Shavuot celebrants may find themselves eating cheesecake alone this year, but there is still a buffet of opportunities for personal growth, say local rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators.
“This year, especially, as we don’t have the opportunity, indeed the privilege, of gathering together to celebrate Shavuot, we can recommit ourselves to learning and to finding inspiration and revelation in our own home,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, of Rodef Shalom Congregation.
“I feel like this is a moment in Jewish life where we need to really embrace private home-based Judaism,” echoed Danielle Kranjec, senior Jewish educator at Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh. “This is a great opportunity to think about how we value all different kinds of ritual associated with chag, and also how we can bring learning into our family experience.”
Both Bisno and Kranjec are among more than 20 presenters slated to speak at the virtual Tikkun Liel Shavuot on May 27. Although typically held in person at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh on the first night of Shavuot, the communitywide learning program, administered by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and organized by Jewish Community Foundation Scholar Rabbi Danny Schiff, was moved online and scheduled for the night before the holiday “so all can participate” this year, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer, of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler, is encouraging congregants to attend the virtual event.
“That’s the only way that I can think of that would make this Shavuot more special,” she said.
Cantor Henry Shapiro, of Parkway Jewish Center, is similarly hoping congregants click in as a way to foster self-growth during this difficult period.
“We’re having less of a connection with each other overall — this is the nature of the times that we’re living in and the circumstances that we’re living in — but it doesn’t mean that we can’t connect where we are,” Shapiro said.
The coronavirus crisis has naturally led to introspection, noted Bisno.
“As we go through this quarantine, we are being changed by it,” he said. “Hopefully we are becoming more empathic, and more appreciative and more understanding about our own experience and how fortunate we are, and about the experience of others, such that when we come out from our isolation hopefully we'll come out better people. If not, we've been doing it wrong.”
While Shavuot is a major holiday, it generally is not as widely celebrated as are Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Passover. That may be because “it doesn't have as many foods, customs, etcetera associated with it,” said Gray-Schaffer.
Or, its placement on the calendar may have led to its underappreciation. “People are already thinking about their summer plans,” noted Shapiro.
Timing is relevant to the holiday’s prominence on campus, according to Kranjec. “Often Shavuot happens in the lull between Birthright and Onward Israel, so the majority of what our energy is focused on is not in America,” she explained.
This year is different, though. Because those college summer programs are currently suspended, students are seeking Jewish engagement virtually. In response, Hillel JUC has provided increased learning over Zoom.
Through regular courses, many of which bring “marginalized Jewish voices to the center,” Kranjec has remained connected to both current students and alumni, she said. The situation is actually a boon for the upcoming holiday, continued the Jewish educator: “The fact that we’ve kept learning going in a particular way means that Shavuot is more likely to be accessible.”
Specifically, by offering the Tikkun online, it allows those “all over the country to sign on to learn with our rabbis and leaders in Pittsburgh,” she said.
While many will be primarily experiencing Shavuot from home, the location of the observance need not negatively impact the meaning of the holiday, echoed Rabbi Barbara Symons, of Temple David.
“For our Erev Shavuot service, though we are postponing confirmation until we can be in person, each of our eighth through 10th grade students will provide a personal interpretation of one of the 10 Commandments,” she said.
“Shavuot celebrates revelation, the receipt of Torah into our midst and into our community,” explained Bisno. “And Torah becomes the emblem of our love of learning, and our embrace of the world around us and what we can learn from it. Judaism understands that revelation, while it took place at Mount Sinai, is an ongoing process and there is knowledge and wisdom, and empathy and understanding — that is to say there is Torah — to be learned in every moment, and every relationship, and every encounter and experience. “So we may have to work a little extra hard to recognize the opportunities to learn in this experience, but there are many,” continued the rabbi. And, it is “essential we make our own.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.