Juneteenth and the Frustration of a Moderate

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

On June 19, 1865 General Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3 to the citizens of Galveston Texas. This Order began, "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free." The celebration that followed General Granger's reading of General Order No. 3 began a tradition of over one hundred thirty years, today hosted in cities across America and known as "Juneteenth."

This commemoration of the freeing of Black Americans from the horrible yoke of slavery is traditionally used to highlight the plight of the poor in today's society. Held at Cabrini Green this year it once again focused on the issue of public housing for the poor.

As on several other such occasions I was proud to attend as a member of a delegation representing The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs on whose Board of Directors I serve. Rising as the first speaker on the program for the day, I underscored the terrible injustice be inflicted upon the poorest members of our community through the relentless closing of buildings in Cabrini Green and other public housing complexes without supplying new housing for those being displaced. Given Section 8 vouchers in a City where moderate housing is becoming an ever diminishing segment of our housing stock (just consider my own community of Uptown once the home to the poorest of the poor and now a community well into gentrification with many condos priced in the upper four hundred thousands) has effectively added more innocent people to the ever growing numbers of homeless in Chicago. Most tragic is the fact that an ever greater number of homeless today are children!

I attend these gatherings out of a profound sense of responsibility for my neighbors emanating from my belief that the proper role for the committed Jew in today's society is best served by taking the position of the moderate. Simply defined a moderate is one who is, for lack of better terminology, a "liberal" on social agenda issues and at the very same time a "conservative" on moral and ethical agenda issues. In terms of my Jewish commitment this means affirming my support for the importance of caring for the needy of society in accord with the often repeated phrase in the Torah appended to caring for the needy "and the stranger who resides among you," which is understood to mean the non-Jew living in the Jewish Commonwealth. A moderate as well stands for the values of ethics and morality detailed in our Torah as timeless and ever appropriate. And while I firmly believe that a great many Americans would resonate with the moderate stance, it seems from the media and the political arena that one is constantly forced to align oneself with either the conservatives or the liberals. It seems neither faction can find it in their hearts to leave some breathing room for the moderate position. When one stands with either camp on a given issue it is taken for granted that that stance denotes an acceptance of their entire agenda.

Tragically this year, as in years past, the Juneteenth gathering was attended, in the main, by the fanatic left, communists and causatious liberals. And while I stood shoulder to shoulder with all present on the travesty of justice and simple human decency that marks the approach to public housing in Chicago, I was sickened by the anti-Bush, anti-government rhetoric that always seems to creep into the comments of speakers on this day which marks the positive virtue of a democratic society to cure its ills. Seeming to overshadow the important purpose of the gathering, that of rallying around those who are daily evicted from public housing with no place to go, the desire to find a "bully pulpit" for the ultra-liberal agenda beclouded the message of the day. So crushed, so lacking in hope, are the residents of Cabrini Green that their turn out is in but small numbers for these events even when hosted in their community replete with barbeque and live entertainment. Visibly absent from these events are the African American clergy even those who minister to the residents of Cabrini Green. I left this Juneteenth gathering as I always do, frustrated that such a clearly important cause, that of championing the basic rights of the most disenfranchised of our citizens, those who have lost all hope to have a home, a simple place in which to live is ignored by the majority of society and politicized by others. What a tragedy!!!