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Shavuot Feature Shavuot May Not Be Passover, but It’s Become a Little Bit Hip

June 6, 2005
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Shavuot, which begins June 12, may be one of Judaism’s three major festivals, but it’s never caught on in America like its more popular cousins, Passover and Sukkot. The Orthodox have kept the tradition of tikkun leil Shavuot, the all-night study session that precedes the commemoration of God’s giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

But for most unaffiliated and non-Orthodox Jews, the holiday has gone fairly unnoticed.

That appears to be changing.

During the past few years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in tikkun leil Shavuot. Of all the holidays in the Jewish calendar it’s this one, with its focus on intellectual exploration and spiritual self-examination, that is being seized upon by a new generation as a day — or, rather, night — ripe for reinvention.

It’s been happening in the synagogues. Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says the upsurge of interest in tikkun leil Shavuot is a “six- to eight-year phenomenon” in the Reform movement, with 200 to 300 Reform congregations now holding such sessions.

“Our goal is to reclaim Shavuot for adult study,” he says.

But beyond the synagogue walls, something even more interesting is taking place: Large-scale alternative Shavuot night happenings are being held in clubs and JCCs on both coasts, where participants prepare themselves for the morning’s revelation with sunset-to-dawn smorgasbords of text study, lectures, music, film, discussion groups, folk dancing, performance art, and, of course, cheesecake.

In other words, Shavuot’s becoming hip.

Last year, close to 300 people showed up at the Whispers Club in Oakland, Calif., for Dawn, a Shavuot event billed as an “all-night multi-media arts experience.”

In New York, more than 1,500 came to Alma Tikkun, an all-night study and cultural extravaganza held simultaneously at the Manhattan JCC and 92nd Street Y.

These two Shavuot celebrations, both being held again this year, share an exuberant, culture-centered approach to what has traditionally been an intimate, text-centered ritual, while seeking to maintain the holiday’s focus on exploring the connection between Jewish identity and Torah.

Their program schedules read like street festivals, with multiple events taking place simultaneously. Alma Tikkun will feature an Israeli rock band, Middle Eastern jazz, sex talk with Dr. Ruth, and screenings of the new documentary “Watermarks” and Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” with separate spaces set up for Orthodox Torah study, as well as Israeli dancing and sing-alongs.

Its broad-based nature reflects the makeup of the event’s sponsors, which range from the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning to the Israeli Consulate.

Dawn 2005, the brainchild of musician and record producer David Katznelson and avant-garde performer Amy Tobin, is more consciously aimed at the young, alternative set, with a cantata of early Zionist songs and a beer seminar — Shavuot is, after all, the harvest festival.

“My generation likes to stay up all night and watch the sun rise, and we want progressive ideas, we want to learn about the environment and what’s going on politically,” says Katznelson, a self-described agnostic. “Especially in San Francisco, we’re very willing and active participants” in social action projects, he says.

A focus on social justice is also a moving force behind a late-night Shavuot celebration at the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles sponsored by the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Ikar, a year-old non-affiliated congregation described by its spiritual leader, Rabbi Sharon Brous, as “politically active, traditional yet progressive.”

In contrast to the Oakland and New York events, there won’t be any drag queens or performance artists in L.A. — just text study, with a focus on translating what Brous calls “the redemptive message of Shavuot” into political and social action.

Her group will study traditional texts — Torah, talmudic and Chasidic writings — but will use them to discuss hunger and warfare in Africa, immigrant rights, and “our commitment to a pluralistic, diverse world.”

The final session will, Brous says, be “an articulation of what it means to pursue social justice as Jews.”

Why all this interest in Shavuot?

Ruth Calderon, the founder of Alma College in Tel Aviv and the spiritual force behind the Alma Tikkun in New York, which she brought over from Israel three years ago, says Shavuot is also compelling to her generation because “it wasn’t ‘taken’ yet.”

Most Israelis, she says, only know the holiday as Hag Habikuim, or festival of the first fruits. “As young secular Israelis, it wasn’t relevant for us in the agricultural sense anymore, but we saw it could be relevant to us as the People of the Book.'”

Calderon is part of the recent movement among secular Israelis to “reclaim Jewish texts and reinterpret them” in the light of modern political and social sensibilities, she explains, a movement that gained force after the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “which left us feeling that the rug had been taken from under our feet, that we couldn’t depend on anyone to build our Jewish identity for us.”

For Katznelson, the tikkun phenomenon is “about creating new rituals” while responding to the sanctity of the holiday. Noting that he’d have a larger crowd if he held his event on Saturday night, he said he wanted “to respect the night that all Jews around the world are celebrating Shavuot — although we’re doing it in a different way, that unity is so important to us.”

He also notes that many of his participants have never celebrated Shavuot before.

San Francisco resident Circe Sher says she rarely goes to synagogue, but she came to Dawn last year — her first tikkun ever.

“First of all, I learned that Shavuot existed,” she says. “It wasn’t intimidating at all, and it was great to see all those artists and realize they were Jewish.”

Other people come to check out an alternative to the Shavuot they already know. New York lawyer Susan Canter stopped by the Alma Tikkun last year after tikkun at her own modern Orthodox shul, because she “wanted to experience a different environment,” she says.

She arrived at about 1:30 a.m. “It was packed,” she says. “I couldn’t even get into the lecture I wanted. And it wasn’t just singles, it was very diverse in terms of age, religious or not, Sephardi and Ashkenazi.”

About half the people who came to last year’s Alma Tikkun were Israeli Americans, says co-organizer Tzameret Fuerst, the Israeli-born head of Dor Chadash, an organization that tries to bridge the gap between young Americans and Israelis.

“To get all those Israelis to a meaningful Jewish event like this, it’s unprecedented,” Fuerst says. “It’s the beginning of a huge phenomenon. There are so many hybrids like me, second generation Israelis, and here we’ve found a Jewish place we can be comfortable in.”

Although all three events were organized independently, the founders are part of the same loose-knit community of like-minded spiritual and political activists stretching from California to New York and Israel.

“There’s a connection, a feeling that we are family,” Calderon says.

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