Shavuot will be weird this year.
This isn’t news. Since early March, everything’s been weird this year.
Shavuot — which starts on the evening of Thursday, May 28 this year — is in some ways the most nebulous of the Jewish holidays, the one best suited to the choose-your-own-adventure approach. It’s about the Jewish people receiving the Torah from God on Mount Sinai. It’s about the spring harvest. It’s about spirituality and learning all night; it’s about cheesecake and dairy and scotch all night. It’s about the timelessness of the revelation, with the souls of all Jews present as the thunder gleamed and the lightning roared and the mountain was held over our heads, and it’s about the inexorable march of time as we go from Pesach through the omer to Shavuot every single year.
This year, though, if it’s to be about community and spirituality and time, we’ll have to do it individually — admittedly a neat trick if you’re talking about community. We still will be socially distancing, sheltering in place, isolating at home; either in a bubble built for one or a slightly bigger bubble, with enough room for family and no one else.
Around the area, shuls are adapting to the very specific needs of this very odd time. The communities whose understanding of halacha prohibits the use of electricity during a festival — that’s all Orthodox and some Conservative shuls — offer online programs and resources that end before the holiday starts. The communities who permit the use of electricity during the festival — a new list that now includes Conservative communities newly allowed to do so, according to the Rabbinical Assembly — are running programs the evening of Shavuot, to fill the time traditionally used by the all-night tikkun leil Shavuot.
Here is a very short, entirely un-inclusive description of a very few of the very many programs on offer locally.
Rabbi Joseph Prouser’s Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes is offering a Zoom program called “With My Sword and Shield: The History of Jews in the U.S. Armed Forces.” It’s a logical choice for the shul. Rabbi Prouser is a history buff — last year his tikkun focused on Jewish Supreme Court justices — and the evening marks the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, as well as Memorial Day, coming on Monday.
The evening — which runs from 5:30 to 8, and ends before candle lighting (and there’s no need to ensure enough time to get everyone home from the program, because everyone’s home already) — includes six speakers. All of them except Rabbi Prouser and his wife, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, the dean and CEO of the Academy for Jewish Religion, have been or still are members of the U.S. armed forces.
The first speaker, Major General James E. Taylor of the U.S. Army, who is the director of the Inter-American Defense College, will talk about Mickey Marcus, the U.S. Army colonel who was instrumental in formulating both U.S. policy during and after World War II and then in Israel’s war for independence. Kirk Douglas played him in “Cast a Giant Shadow”; he died in Israel in 1947 and is buried in West Point. He’s a near mythic figure.
General Taylor “is a Boy Scout buddy,” Rabbi Prouser, who is an active Boy Scout chaplain and group’s former head chaplain, said. “The Inter-American Defense College trains and educates military leaders from the Western Hemisphere, so for him to speak about an American officer who died in the service of a foreign power is exactly his expertise.
“When he was promoted from brigadier to major general, he invited me to his promotion ceremony,” Rabbi Prouser added. “I would have loved to attend, but not only was it in California, which wouldn’t have been a dealbreaker, but it was on Rosh Hashanah, which was. So I said that I couldn’t come, but I would have my congregation pray for him at the hour of his promotion.
“And that turned out to be exactly when we said the prayer for our country.”
The next speaker, Lieutenant Commander C. Todd DeLaney of the U.S. Navy, is the deputy command chaplain on the USS John C. Stennis. He’ll talk about the Four Chaplains, who died together during World War II. “The Stennis is a nuclear superaircraft carrier, and he will be Zooming from it,” Rabbi Prouser said; there is great symbolic power in talking about those chaplains, who included Rabbi Alexander Goode, from that huge, powerful ship. “I don’t know if he will take this perspective, but my understanding is that the term ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ was coined and the concept was popularized because of all the Christians and Jews who worked together in the armed forces for the first time. We needed a new narrative about the significance of religion in the military, and the role of the four chaplains in establishing that narrative was invaluable.
“The idea of the Judeo-Christian tradition was playing well in the American popular imagination, and these four chaplains — who lived together, trained together, worked together, and died together — really helped cement this concept. So Rabbi Goode really can be credited to a great extent with cementing the idea of the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
Major General Taylor is Mormon, and Lieutenant Commander DeLaney is Episcopalian.
The other four speakers are Jewish; they include shul member Robert Yudin, who was Lieutenant (J.G.) Yudin, an airborne aerial navigator, in the U.S. Navy from 1961 to 1965. He’ll talk about his experiences during the Vietnam era, “and especially about the challenges of being a Jew serving there — and about the perceptions of being a Jew serving there.”
Dr. Prouser will talk about the Korean War, drawing on the experiences of her father, Rabbi William Horn, who retired from the pulpit of Congregation Ohr Shalom in Summit in 2005 after 43 years there. She’ll talk about Chaplain Rabbi Harry Schreiner, whom he knew. “He was called the rough-riding rabbi,” Rabbi Prouser said. “He served in Korea, was called back to service, and served in Vietnam. The Smithsonian did a tribute to him. Ora’s father was his assistant, before he went to the seminary, and had a big impact on him.”
Rabbi Prouser will talk about three Jewish Civil War fighters — Colonel Marcus Spiegel, Rabbi Jacob Frankel, and Private David Orbansky. And his niece, Petty Office First Class Amy Kitmacher, newly retired as an avionics and electrical technician in the Coast Guard, will talk about “The War on Terror: Remembering Nathan Bruckenthal.”
Petty Officer Third Class Bruckenthal “is the first and only coast guardsman to be killed in a war zone since Vietnam,” Ms. Kitmacher said. He’d joined the Coast Guard in 1999 and “worked on mechanical issues on the boat, like plumbing; his additional duties were as a boarding officer.” Because the Coast Guard functions, among other things, as marine police officers, “when we see a suspicious boat, or one in violation, you will board the boat to investigate.” Mr. Bruckenthal had been sent to the Persian Gulf in 2004, during the Iraq War. “There was a vessel that was approaching, that was where it shouldn’t have been,” she said. “Petty Officer Bruckenthal, along with another coast guardsman and some naval officers, attempted to board the vessel, and it detonated a suicide explosion. He and two of the naval petty officers were killed.
“I will discuss a little of where he came from and his role in the Coast Guard,” she said.
There is something deeply Jewish about being in the Coast Guard, she added. “What we do in terms of search and rescue and environmental work is about tikkun olam.”
One of the few but real advantages to having to present programs on Zoom is that distance does not matter. Other synagogues will join Emanuel in presenting the program. Locally, they include the Jewish Community Center of Paramus / Congregation Beth Tikvah, the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel, and Shomrei Torah: The Wayne Conservative Congregation. Farther afield, they include Temple B’Nai Israel of Easton, Maryland, and Temple Israel of Vestal, New York. And Major General Taylor and Lieutenant Commander Delaney are bringing their own audiences; they’ve asked for Zoom links for them.
Meanwhile, Orthodox synagogues are providing their members with ways to think and study and connect before the holiday starts.
For example, Rabbi Binyamin Krohn of Young Israel of Teaneck has been thinking about what is missing from each of the different times we’ve marked during this pandemic-mandated separation from physical community. “Sometimes it’s communal, sometimes it’s about spirituality, sometimes it’s about learning. In each experience there is something unique that people are missing — Pesach, Lag B’Omer, Shavuot, daily davening. There are so many pieces that people are missing.
“What a lot of people will miss the most on Shavuot is the tikkun leil Shavuot.” That’s true even though in congregations like his, which includes many young families, “not everyone in the family can go.” One parent often has to stay home, even though often the parents take turns. But for the people who are there, “the husband or the wife or the high school student, there is an aura of excitement that people remember, even more than the learning itself.
“It’s a combination of learning and collegiality. It’s late at night, there’s food, it’s the chevre turning out to be together, and there’s a feeling of doing something powerful, something beyond yourself. You’re pushing yourself out beyond your natural limits. So it’s not only the Torah learning itself, but it’s that you’re sending a message to yourself — the community is sending a message to itself — about the centrality of Torah learning. So more than the hours of learning per se, it’s the commitment to push yourself.”
And the act of doing it in the dark middle of the night gives it an intimacy that gives it even more power, he added.
“So what do we do now?” he asked. “Community learning typically is a partnership between me and the adult ed committee,” so he and it consulted, and decided that “we can’t have a full night of learning, but why not have a full week of learning?
“One of the other nice things about the tikkun typically is that it’s members teaching members. So why don’t we take a week of learning? We’ll be kicking it off on Sunday, May 24, with Rabbi Menachem Leibtag.
“He’ll be speaking live from Israel, so it will be midnight for him; the rest of the week, Sunday through Wednesday at night, another member of the shul will teach. It’s open to everyone, men and women.”
And there’s one more thing.
“Something else we’re missing is learning together as a community, so before Shavuot we are sending out a Google doc for a communal siyum for the Five Books,” Rabbi Krohn said. “Each family can take a little bit of Torah” — they can all sign on to learn whichever parsha they want — “and we can learn at the same time, each in our own homes, and then when this is over we can learn together.
“Our hope is to have everybody learning the Torah together on Shavuot.”
The Orthodox Union has made lemonade from the lemons that covid-19 has given the world. It’s providing an online resource, dozens and dozens of shiurim; people are invited to watch its videos before Shavuot, print out the resource packets of the ones that interest them, and then study them with their families on Shavuot.
Rabbi David Pardo of Fair Lawn is the managing director of the OU’s Torah Initiatives program. “Putting together large Torah events is one of our goals,” he said; in fact, he’s fresh from the success of Torah New York in September. His department is dedicated to “increasing access to the quality of Torah learning available for Orthodox adults in North America,” he said. “That includes Torah Now and the massive Daf Yomi learning programs in various communities, like the beit midrash in Teaneck, and Torah NY, LA, and Yerushayalim.
“The vision of the department is a world where Torah learning is not a K-12 activity, but a lifelong endeavor for everybody, at every level.”
This Shavuot, that will be done through the new program called “Sinai at Home.”
That’s because now we are dealing with a world where everybody has to be at home on Shavuot, Rabbi Pardo said. There’s no walking around from shiur to shiur, being inspired by riveting classes and lots of free coffee and terrible éclairs, when you know that you don’t need that third one — and you didn’t even really need that second one.” If that’s not possible, but “you’re at home, how can we help?”
By bringing that world of learning home. “We approached the same roster of world-class speakers who would have come and spoken, and we said, ‘If you were presenting at Shavuot, what would you present? Please give us the packet you’d hand out, and give us a video explaining how to use the packet at home, so that people can be learning at home with their kids.”
The website, Rabbi Pardo said, “looks like a cross between Amazon and Netflix. There are a crowd of people presenting.” It offers people a huge range of categories and choices. The presenters explain, and the viewers decide. They print out the source sheets before Shavuot, and there they are, ready to go. They just have to provide their own coffee and pastries.”
The list of speakers already up at is massive, and it will continue to grow. Distance does not matter and travel — by either the teacher or the student — is not an issue. The program is free, and the introductions and the source materials will stay up after Shavuot is long over.
“I think that if this takes off and impacts people in a meaningful way, and if the world looks a little different, then we can keep doing this. It happens to be a response to the coronavirus, but it can become a welcome innovation.” Not everyone can get out of the house — some have childcare duties, some are bed- or home-bound, and some live too far from shuls for a comfortable walk on Shabbat or chaggim.
“We are living during a time of a real renaissance of learning,” Rabbi Pardo said. “People know how to learn, but they often don’t get the chance. Here, you can take 45 minutes, and sit down with your wife or your husband or your kids or your cousin or by yourself, and learn.
“Maybe I am a lunatic, but that can be the new normal.”
Who: Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes
What: Offers a Zoom program, “With My Sword and My Shield: The History of Jews in the American Armed Forces.”
When: On Thursday, May 28, from 5:30 to 8 p.m.
For the link: Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Who: Young Israel of Teaneck
What: Offers shiurim, open to all, from Sunday, May 24 to Wednesday, May 27
For more information: Go to www.yiot.org
Who: The Orthodox Union’s OU’s Torah Initiatives
What: Offers Sinai at Home
How: Go to www.ou.org/sinai, browse, decide what interests you, print out the source material, and you’re good to go.