vigilant in pointing out injustice and defending all its victims.
In the days since George Floyd’s death, we have seen tens of thousands of Americans peacefully take to the streets to demand justice. We stand with our fellow Americans and we will not be distracted by those who would take advantage of this righteous cause to further sow the seeds of discord. Our collective future depends on this focused effort.
Our children and grandchildren are watching. Each of us has a responsibility to stand up and speak out against injustice and to join together in finding a constructive and peaceful path forward. In that spirit, we commit ourselves to the biblical call of “Justice, justice shall [we] pursue,” and the imperative of achieving a peaceful, just and equal society for all.
George Floyd should not have died. He, his family, African Americans everywhere and all who have suffered as a result of discrimination and bigotry are entitled to justice and freedom from hate. Today we stand in solidarity with them as we say, “Enough.”
We continue to work with our Jewish agencies, organizations, and synagogues to support the African American community.