Holiday Feature: Jews of All Denominations Come Together to Study, Pray on Shavuot

After the religious-secular tensions that marked Israel’s recent election campaign, the idea of all Jews standing together as a people to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai may seem a distant dream.

But each spring, Jews celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, which begins at sundown Thursday. The festival commemorates the moment when the Israelites became a community of 600,000 living according to one sacred text.

In an effort to recreate that event, a group of young rabbis affiliated with CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership — organized the first National Unity Shavuot and an accompanying Web site.

This series of interdenominational gatherings in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami builds on the traditional Shavuot practice of staying up all night to study in groups.

One of CLAL’s aims is to bring together rabbis of all Jewish outlooks to study, sing and engage in open dialogue, overcoming differences in denomination and gender.

Several times a year, the New York-based organization invites small groups of up-and-coming rabbis from across the country on retreats, where secluded settings foster the building of mutual understanding and some unusual compromises.

Rabbi Carol Levithan, who works at a Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, recalled a recent retreat in Newport, R.I., at which the rabbis “worked out a remarkable compromise” so that they could pray together.

The women sat on one side, men on the other, with a line of chairs between them. Men who were comfortable sitting with the women were free to do so, and women read from the Torah.

“It required some give on both sides,” Levithan said. “The beauty of the experience was that that was accomplished.”

Inspired by such experiences at the retreats, the National Unity Shavuot organizers sought to bring the same pluralistic spirit to the community at large.

“Movements are just labels we use to define ourselves,” said Rabbi David Kalb of Westport, Conn.

Such labeling is “ludicrous” and divisive, Kalb said, with an arm-waving flourish. “Why don’t we just come back to the text?”

In New York on Monday evening, about 300 people checked political discussions about that day’s election at the door of the Pope Auditorium at Fordham University in Manhattan. Sitting in circles in groups of 12, they took up a selection of texts culled from the Bible, rabbinic sources, contemporary writings and the Book of Ruth, which is usually read on Shavuot.

CLAL-affiliated rabbis and invited scholars led discussions on the theme of “Jewish Journeys” — from the patriarch Abraham to Lena Romanoff, an author and contemporary convert to Judaism — as the participants leaned in to hear above the volley of voices in the large hall.

Stephen Dubner, the best-selling author of “Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family,” also spoke about his own spiritual path to the birth religion of his parents, who converted and raised him as a Catholic.

The event was co-sponsored by four local synagogues and the JCC on the Upper West Side.

The diversity of the crowd was evident from the array of kipot, flowing tresses, buns, toupees and balding pates.

But differences in age, denomination and level of Jewish knowledge did not seem to hinder the free flow of conversation.

“The nature of the discussion and the subject matter lent itself to centrality and universal issues,” said Judy Eiger of Staten Island, N.Y., who was there with her husband and son.

Art Wernicke, a member of a Reform study group, or havurah, in Greenwich, Conn., came to the event that evening at Kalb’s invitation.

“Most people today think there is a gulf between Jews of different denominations, Wernicke said. But his chavurah was “more impressed by the commonality than by the differences” in Kalb’s approach.

“The cross-fertilization was terrific,” added Barbara Kasman, another member of the Greenwich chavurah.

To promote a similar exchange of ideas, CLAL put together its Shavuot Web site (www.shavuot.org) so that Jews across the country could take part in the study and discussion.

“The Web is the form where we have the potential to break down boundaries,” said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, a Reconstructionist rabbi who works for CLAL and organized the Shavuot event and Web site.

The Internet medium is “perfect to advance the idea that there are many Judaisms,” Brenner said.

There could be hundreds or thousands, he said, depending on how one understands “what the tradition means and how to balance it with contemporary life.”

Mutual understanding is the key to Jewish unity, he said, citing an Orthodox colleague, Rabbi Joshua Lookstein, whom he met through CLAL.

Brenner recalled Lookstein telling him, “If this really works, then I can imagine” even those Jews who “oppose us will see there is one Jewish people, and we can get beyond classifying each other.”

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