Shavuot: Up All Night

Shavuot has become a defining moment in the history of the Jewish people since the rabbis chose to link the holiday with the giving of Torah on Mt. Sinai. Perhaps it is because of its timing or perhaps it is because of its history, but until recently Shavuot was one of those holidays observed by few outside of the traditionally observant. Even the bolstering of the holiday by the Reform movement—by associating it with Confirmation—had diminished over time. Lately, however, the reintroduction of a Kabalistic tradition of tikkun layl Shavuot (a mystical custom to remain awake all night studying sacred Jewish texts) has breathed new life into a totally under-appreciated holiday. Even in small Jewish communities like Canton, OH, their late-night community-wide Shavuot program called “The Gathering” reached large numbers of people who normally don’t participate in such events. (I was thrilled to be part of that program last year.)

So what do we do with those on the periphery? How do we help them to mark Shavuot? A few years ago, JOI applied its Public Space Judaism model to the late-night celebration of Shavuot and developed a program which was to utilize three local secular establishments: a coffee shop, book store, and the arts space of a local college. Wanting to use this as a demonstration project, we applied to a local Jewish community for funding. We met all of their concerns (concerns perhaps more relevant to community insiders than the very people the program was intended to serve): Will the food be kosher? How will you handle funds on the holiday when doing so is prohibited by Jewish law? Etc. Nevertheless, we had the entire program worked out. In the end, we were not funded for the event, and instead all communal Shavuot events were held inside Jewish institutions.

While it is fine to run programs serving a primarily already-engaged Jewish population, we at JOI are still interested in applying the Public Space Judaism model for Shavuot programming by staging a tikkun at a Starbucks or local coffee house. Bookstores with in-house coffee stands work well too. After all, if you are going to be “Up All Night” (the name of our original Shavuot program proposal), what better place than a coffee house and bookstore? Perhaps we can together build this model and then share it with communities around the country—as we did Passover in the Aisles. Please let us know your ideas for building this program and we will add them to our own and then share them across our outreach professionals network.


  1. What a fantastic idea!

    Shavuot has definitely been an under-appreciated holiday: nothing much was made of it in my Conservative Jewish upbringing, and I was pretty scornful of its link to what I regarded as the entirely bogus (sorry!) rite of Confirmation in my 10th-grade year (just an excuse to keep us in Hebrew School post-bar/bat-mitzvah).

    But the various tikkunim & Shavuot celebrations I’ve been part of since 1997 have been a terrific part of my Jewish life–and I think that others would share my joy at discovering or re-discovering this holiday if it were presented to them in a friendly & appealing manner.

    Nu, a little reading, a little nosh: who doesn’t like cheesecake (mmmm, Shavuot dairy goodness!) & chat?

    Shavuot is, of course, the holiday par excellence concerned with the incorporation of non-Jews into the community, as the story of Ruth is read and the whole community–those who choose to be and live Jewishly, whether born Jewish or not–joins in receiving the Torah. The outsider Moabite Ruth becomes the consummate insider, giving birth to the Davidic line. What better time could there be for reaching out to those on the margins? Boaz told his gleaners to deliberately leave some extra sheaves for Ruth to gather in the field–not just the overlooked ones that were already rightfully the property of the poor to gather. Would that the Jewish community that turned you down for funding could see the value of leaving a few more sheaves outside of the existing Jewish institutions for those who aren’t insiders to gather! In our tradition’s understanding of the Ruth story, this kindness gets us (or begets for us?) both the glories of the Davidic era and our hope for a messiah born of that line: who knows what untold (and untilled?) goodness could come of the seeds sown by such a Public Space Judaism for Shavuot!

    One practical suggestion:
    Some of my most vivid tikkun leil Shavuot memories involve symbolically signicant foodstuffs our groups have enjoyed, which have been a jumping-off (or jumping-in) point for study & discussion:
    –steamed milk with honey & spices (for the land of Israel “flowing with milk and honey”–eretz zavat halav u’dvash)
    –a Mount Sinai of flavored cream cheese with raisins, dates, & other goodies hidden inside it (to be eaten with crackers…any symbolic value there?)
    –cookies in the shape of the Torah scroll, to eat while discussing the instruction to Ezekiel “Son of man, eat this scroll” (since parts of Ezekiel’s wacky vision get read as the haftarah for 1st day of Shavuot–though not this verse [from Ch. 3], in fact!)
    –a creamy sweet custardy cake traditional among the Jews of Greece (galaktopita zarka) on which I made (or tried to!) the shape of the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai
    –fake-meat buffalo wings + blue-cheese dressing (from a friend’s more complicated exegesis involving the importance of “wings” [kanfei nesharim,”the wings of eagles”; kanfei ha-shekhinah, “the wings of the Shekhinah”; the kanaf or “wing” of Boaz’s garment that Ruth lifts up & takes shelter under*] and of the mild attribute of God’s mercy, tempering the hotter attribute of God’s justice)

    …let’s learn by doing!

    Comment by Becca — May 1, 2006 @ 10:23 pm

  2. Great ideas. Thanks.

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — May 2, 2006 @ 11:15 am

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