Shavuot: No Matter What, It Will Never Be Popular
By: Rabbi Avi Winokur
Shavuot is off the calendar for so many Jews — and why not? There is no seder. There is no sukkah. It’s not interesting or fun. It’s simply a religious holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
In other words, it’s just another service, and most Jews don’t find services compelling, except for those who attend the 50 to 100 synagogues — out of thousands across the country — that attract worshippers in great numbers. And even then it will be because the services work, not because Shavuot itself is such a compelling festival.
Most Jews today, including those who belong to synagogues, are essentially secular Jews. That is, even among those who profess to believe in God, most non-Orthodox people would not consider themselves to be leading God-centered lives. For many, God is simply a vague sense that there is some sort of spiritual presence in the universe.
Rabbinic cajoling that Shavuot is as important as Pesach and Sukkot because it, too, is one of the three pilgrimage holidays will not change this situation. Nor will impassioned and brilliant sermons or teaching on Revelation and Torah impel Jews to celebrate Shavuot. Jewish education is not the answer this time.
Certainly a well-publicized Tikkun Leil Shavuot study session will increase attendance that evening. But the attraction won’t be to celebrate Sinai, but rather to study if you have a good line up of teachers. And a wonderful study session on erev Shavuot will not increase attendance for the daytime services to hear the recitation of the Ten Commandments.
No amount of creative initiatives will make Shavuot more meaningful to a great number of Jews. In five or 10 years, roughly the same small percentage of Jews will observe Shavuot as today. Wringing our hands over this fact is useless and counterproductive. Let’s buck up to do the best we can without becoming distressed or depressed, and without any self-pitying, “Sigh! We labor so hard and are so unappreciated.”
But the fact that we can’t make a big difference is no reason not to invest effort in Shavuot. We’ll reach the people we reach, and every year a few more Jews will discover Shavuot and of those few, some will add the holiday to the Jewish activities that they participate in regularly. Those who attend Shavuot learning sessions are usually either regular attendees or those who are on a path of rediscovering Judaism. Of the latter group, Shavuot is among their rediscoveries. We will, in fact, reach some Jews and it will actually matter, but not in a way you can measure in a quantitative survey on Jewish life that will impress foundations or donors.
In the long story of Jewish history, we are but a blip. Our job is to keep the flame alive, to try to strengthen the flame and to understand that unless this generation does its job to keep Jewish religion alive, there will be no next generation to reclaim it. I do not regard that as trivial, a mere consolation or just table scraps. It is holy work to keep the flames burning so that when the time comes, perhaps long after we are gone, there is a Judaism to reclaim thanks to our small and very unglamorous efforts.
To paraphrase Nachman of Bratslav in another context, if we do our best to bring Shavuot alive for Jews, and do not succeed, the effort still will be precious in God’s eyes.
Rabbi Avi Winokur is the spiritual leader of Society Hill Synagogue in Center City.