Finding a new Shavuot ritual
It’s easy to forget about Shavuot.
The holiday comes at the end of the school year, with the rush of final exams and the start of little league. It’s clustered with other celebrations, such as Mother’s Day and Yom Ha’atzmaut, graduation and the beginning of camp. The foods of the holiday – generic dairy – pale in comparison to the unique symbols and memories of apples and honey, jelly donuts, hamentashen and matzah.
But most of all, unlike other holidays with their unique rituals such as sitting in the sukkah, lighting Chanukah candles, or a seder, Shavuot’s custom of all night learning is lacklustre. For reasons of scheduling and interest, it’s able to capture the imagination of only a small demographic.
The nexus of these factors leads Shavuot to be one of the least celebrated of the Jewish holidays.
Because of the lack of compelling ritual, my celebration of Shavuot has changed through my stages of life.
As a child, Shavuot was marked by end-of-the-year ceremonies in synagogue. Junior congregation was invited into the sanctuary, and the youth leaders announced our names and gave us a Jewishly oriented children’s book as a capstone to the year. The ceremony was a wonderful way to mark the end of the year and a great pull for “regulars.” But it was an insiders’ event, honouring those who were already engaged in synagogue life.
In high school it was cool to stay up all night – at least among my very limited group of friends. We would gather at one synagogue, eat a lot of ice cream, learn a little Torah and fall asleep on the couches. As a day school student with no classes the next day and parents committed to the endeavour, it was easy for me to participate. Few of my peers in the throes of exams showed up.
During university, I was on summer vacation by the time Shavuot rolled around. Some years, I was traveling and experienced Shavuot with a local Jewish community. Other years, the holiday presented a pause from a summer job. Unlike the High Holidays or Pesach, Shavuot doesn’t have a gravitational pull that brings students home for the holiday.
Last year, for the first time, I attended a Shavuot retreat. A growing number of synagogues and independent minyanim organize such programs combining Torah learning, tfillot and recreational activities.
They’re slightly different in each community. They take the form of multi-day immersive experiences at camps or shorter programs in parks and other natural sites, with programs for a specific age group or events that cross generations.
In the spring months, Shavuot retreats capitalize on the opportunity to spent time in budding nature and a relaxed environment to study Torah and build community.
Shavuot retreats offer a potential new ritual that can cross the gamut of life’s stages and rejuvenate the celebration of Shavuot. From young children and their families to high school and university students to empty nesters, Shavuot retreats offer the opportunity to bridge the holiday’s two parallel themes of Torah study and celebrating the first fruits of nature while engaging participants in memorable experience that will draw them back year after year.