Poor Shavuot – The Other Holiday

Teaching Shavuot

Idie Benjamin and Dale Cooperman

For weeks now, in our early childhood classrooms, it has been all about Passover – the story, the seder, the characters, the symbols, the songs, the prayers, and all the “props” and activities that teachers design to support children’s learning about this holiday. There has been a lot going on.

Survey after survey of American Jews show that Passover is the most widely observed Jewish holiday. Close to 80% of Jews in the United States attend a seder. There is something (or things) about Pesah that clearly resonates with people. This is a powerful story of the beginnings of the Jewish people dramatically brought to freedom. It is a time for families and friends to come together. The story and the haggadah prompt thoughtful observations and meaningful discussion. And then there is all that great food.

So, we can see why children love learning about Passover. There is a great story with a great drama to act out. There is the psychological issue of Pharaoh who says, “No,” again and again, is punished, and then everything is put in order. This parallels the lives of our young children. There is all the “stuff” – cups, covers, plates, and special foods. There is so much to do – the Mah Nishtanah, the cleaning, the cooking.  Everyone can find some part that speaks to them.

And, in our speaking of Passover to the children, we say over and over again that the Jews were LEAVING Egypt. Egypt was not a good place, so they had to leave. The sea was an obstacle that had to be crossed, so that they could leave. And once they had crossed, everyone celebrated because they had left Egypt.

Then what?

Thousands of people are standing in the Sinai desert. And then our school closes for all or part of the holiday and when everyone returns, it is time to think about Israel and the end of year and …. What happened to all those people in the desert? Are they still there? We know the story continues. It continues with traveling in the desert to Mount Sinai culminating with the holiday of Shavuot. Poor Shavuot – so important but too often ignored.

Shavuot celebrates the giving and receiving of the Ten Commandments/Torah at Mount Sinai. Shavuot means weeks because it comes exactly seven weeks after Passover. For Jews, the Torah is our most treasured possession. It is the Jewish roadmap. It contains history, law, values, and details our relationship with God. Throughout history, the Torah has linked Jews to one another. Without Shavuot, there is no Judaism. How can we not tell our children about this crucial holiday?

Without the Torah, the Jews were just a large group of freed slaves. Being free was not enough. They needed structure and law to become a people with a shared identity. We know that young children thrive with appropriate structure and rules. Children feel safe with boundaries.

Why does Shavuot get short changed? There are a few reasons, but they can be overcome. Often it is a calendar problem. This year, Shavuot is either June 8 or June 8 and 9 depending on your denomination, some programs have finished. Others are in the process of ending their year. So, start earlier. Introduce Shavuot to the children when Passover is over. Traditionally, we count the Omer for the 49 days between the second night of Passover and Shavuot. Catch up to the current day of the Omer and keep counting. As we count up, it is really a countdown to receiving of the Torah. There should be anticipation and excitement. Something amazing is going to happen.

After all the activity of Passover, some might see Shavuot as less interesting. Unlike most Jewish holidays, Shavuot has few home rituals. Some Jews eat only dairy foods; blintzes and cheesecake are Shavuot favorites. Children can connect to Shavuot even if there is no seder.  These ideas can be considered in creating a rich Shavuot experience.

  • * Torah – The Torah is the most important book ever written and the best present ever given. Did you visit the sanctuary and explore a real Torah months ago for Simhat Torah?  Time for another Torah experience. Invite your clergy to join you. Exploring a Torah is a sensory experience – the covers and ornaments, the parchment, the letters, its size. It is written on a scroll, the way books long ago were written. Children respond to those “big” ideas.
  • *The Desert – This was Jewish camping. Put away the kitchen appliances. Bring in tents, sleeping bags, and campfires for a very different housekeeping experience. What was it like to walk through a hot, sandy desert for 49 days? Would you have been happy to keep going if you knew something wonderful was going to happen at the end of the journey? No water bottles – oh, no.
  • *Set up a “camp” at the foot of a mural of Mount Sinai. Jewish tradition says that every Jew – past, present, and future – was at Mount Sinai.  Wake everyone up with “thunder” and the sounds of a shofar. And really, is there anything more dramatic? What is going to happen?
  • *Laws and Rules – Remember those class rules (no hitting, etc.) that you discussed in September? It is time to revisit them. After being together for a year, would your class think of different rules now? What Jewish values have been imparted over the year that would change the rules they create.  What makes a rule a Jewish rule? How many Jewish rules do the children know? How do they understand the Ten Commandments? They can “write” their own Torah.
  • *End of the Year Pajama Party – Many schools have a pajama party the last week and this can be connected to Shavuot. Some Jews participate in a tikkun leyl Shavuot, a custom of staying up all night studying on the eve of the holiday. A midrash (Rabbinic story) tells that the Israelites overslept when they were to receive the Torah. Staying up heightens the anticipation for this event. Have an Erev Shavuot Pajama Party. Instead of reading Goodnight Moon, read favorite Torah stories.

We need to take our children on a journey from the Reed Sea to Mount Sinai. There is a great gift waiting for them there. To be Jewish, we all need it. Shavuot is not a holiday that we celebrate only if we have the time. It is a major Jewish holiday, and our children need to know about it about and experience it. Ending the year with Shavuot is a “huge finish.” Torah in hand, our children head out into the world.