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Five ways to celebrate Shavuot

Shavuot is the “Rodney Dangerfield of Jewish holidays”, says Rabbi Shira Stutman of Washington, DC’s Sixth and I synagogue. Meaning: It gets no respect.

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Religion

BEN SALES

Considered by Jewish tradition to be on par with the autumn and spring festivals of Succot and Passover, Shavuot is sometimes ignored because it is six days shorter – the holiday celebrating the biblical giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is one day in Israel and two outside of it.

Shavuot, which this year starts on the evening of May 30, also lacks iconic, family-centric rituals. One of its only unique traditions is to stay up until dawn studying Torah on the first night. Because the holiday demands knowledge and stamina (or lots of coffee), it’s no surprise that pulling an all-nighter poring over the Talmud hasn’t become as widespread as, say, lighting a menorah.

But in recent years, synagogues and Jewish organisations across the country are trying to make the practice more accessible. Here are five ways American groups are reinterpreting the Shavuot all-nighter. 

The Biblical Shavuot
What if we celebrated Shavuot the way it is described in the Bible? That’s what a group at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Centre in Connecticut is attempting to do.

At its Shavuot retreat, while there’s an option to study Torah on the holiday’s first night, there is also a group that will embark on a midnight hike meant to simulate Moses’ trek up Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Hikers will proceed silently, sans flashlights, to an overlook. Because it will be very dark, the 1,21 kilometre trek will take approximately 2 1/2 hours.

In the morning, participants will gather for a parade of animals, fruits and grains, meant to reflect the ancient Shavuot procession up to the Temple in Jerusalem, when farmers were commanded to give their first fruits as a tribute.

At the retreat centre, a herd of goats will be decorated with ribbons and shirts. Marchers, singing and dancing to a drumbeat, carry two large baskets – one with a challah, to represent wheat, and another with seasonal fruits.

“It’s exciting because we’re reviving what Deuteronomy says,” said one of the parade’s facilitators, Sarah Chandler, who also goes by the name Kohenet Shamira. “We’re going to decorate our animals. We’re going to bring the first fruits, and we’re going to make an offering.” 

The Mountain Shavuot
The Living Tree Alliance, a Jewish agricultural community that lives together on a 38 hectares property in Vermont, will spend Memorial Day celebrating the lead-up to Shavuot by preparing for it like the Israelites did in the desert.

The group will hike on Mount Mansfield, the state’s highest mountain, stopping along the way for seven readings of poetry and other texts to reflect the seven Divine attributes referenced in Jewish mysticism. Halfway up, they’ll stop for a Torah service at an interfaith chapel. Ambitious hikers will spend the afternoon scaling the mountain’s peak, 1 311 metres high, to engage in a worship service.

 “Moses climbed Mount Sinai, so we wanted to get to a high mountain peak in Vermont,” said Living Tree programme co-ordinator Stacey Oshkeloo. “Vermonters like hiking and connecting to nature, so it seemed like a great way to make the holiday accessible.” 

The Jewish-Muslim Shavuot
If some people are taking Shavuot back 3 000 years, others want to make it relevant to the present, politically fraught moment. Sixth and I, a historic synagogue that has become a centre for progressive Jewish activism, did its Shavuot night learning programme a week early – and it focused on Jews and Muslims in America.

The programme, which took place on Monday, brought together Jeffrey Goldberg, the Jewish editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, and Duke University’s Imam Abdullah Antepli to discuss similarities and tensions between American Jews and Muslims.

Antepli is also part of the Muslim Leadership Initiative, a Shalom Hartman Institute programme that brings together young Muslim leaders to learn about Judaism and Israel.

The programme started with a buffet featuring Palestinian, Tunisian, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi – or Middle Eastern Jewish – cuisines. It also included Muslim and Jewish evening prayer services, back to back, and a joint text study of Jewish and Muslim perspectives on revelation.

“If one of the things Shavuot is about is learning sacred texts together, struggling with difficult ideas together, sitting together for long periods of time – not just 140 characters of Twitter periods of time – we are taking all of that to this conversation,” Rabbi Stutman said beforehand.” It’s a certain type of revelation that we are hoping for.” 

The feminist Shavuot
Another contemporary take on Shavuot is “Feminism All Nigh”, in Oakland, California, which shifts the all-night Shavuot learning to the following Friday, June 2.

Creator Hadar Cohen, who runs Pivot to Bloom, an organisation advancing gender inclusivity in the tech world, organised the event, because she felt there was a dearth of spaces focused on studying and discussing feminism. With this programme, she is making that happen in a Jewish context.

At Feminism All Night, participants of all genders will have a Shabbat dinner and prayers, followed by feminist classes and studying from 22:00 to 04:00. Topics will include Jewish texts related to women’s rights, like how a Talmudic chapter on reparations can be applied to gender equality, as well as lessons on political activism and the intersection of gender and spirituality.

“There’s a lot of political urgency around how we decide to live our lives, and I think patriarchy has really kept us down in terms of that and has gotten us into some really bad habits,” Cohen said. “Being an intersectional feminist has shown me the way to heal out of that.” 

The New York City Mega-Shavuots
What do you do if you have a lot of Jews living in the same neighbourhood? In the Big Apple, two groups are doing big Shavuot all-nighters, with a range of Torah classes and plenty more.

The JCC Manhattan, which has had an all-night programme each Shavuot since 2004, has a schedule so full it’s dizzying. Offerings include text study, dance workshops, yoga, film screening and meditation. On the roof, an installation by artist Tobi Kahn will reinterpret the mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath. And owing to the tradition of eating dairy on Shavuot, cheesecake and cookies will be offered.

“A deep value of our community is understanding and celebrating its diversity,” said Rabbi Joy Levitt, JCC Manhattan’s executive director. “We wanted to make sure that we were able to attract the widest number of people with a very expansive view of Torah.”

A similar programme will happen across the East River, where Shavuot Across Brooklyn will bring together participants from the borough’s range of synagogues and independent prayer groups. Similar to the JCC array, sessions span from a “Free Minds Prison Poetry Workshop” to one on Hebrew slang.

The top-billed event is a book reading and discussion by the author couple Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman focused on their thoughts on a recent trip to Israel and the West Bank. The event is sponsored by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli veterans’ group that opposes Israel’s occupation.

“It’s a reflection of the reality of people’s interests,” said Matt Green, a rabbinic intern at Congregation Beth Elohim, the Reform synagogue in the Park Slope neighbourhood that is hosting the programme. “Many of the participants are familiar and conversant in Jewish texts, but a much greater number of people are not.” (JTA)

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Religion

In the brave steps of Abraham

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In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.

The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.

While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.

Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.

At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.

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Religion

My kind of hero

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The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.

That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.

Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.

Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!

Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.

There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.

Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.

His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.

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Learning to fall teaches us to fly

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“As an eagle that stirs up its nest, hovering over its young”

Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, explains that Hashem is compared to an eagle since eagles are so different to other birds. He says that they are the kings of all birds, and soar very high. Afraid only of man’s bow and arrow, the eagle carries its young on its back. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, and have no choice but to choose the lesser of two evils and carry their babies underneath them in their talons.

This Rashi is problematic:

Humans carry their babies in their arms. A monkey holds its young in much the same way. And a dog or cat picks up its offspring with its mouth. But what about birds? Do they ever carry their young on their backs?

Surprisingly, some birds do carry their offspring from one place to another, either to get them away from danger or to move them about as part of their daily care. Aquatic birds let their chicks ride on their backs while they are swimming. Sometimes when the parent dives, the little one is carried underwater. And when the parent flies, the chick gets its first taste of being airborne without even using its own wings.

But, eagles? They just don’t do this. So what’s Rashi talking about?

Maybe our translation of nesher is incorrect. There’s the opinion that a nesher is a vulture, but no vultures carry their young on their backs either, so what’s going on? With respect to previous generations in Torah thought, we are never so arrogant as to say that we have superior knowledge. The further we move away from the Sinai experience, the more humble we become regarding the Torah knowledge of previous generations. Rashi lived almost a thousand years ago, and was a giant of Torah. So the best we can do is humbly admit that we don’t understand this Rashi.

One possible answer is brought by Rabbi Slifkin, who explains that when an eagle is teaching its eaglets to fly, it throws them from the nest and dives below to catch them on its back, ensuring that it breaks their fall before it breaks their neck. Perhaps this is what Rashi witnessed and wanted to use to describe Hashem’s relationship with each one of us.

Not only did Hashem take us out of Egypt on the “wings of eagles”, and not only will we be taken to the land of Israel when Moshiach comes on the “wings of eagles”. But every single day, Hashem gentle nudges us out of our comfort zone and while we are flailing and wondering how we’ll cope, Hashem is ready to swoop down and catch us. It’s that fall that teaches us how to soar!

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