Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Field Study: Why Shavuot is All But Ignored Across America

The holiday is a favorite among scholars, but is it too abstract to become popular among all but the most engaged or observant Jews?

Print Email
Students perform in a Bikurim pageant during Shavuot at the Talmei Aviv Educational Farm, near Ramat Gan, in 1970. (Israel Goverment Press Office/Flickr)
Related Content

Shavuot FAQ

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Festival of Weeks

When it comes to theological significance, the late-spring festival of Shavuot is no slouch: The event it commemorates—God giving the Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai—is arguably the most pivotal in the narrative of the Jewish people. But from the treatment it receives next to its more popular siblings—at least within non-Orthodox American communities—you wouldn’t know it. Passover gets celebrated at the White House and inspires novels, Yom Kippur turned Sandy Koufax into an American Jewish hero, and Hanukkah is so visible that conservative talk radio hosts think it threatens Christmas. Shavuot, meanwhile, can’t even satisfy Tom Lehrer, who “spent Shavuos, in East St. Louis/A charming spot but clearly not the spot for me.”

“When you ask people what’s their favorite holiday, I’ve heard people say Passover, Hanukkah, Sukkot, Purim,” says Jonathan Sarna, who teaches American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “I think it’s harder for people to find an emotional attachment to Shavuot than to almost any other Jewish holiday.” According to Sarna and other historians, Shavuot’s trouble catching on is nothing new—it goes back, they say, to the fall of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E.

In its earliest incarnation, Shavuot marked a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the sacrifice of the harvest’s first fruits and is one of a historical trio of harvest celebrations, along with Sukkot and Passover, known as the shalosh regalim. According to Paul Steinberg, a rabbi at the Conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles and the author of a series of books on the Jewish holidays, rabbis in the Talmudic period needed to reinvent Shavuot after the Jews left Israel for the Diaspora and no longer traveled to Jerusalem with harvest offerings. So, through what Steinberg calls the use of “complicated mathematical formulas” that were debated for centuries, the sages associated Shavuot with the giving of the Torah. But that interpretive shift, says Steinberg, has not “captured the imagination of Jews in America or anywhere else.” (According to Reform rabbi Andy Bachman, who leads Brooklyn’s Congregation Beth Elohim, some early Zionist settlers went so far as to explicitly reject the rabbinic interpretation of the holiday in favor of the agricultural one and celebrated Shavuot by dancing in the fields and riding on tractors.)

In the United States, Shavuot has met with particularly bad fortune. “They used to say that Jewish holidays needed mazel,” or luck, Sarna says. Hanukkah and Passover—located next to major Christian holidays that Jews want an alternative to—have mazel. Shavuot, marooned in the long stretch between Passover and the High Holidays, has the opposite. “Passover is the last Jewish gesture of the year before you disappear into summer camp, Memorial Day, et cetera,” Bachman says.

Until recently, Shavuot’s overlap with the end of the school year actually did confer some mazel at many Reform and Conservative synagogues, because Confirmation ceremonies—celebrations for high school students who have continued their Jewish education in addition to or instead of bar and bat mitzvahs—have traditionally been held on the holiday. But many congregations, including Bachman’s and Steinberg’s, have recently dropped Confirmation, which is increasingly seen an accommodation to Protestantism without authentic Jewish roots—another inadvertent blow to Shavuot.

Beyond the bad mazel, though, some conjecture that Shavuot may simply be too abstract to become popular among all but the most engaged or observant Jews. “The holidays that have done really well here are either firmly grounded in the home or allow for a kind of interplay between the synagogue and the home,” says Jenna Weissman Joselit, who teaches American Jewish history at George Washington University. Home-based holidays have strong elements of material and ritual—seders for Passover, sukkahs for Sukkot, menorahs for Hanukkah. But on Shavuot, “there’s no stuff and nothing to do, if you don’t go to shul,” Joselit says. “It’s a very serious holiday about law and responsibility and duty.” (All of this might be said as well for the High Holidays, which of course don’t lack for attendance. But the High Holidays make these themes personal, while Shavuot applies them to the Jews as a people—which, Joselit argues, makes them feel more remote.)

Shavuot is the consummate rabbis’ holiday: Its difficult themes of revelation, law, and collective responsibility make it a favorite among scholars—who struggle with how to share their enthusiasm with the laity. Elliot Dorff, a rabbi and professor of theology at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, calls it “my holiday”—precisely for the reasons their congregants may not. And Sarna says, “Shavuot is the holiday of books—it’s a harder sell, but we’re the People of the Book. Maybe it is our most authentic and distinctive holiday in that way.”

This idea might be starting to catch on: In the past few years, some synagogues have begun holding a tikkun leil Shavuot, or all-night study session, to celebrate the holiday. In its original form, the tikkun, first practiced in the 16th century by kabbalists who were themselves trying to revitalize Shavuot, involved prayer and Torah study from dusk until dawn; non-Orthodox congregations that hold the celebration now usually substitute lectures and roundtable discussions on a variety of subjects. Dorff said that Temple Beth Am, the Conservative synagogue he attends, can pull in 500 people for its tikkun (this year themed around “ethical, spiritual, halakhic implications of our food choices”), with 100 still remaining when the sun rises.

But some question whether the tikkun will ever catch on at most synagogues in a way that even approximates the success of lighter, more family-oriented holiday celebrations. “God bless Elliot Dorff, but Beth Am has a lot of academics and rabbis,” Steinberg said when asked whether he thought all-night study could save Shavuot. “That’s not the case for most synagogues. Most synagogues you get people till 10:00, then it dwindles.” (Indeed, some Jewish communities—in New York, California, and elsewhere—are trying to make the tikkun a more popular destination with performances, film screenings, and Israeli dancing.)

Steinberg’s own congregation is trying a different approach this year: bringing in a cow. Children at the synagogue will have an opportunity to watch a milking demonstration and churn their own butter in conjunction with the tradition of eating dairy on Shavuot. “We’ll see how it goes,” Steinberg says wryly. “It’s an intervention, if you will.”

Print Email
Yoni says:

But on Shavuot, “there’s no stuff and nothing to do, if you don’t go to shul”

Water games for kids & festive diary meals for the family.

“some early Zionist settlers went so far as to explicitly reject the rabbinic interpretation of the holiday in favor of the agricultural one and celebrated Shavuot by dancing in the fields and riding on tractors.”

Actually, this is done to this very day at many Kibbutzim & moshavim.

Eileen says:

I think synagogues should encourage congregants to eat dairy meals. Tying holidays to food is very powerful. It also would be a good time to try a program like “one book, one congregation” where the book chosen is one that is appropriate to the holiday and is discussed at the tikkun.

When contemplating the notion that all the Jews received Torah @ Mt Sinai at once and that it is an ongoing activity, It sounded like Twitter to me. Short phrases, instantaneously projected to the members of the tribes.

John Mood says:

“Tablet” seems out of touch with Judaism in America. Whether Shavuot is an agricultural festival, or a commemoration of the wonderful gift of Torah, you seem to think no one celebrates it either way. You would be wrong if you peeked in at my synagogue.

Contrary to what your article says, there is “stuff” to do, but it is a different holiday, more a holy day than holiday. Studying Torah into and through the night is one thing for adults to do, children can do many interesting and fun things, it’s up to their parents to teach these things to their children. And that can, and should be done at home. Little ones can color in books, be read stories and put to bed at a reasonable hour. Older ones can study with their parents. You don’t have to go to shul to enjoy and study about the holiday. Going there can enhance your understanding by learning from Rabbi, guest speakers, and others with deeper understanding of the holy day than yourself.

Yoni makes good suggestions and I sort of like the idea about bringing in a cow, or perhaps taking your children to a local dairy farm. Maybe easier then bringing a cow in…

“Tablet” seems to ignore the mainstream Jews in America. I can’t understand why. I am not impressed with the slanted views of everything I read on this web site. I can’t figure out which slant it is.

In Louis Jacobs’ “The Schocken Book of Jewish Mystical Testimonies: A Unique and Inspiring Collection of Accounts by People Who Have Encountered God, from Biblical Times to the Present” one can find the agenda of the gathering for Shavuot by the community around Josef Caro / the Ari, Elkabetz, et al. The Metivta (Los Angeles) community is using it as guide for our Tikun.

Chag Sameach!

Great piece — all the expert quotes were fascinating.
.
To make the holiday appealing for kids, my shul (a progressive congregation in the Conservative tradition) does a little explanation of the holiday, a recitation of the 10 Commandments, and a big ol’ ice cream social. My kids look forward to it all year. I know the 92nd street Y in Tribeca is doing a cheesecake tasting (with alcoholic pairings) moderated by its chef — that idea could be easily adapted by other communities. I could see doing a cheesecake bake-off — congregants could vote on the tastiest/most innovative/best low-cal dairy dessert made by someone in the community and pair that with a Torah study session.
*
Finally, as an aside: “I am not impressed with the slanted views of everything I read on this web site — I can’t figure out which slant it is” is one of the most entertaining comments I’ve read on the site.

SFMichele57 says:

Ignored? I guess living in the San Francisco Bay Area really IS
quite a bit different from the rest of the country. Plenty of JCCs
and individual congregations and congregations banding together in towns
host plenty of Shavuot celebrations and observances. Everything from
the all night study sessions with ala carte presentations to a trip up
Mount Tam for the hearty/hardy who want to reach out to nature and do
their study there. And a nice slice of cheesecake is always a good idea.

Martin says:

Almost all American Jews celebrate and commemorate Passover in some form or another but only the Orthodox by and large celebrate Shavuot.

Another strange American Jewish phenomenon is that while most observe Shabbat by making Kiddush, very few observe Havdala, the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat.

Why are these two Mitzvoth, Shavuot and Havdala, neglected by most
American Jews, and is there any connection between the two?

I believe there is a connection.

Passover celebrates freedom from slavery and exodus from Egypt.
Shavuot celebrates the giving and receiving of the Torah and the Jews commitment to serving HaShem and His Torah.
Friday night Kiddush represents the Sanctity and Holiness of Shabbat.
Havdala repesents the leaving of the sanctity and holiness of Shabbat and the return of the mundane week.

By only celebrating Passover and not Shavuot, the American Jew is celebrating Freedom, but neglecting to commit to serving serving HaShem and His Torah.

By observing Kiddush but neglecting Havdala the American Jew is stating that everything is Kodesh-HOLY- without any distinction between that which is truly holy and that which is actually mundane.

How typically American to try to have your cake and eat it at the same time!

Binyamin Tripp says:

Hmmmmm..My Most Powerful Shavuos ..that sticks in my Mind is being 6 years old and being included in all all night learning Sesion with the Rabbi in his study with 3 others. Pouring over ancient texts with the Adults and Today I do the same even More Excitement..and yes of course women in my town do the same …. Wish you all could be with me Tomorrow night !!;) Chag Sameach !!

Each year I have felt more and more of a connection to Shavuot, and I’m a middle-of-the road Conservative Jew. Counting the Omer brings the anticipation (and is still a challenge; it’s easy to forget that you did it each night).
And this year I’m teaching at a crummy HS in NYC, so the 2 days I am taking off for the holiday will be very welcome.
And I’m giving one of the learning lectures at my shul tomorrow, lest you think I’m just hoodwinking the NYC DOE.

Steve says:

Holy Cow! Now even a non-dairy person like myself can celebrate with dairy! But what about the Golden Calf????

Avrohom says:

The Yom Tov of Shavuos is the celebration of our receiving the Torah. The Talmud compares it to the day of a wedding. G-d wed the Jewish people and the Torah was the “ring”. The celebration therefore requires some commitment to the Torah and its values. It is so strange that the author does not see that the traditional form of celebrating the Yom Tov is what has lasted. Bringing cows to shul aint gonna do it!

Nobody has mentioned the themes of the Book of Ruth – commitment to the Jewish people, loving-kindness (chesed) and the courage of women. See this article on these ideas: http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/content/module/2010/5/17/main-feature/1/book-of-ruth

joseph says:

yay

Very interesting topic , regards for posting . “Everything in the world may be endured except continued prosperity.” by Johann von Goethe.

I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. I do not know who you are but certainly you’re going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already ;) Cheers!

I’ve said that least 4156766 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Hi my friend! I want to say that this article is amazing, nice written and include approximately all important infos. I’d like to see more posts like this .

I’ve recently started a web site, the information you offer on this website has helped me tremendously. Thank you for all of your time & work.

ajweberman says:

God gave Jews noses on mount sinus

ajweberman says:

The Tablets were acid

UtahSoccerMom says:

“Hanukkah and Passover—located next to major Christian holidays that Jews want an alternative to—have mazel.” Maybe not what folks want to hear but as a long-time Christian Sunday School (K-5) teacher, I lead my students in the observance of Shavuot during the observance of Pentecost (birthday of the Christian church.) After all, Shavuot was what the early (Jewish) followers of Jesus were gathering for when the events commemorated by Pentecost reportedly took place (New Testament: Acts 2:1-13.) The children often receive their first study bibles from the church at that time, so that’s a perfect time to talk about the “coming of the Torah.” I tell my students the ancient Jews said the scriptures are like “milk and honey” to the soul (they nourish a strong spiritual foundation and they’re also sweet to the spirit.) I serve birthday cake and ice cream, which reinforces the Jewish roots of Christianity.

41953 says:

This holiday is valuable because it has a welcoming attitude toward non-Jews who wish to join the Jewish people, because it depicts a strong woman, Naomi and kind man, Boaz, who respects Ruth and because it provides the only example in the Bible of “gleaning,” which was of great benefit to the poor. Finally, the tradition of studying all night (or at least till midnight!) has educational value.
For Jews who consider themselves humanists or progressives, it is an ideal holiday to celebrate.

41953 says:

Hurrah for the Utah Soccer Mom.
If Judaism is really the foundation of Christianity, then Christians should observe every holiday mentioned in the Bible, all of which pre-date Jesus.

The best way to save Shavuot is to move the celebration of Simchat Torah to its date. I know it’s not going to happen but consider all the we’d gain: one less autumn holiday (and on a second day at that!) and Shavuot would be imbued with joy AND meaning. Not to mention that Shemini Atzeret would be able to reclaim its own status as a holiday and not be eclipsed by the upstart Simchat Torah.

Hershl Hartman says:

The secular Jewish Sholem Community of Los Angeles — with which Marissa is familiar — observes shvues by noting the varied springtime harvest festivals in the traditions of the many intercultural families in our midst. We celebrate those families in keeping with the Book of Ruth, whose kinship with the Jewish people came from her own declaration, rather than by priestly (or rabbinic) permission.

Bojames says:

I think the reason Shavuoth gets ignored by many Jews is that many Jews ( such as most of the guys & gals I grew up with) do not care about being Jews. It is just something they were born with, like skin color. Something you do not have to work at, practice, do something about. For most of my teenage friends, now grandparents, Judaism appears irrelevant to their lives. Then they regretfully wonder why their grandchildren are raised as Catholics.

Good article, But it doesn’t mention Simchas Torah. This rabbinical ordained holyday has overtaken Shavuos in commemorating the Torah. Simchas Torah is widely attended by both the young and old. Its form of service expresses the importance, and the Jewish peoples love, of the Torah in a more heart felt way than does that of Shavuos.

As a Messianic Jew, I find two of the comments really problematic:

1) “The event it commemorates—God giving the Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai—is arguably the most pivotal in the narrative of the Jewish people. But from the treatment it receives next to its more popular siblings—at least within non-Orthodox American communities—you wouldn’t know it.” I care about Shavu’ot, and even admire what people like UtahSoccerMom do. Also, the Kosher Korner at UMBC (which is Non Messianic and has mainly Non-Messianic patrons, mostly those who go to the JSU/Hillel events headed up by a Reconstructionist) is closed beyond the Shavu’ot holiday (May 13-May 19, although Karaites and Messianics like me celebrate Shavu’ot on only the 19th).

2) “Hanukkah is so visible that conservative talk radio hosts think it threatens Christmas.” I have never heard talk-radio hosts say that. They’re more worried about the Atheists and Agnostics who threaten the legality of Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations within the United States.

Under the New Covenant, we don’t have to; but I try to myself. After all (as I and others believe), Yeshua (Jesus) did institute those chagim and never got rid of them. He left them as an option under the New Covenant, and required under the Sinai Covenant.

I myself did not know that Shavu’ot is connected to the Book of Ruth. Thank you for mentioning that.

Ian Thal says:

Actually, Shavuot has become increasingly popular in the Boston area– and it’s very easy to find non-Orthodox congregations that host all-night Tikkuns.

God giving the Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai—is arguably the most pivotal in the narrative of the Jewish people , Amazing Miracle

“In the past few years, some synagogues have begun holding a tikkun leil Shavuot, or all-night study session, to celebrate the holiday.”

This is actually not something new–many, many shuls have been doing all-night learning sessions for Shavuot for a long time. In my neighborhood (LA) there are probably at least 40 different synagogues/communities doing it, and they’ve been doing it for many years. Every year we end up shul-hopping to hit different sessions at various synagogues. Other people host all night learning sessions in their homes with scholars and rabbis. Of course, it’s easy to do this when you have a large Jewish community, but still–it’s not a new phenomenon like this article suggests.

Jeff Segall says:

Speaking of having cake, the JCC of Manhattan annually hosts thousands of Jews from Reform to Orthodox at its Tikkun Leil Shavuot and keeps them stimulated and wide awake with engaging and brilliant speakers, as well as with film and music, all this interspersed with as much cheese cake and coffee as anyone might care to consume all night long, all the way until the dawn. I mean, hearing Rabbi Joseph Telushkin combine religion, Torah, ethics and the degrees of psychological angst and torment, and fit into all of that the rules on when one MUST forgive, when one MAY forgive, and when one can NEVER forgive; and then go to Rabbi Irwin Kula, the director of CLAL, and watch and listen to him pull at the conscience and personal experience of the entire gymnasium full of listeners, and this just scratches the surface. Yes, there are communities where Shavuot is being resuscitated extremely effectively.

Ruth Rolle says:

Are Jews from Europe allowed here or will I get chased off?

Here in London, England , my Reform (US equivalent: Conservative) community celebrates it joyfully.

Sure, it doesn’t get the foot-fall that other festivals get.
And it hasn’t got the obvious family-friendly attraction.

But, if you’re an observant, studious kind of Jew, what’s not to love?
Tikkun leyl in the evening( fuelled by cheesecake) followed by the morning’s service,
rejoicing in the gift of Torah.

PS. Being observant & studious doesn’t cancel out humour.

Rachel Lavoie says:

That depends on how you define “heartfelt,” I suppose. My rabbi leads a beautiful, meaningful service for Shavuot that has me in tears every year. And the leadup through the activities our temple hosts during the period of the omer just builds up the anticipation and excitement. Simchat Torah is nice, and certainly rewarding for the few who actually read the portions every week and have actually accomplished the goal of reading the Torah – but to me, there is nothing like the recommitment to Torah and Judaism and intellectual and spiritual refinement that occurs as a community on Shavuot. A dear friend of mine loves Simchat Torah because of the “party” feel – I can see how that celebratory ambience is appealing, but my appreciation of Shavuot is on a deeper level than that and doesn’t require “fun” in order to find ample meaning and personal relevance in it.

Maybe I am rare and can’t speak for others, as it may indeed be unusual for a 29-year-old to name Shavuot as her favorite holiday. But I feel the love of Torah and Judaism during Shavuot in such an intensely emotional way that I could never discard it in favor of Simchat Torah. Personally I am very glad that we have both.

Shayna says:

You write:
“This idea might be starting to catch on: In the past few years, some synagogues have begun holding a tikkun leil Shavuot, or all-night study session, to celebrate the holiday.”

I don’t know where you’ve been living but it’s clearly not in New York, Toronto, Montreal, or even Winnipeg! I can remember going to all-night events on Shavu’ot for forty years or so; and believe me, I’m no mystic! Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot is an established observance and has been so for many years. Maybe the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are coming in a little late but the Orthodox world has had this one on the go for a very long time.

And as for Shavu’ot’s appeal: I always remember how exotic it seemed to be in the shul after midnight or walking home after a dawn version of shakharit. This is a fabulous selling point for Shavu’ot — the only other midnight service is selikhot in the week leading up to Rosh HaShanah and it too has the same exciting and unique appeal. More than just blintzes make Shavu’ot a wonderful holiday.

Shayna

LenMinNJ says:

The headline for this article is simply wrong. Why? Because it ignores the most dynamic and Jewishly educated segment of US Judaism: the Orthodox. The
entire spectrum of the Orthodox world celebrates Shavuot with deep appreciation for its central theme: Torah. The other denominations in the US Jewish world are ambivalent at best about believing that God gave us the Torah on Sinai; the Orthodox believe it wholeheartedly.

If Shavuot is a failed holiday in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanistic and Renewal worlds, that’s why: for them, Torah isn’t really God’s word.

It’s pretty sad when Christians posing as Jews (so-called Messianics) and Mormons have more of a connection to and respect for Shavuot than most US Jews.

Elat Chayyim Shavuot at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center is amazing! Totally unique, integrating the Torah revelation theme and agricultural roots in immersive transformative experience! http://isabellafreedman.org/shavuot

Judith Klau says:

My thanks to Sadie Rose Weilerstein, whose “K’ton ton” books introduced me to Shvues (yes, I love that pronunciation) when I was just learning to read in the 1930′s when it may have been the only Jewishly-themed children’s book available. In a story that mesmerized me, she used the Kabbalistic image of the skies opening at midnight to present Torah to humanity. Now when I attend exalted intellectual “Tikkun Leil Shevuot” observances (lucky me, in Boston) I still look up hopefully on my way home.

Shirley Grossman says:

Marissa, loved the article. last night at our Temple we had a study session, and I was asked to present. You and your Dad would have been proud of me – I did a little presentation about Tropes and Taamin. :) Love, Shirley

The interactive cow exhibit was a great idea. I think Shavuot needs a script, like Passover and Purim.

How about “Ruth,” plays as we have Purim plays? I think creating all-night activities for the entire family, kind of like the popular teen, “lock-in,” also sound good.

I wonder if anyone is doing an online Shavuot study session? I made blintzes for the family and am reading the Book of Ruth in Hebrew and looking up the words I don’t know – that is my Shavuot tradition for now.

Michael says:

Israel needs to establish secular holidays as national. Religious holidays mean very little and are ignored by Israelis (except for the “secular meaning” of it as a day out of work.) So, how about making it a Summer Solstice holiday and leave “Shavuot” for the synagogues? Luckily, synagogues are not located on the beaches in Israel, where most of its citizens spend their out of work days.

Jacqueline Silvers says:

Interesting it seems some people spend their days fulfilling commandments while others would choose to forget. Those in-between are entirely left out. Logically it seems to me since I have always heard there are five high holidays this would be one of them but then again in a world that lives by writing alone some people are not about the constraints of those lines so much anymore.

Hugh G. says:

One year, the Men’s Club at our synagogue brewed beer the day after Pesach ended, bottled it a week before Shavuot, and celebrated the first fruits by drinking the beer.

Dana Johnston says:

Many Jews do not realize that Shavuot has an important parallel in Christianity that suffers from the same neglect. The holiday Pentecost, meaning fifty days.
The tradition is that after the death Jeshu, his followers hid for their lives from the Romans. On the holiday, Shavuot, fifty days after the last supper, a Passover Seder, the holy spirit descended on his followers and told them to go out and teach his gospel to the world.
The fact that Pentecost is a revelationary holiday makes me wonder if in fact it was a construction after the destruction of the temple, a way for those early Christians who were Jewish to celebrate Shavuot as a Christian holiday.
Be that as it may, Pentecost, like Shavuot, is observed largely by clergy and those who are most traditional. To me it is a reminder of the interrelationship of Christianity and Judaism.

Barth says:

Confirmations have been reduced because few young Jews hang in there after the semi-wedding they celebrate at their bar/bat mitzvah, but it is the bar/bat that is really out of place today. Thirteen made sense as the beginning of an adulthood when life ended at say, 38, but today, 16, the age of confirmation (which has nothng, in my mind, to do with any Protestant thing) makes way more sense. (That slur is directed at every Reform custom that differs from others. It really has ceased to be worth repeating especially by those who have never seen a Reform service).

Anyway, I watched the confirmation at Central Synagogue in NYC last night (a huge class, by the way) and heard the voices of true young adults. Americans will never give up the semi-wedding of their 13 year olds, but I remember my confirmation (of many years ago) as having more meaning than the bar mitzvah three years earlier (though, sadly, I still associate confirmation with the murder of Robert F Kennedy a few days later).

So whatever the day is supposed to mean,beyond blintzes and cheesecake–neither of which I had, by the way—confirmation needs an anchor and Shavuot (as we call it), seems to be the right holiday for it.

Rachel says:

I spent Shavuot in Israel last year and it was magical. I don’t recall ever putting intention into a previous ritualistic experience on Shavuot, but what made this experience meaningful was the community. It was simple really. I don’t think it has to/should be some glorified event, or perhaps what makes it glorifying is the people and the intention behind the experience. In Israel there was a gathering on Mt. Zion (I realize that this is a “glorified” experience) but what made it memorable was the spirit and energy in the space. There were groups of people sharing and giving d’var torahs that unraveled into group discussions. There was food, generosity, and nature all around. I think the simplicity of connecting back to our roots is a significant part of Shavuot, and having it outside in a natural commercial free setting made it inviting and welcoming for all. It also created a space where people could come in and out of the dialogs– so people could go sleep for part of the time and join the group when they were refreshed and ready to share their presence.

This time on Mt. Zion was important for me and I smile knowing that I can think back to this memory. I hope that as we pose these interesting questions we can realize that the answers don’t have to be so far away from us. I think the simplicity of community, open dialog, nature and a present spirit can result in a more engaged community both on a local and also national scale.
Chag Sameach

This is a most interesting article but a bit pessimistic as to the potential of the holiday. Here is Pittsburgh, the Agency for Jewish Learning held our 6th annual community tikkun this year. We always have between 400-500 people attend and this year had an note-worthy increase in teens and young adults participating. Rabbis from far left to far right all participated and offered courses and every class had a mixture of students from the same spectrum.

Here is why it works in Pittsburgh:
1. It is centrally located in walking distance from the Orthodox synagogues and neighborhood. There is plenty of parking for those who want to drive to it.
2. It is held at the JCC which is communal territory.
3. All teachers agree to not use electronics so anyone can come to their session.
4. The local Jewish paper as well as the JCC and federation co-sponsor and advertise it.
5. No rabbi has to teach with another and no limits are placed on the rabbis’ choices of topic, so no “politics” are involved amongst them.
6. Participants simply choose the course that interests them and go. This means often there are people learning with rabbis they would not encounter the rest of the year and whose views may be very challenging to them. We regularly hear about how those opportunities are sought out as a draw to coming to the tikkun.
7. The program runs from 10 PM to 1 AM with 50 minute classes and cheesecake in between. This way both the Reform congregations that have confirmation that night and the Orthodox Jews who need to make kiddush and eat after sundown can attend at least part of the program.
8. We advertise the local all-night study options along side of this event so that people know they can attend both with planning.

This model is not perfect. We still have a number of ok-with-driving suburban congregations that see this event as a “city” program and do not participate. But for our city it works and it brings a diversity of Jews together to learn.

Great article. Lots of interesting ideas in the comments (brewing beer right after Pesach ends and drinking it at Shavuot–brilliant!)

Our (reform/conservative) family draws from a North African custom of having water fights after services (water=life, Torah=life, so water=Torah). Every year on the first day of chag, we have a pool party and an ever-increasing variety of cheesecakes. This year, we were up to eight (chocolate chip, Oreo, strawberry, banoffee (banana-toffee), lemon, a plain warm version from the Mount Zion Hotel, white chocolate/raspberry, and a savory blue cheese). A nice contrast and wrap-up after the late-night tikkun (one for teenagers, one for adults) and the solemnity of the morning’s service. Plus, my coworkers get to celebrate “Cheesecake Boxing Day” with the leftovers.

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Field Study: Why Shavuot is All But Ignored Across America

The holiday is a favorite among scholars, but is it too abstract to become popular among all but the most engaged or observant Jews?

More on Tablet:

Former AP Reporter Confirms Matti Friedman Account

By Stephanie Butnick — Says Jerusalem bureau pulled his 2009 story about Israeli peace offer