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Making Shavuot Relevant

May 8, 2013 By:
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Is it possible that, with enough work, imagination and PR, rabbis can somehow broaden the appeal of Sha­vuot? Or is the biblical festival destined to remain a major holiday for traditionalists, but a minor occurrence — if noted at all — on the calendars of most non-Orthodox Jews?

Rabbi Avi Winokur of Society Hill Synagogue, for one, doesn’t think much can be done. And he’s mostly OK with that.

“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,” Winokur, the Reconstructionist-trained leader of a synagogue that identifies as Conservative and Reconstructionist, wrote on the Jewish Exponent’s Rabbis Uncensored blog. (It also appears as an opinion column on Page 20.)

“Wringing our hands,” he continued, “is useless and counterproductive. Let’s buck up and do the best we can without becoming distressed or depressed, and without any self-pitying, ‘Sigh. We labor so hard and are so unappreciated.’ ”

Winokur’s piece raises questions about the relevance of Shavuot, which literally means “weeks” in Hebrew, and begins at sundown on May 14. It also underscores for some the limits of synagogue outreach.

Shavuot began as an agricultural holiday tied to the spring harvest and the first fruits of the season. The festival later came to mark the anniversary of the Hebrew date that God revealed the Torah at Mount Sinai.

The holiday doesn’t have any explicit mitzvot or home rituals. That’s one reason many have said it has failed to capture the American Jewish imagination. Services are traditionally held over the course of two days, though these are sparsely attended outside of Orthodox synagogues.

It’s customary to eat a dairy meal: According to one traditional interpretation, this is to identify with the Jews at Sinai, who didn’t know the laws well and so couldn’t prepare a kosher meat meal.

Another custom comes from the kabbalists of 16th century Tzfat, and is called tikkun leil, which involves studying Jewish texts or topics throughout the night. The act of learning becomes a re-enactment for the experience of first receiving the Torah.

Liberal congregations have adopted the study-session model, though it is rare for them to last through the night.

Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill, a Reform synagogue, typically pulls out all the stops by hosting a dinner, Confirmation services — which congregations have tied to Shavuot for decades — and a tikkun leil session, which lasts until midnight.

Rabbi Kenneth Carr said he does “lament that it is not more widely observed. It is a thematically major holiday, in terms of the covenant at Mount Sinai. It is our wedding anniversary.”

“In some ways, the quest for numbers is a futile one,” Carr continued. “I have really tried not to measure success by the number of attendees,” but by the program’s impact. If 20 people leave with a deeper understanding of Judaism or have a spiritual experience, it’s worth all the effort and creative planning that goes into it, he said.

This year, Carr is sending out daily emails to his congregants, featuring thoughts on the Counting of the Omer, the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot. He knows that the majority of his congregation won’t come to the synagogue on the holiday, so this is a way to use technology to get more members to think about the meaning of Torah.

Rabbi Yochonon Goldman of B’nai Abraham, an Orthodox shul in Society Hill, said precisely because Shavuot is “a little-known holiday for many Jews, we put extra emphasis on teaching about it.”

It is crucial, Goldman said, to get young children and families involved in the holiday because it is the kids who will one day be responsible for keeping the Torah and passing it on to the next generation. To help facilitate this, the synagogue is throwing an ice cream party, and has even gotten tofu-based ice cream for those kids and adults who can’t eat dairy.

Many Chabad synagogues around the region are organizing similar events. (Goldman is a Chabad rabbi at a shul that is not affiliated with Chabad.)

Rabbi Jeremy Gerber of Ohev Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Wallingford, acknowledged that “Shavuot is floundering a little; cheesecake and blintzes aren’t going to cut it. I try to share stories about learning all night long and holding services at sunrise the next morning, but people just look at me like I’m crazy. ‘Who has time for that? What about work the next day?’ ”

Gerber said he’s going to keep searching for new ideas.

“Because what’s the alternative?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s still a pretty important holiday — receiving the Ten Commandments and all — and who wants to give up cheesecake?”

Increasingly, synagogues are joining forces to bolster numbers: For the past few years, Ohev Shalom has organized erev Shavuot programing with a nearby Reconstructionist congregation, Beth Israel of Media. Gerber said 40 to 50 people typically show up for the first hour, but the crowd starts to thin out throughout the evening.

This is actually the first year that Society Hill will be taking part in a communal tikkun leil that is expected to last all night and is taking place at Beth Zion-Beth Israel, the Conservative synagogue across town. Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia, the Jewish Graduate Student Network and Minyan Tikvah, an independent prayer group based in Center City, are cosponsors. A similar program organized by several synagogues and institutions is taking place at Germantown Jewish Centre in the Mount Airy section of the city.

Joshua Rosenberg, a 32-year-old member of Minyan Tikvah’s executive board who is helping to organize the Center City program, said bringing congregations together on Shavuot sends a message about the importance of pluralism.

“With all of our differences, we are still one people with one God and one Torah,” he said.

Rosenberg, a software engineer, said he understands the difficulty with getting Jews excited about the festival.

“There’s not much to it. It strips away all the matzah from Passover, lulavs and outdoor dining from Sukkot, shofars and whatever else you associate with the High Holidays — repentance? guilt? fundraising? — and all you’re left with is God and Torah,” he said. “To me, that’s more of a benefit than a drawback.”

Winokur insisted in an interview that he’s not saying rabbis shouldn’t try to make Shavuot meaningful. But he is arguing that it makes far more sense for him to spend his time thinking about Shabbat, and how to make it engaging for every age group, than it does for him to try and reinvent Shavuot. After all, the holiday happens just once a year, but Shabbat rolls around every week.

“In the real calendar, Shabbat is more likely to be something that happens to most Jews,” he said. “If I can swell Shabbat attendance, I think I am accomplishing more for my community.”

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