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Shavuot Feature: Reform Jews Embrace Tradition of Shavuot Holiday Torah Study

Shavuot will be about more than eating the traditional dairy foods — blintzes and cheesecake — for Jonathan Eisenthal this year.

Eisenthal, the stay-at-home father of a 4-year-old daughter and newborn son in St. Paul, Minn., will for the first time be devoting the night of the Shavuot festival to studying Torah in a traditional practice known as “Tikkun Leil Shavuot.”

Shavuot, originally an agricultural festival, is now a celebration of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.

On the night of May 30, Eisenthal and as many as 150 other members of Mt. Zion Hebrew Congregation will be studying Exodus 19, the biblical passage in which God first approaches the Israelites to become partners in a divine covenant, and, through Moses, gives them the Torah.

Traditionally observant Jews stay up the whole first night of Shavuot studying texts related to revelation, the giving of the Torah and the Book of Ruth.

But among Reform Jews like Eisenthal, staying up the whole night, or even part of it, to study is a relatively new practice.

“This seems like a neat tradition to get hooked into,” said Eisenthal, 34, who in the last year has begun studying the Torah portion of the week and discussing it through e-mail with a half-dozen other members of Mt. Zion.

“Studying for several hours at once should be fairly intense,” he said.

He described himself as grappling with the nature of what revelation means to him as a Reform Jew.

“I’m looking forward to contemplating that whole issue more during the night of study — that’s what Shavuot is all about, right?”

Eisenthal is doing just what the head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, hopes to inspire among more of his constituents.

Last November, in his first speech as president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella organization for Reform synagogues, Yoffie declared that “Torah is at the center” of his movement.

Hebrew literacy, and a knowledge of core Jewish texts, was, he said, to be the focus of a new campaign.

The Shavuot night study program is a key part of it, he said in a telephone interview.

“The tikkun serves to bring the entire movement together in an affirmation of these principles, and points us toward the future,” he said.

This year, for the first time, the UAHC put together a national program of study for Shavuot that it is encouraging its member temples to use.

Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, associate director of religious living at the UAHC, assembled a workbook of suggested programs and complementary texts to study as well as a video of five Reform scholars discussing revelation.

The book and tape are titled “The Voice Still Speaks: A Study Program for the Night of Shavuot.”

Some 550 of the movement’s 875 congregations will have some formal study program in place using the materials, said Wasserman.

Though some Reform congregations have held Shavuot night study sessions in recent years, the UAHC package has inspired many congregations to make it a more organized and widely attended event.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the response,” Yoffie said. “It says that the message of this program is resonating with our members and leadership, that there is a hunger for Jewish study and learning.”

For Eisenthal, the study of Torah is resonating in a way that it didn’t two decades ago when he was confirmed at his family’s Reform congregation in Sharon, Mass.

The confirmation ceremony, a uniquely Reform practice, was established in Germany in the early 19th century.

In 1927 the Reform movement’s rabbinical organization in the United States recommended confirmation as a movement-wide practice. Tenth graders participate in the ceremony at congregations around the country each year.

Though learning and understanding the biblical text “was emphasized in the confirmation year, it still didn’t stick with me then,” said Eisenthal.

“I’m just now really coming back to it,” he said, and “finding more in it that’s sustaining and interesting that involves me, that speaks to me.”

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