This was Ruth Calderon’s Shavuot experience as a child in Tel Aviv: She bought cheese for her family’s cheesecake, shopped for fruits for an elementary school agricultural presentation and picked out a new white blouse to wear.
Her family and her school were secular. Calderon never learned the spiritual significance of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
"Shavuot as a holiday faded for us," she says.
Introduced later to the traditional meaning of Shavuot at a kibbutz-based educational program, Calderon initiated an all-night study session (based on the Tikkun Leil Shavuot learning sessions that are a staple in religious circles) at a secular beit midrash institution she helped found in the heart of Tel Aviv’s avant-garde Shenkin Street area. The popularity of the Shavuot night activities grew quickly, expanding around the country and earning live coverage on Israeli TV.
Calderon’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot has spread to the United States.
A doctoral student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and scholar-in-residence at UJA-Federation, Calderon is the coordinator of "Stay the Night," an evening and early morning of classes, films and other activities that will begin Sunday, the first night of the holiday, at 10 p.m. and continue until 5 a.m.
"Stay the Night" will take place at The JCC in Manhattan, which hosted the program last year, and for the first time across Manhattan at the 92nd Street Y. All activities are free.
Three years ago Calderon accompanied her husband, Guy Ben-Shachar, who began a posting as a shaliach at the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey that ends this summer. Came Shavuot, no all-night learning program.
"I came here. I was missing it," she says.
So she created a New York version of the Israeli all-night Shavuot educational and cultural experience.
The first tikkun, at New York University, drew 500 people. Last year’s at The JCC in Manhattan attracted 1,700. Calderon expects more at this year’s locations under the aegis of Alma New York, a branch of her Israeli-based Alma College that runs various activities.
The growing interest in staying up all night on Shavuot doesn’t surprise Calderon.
"From my experience in Israel, it’s natural," she says.A young crowd, mostly aged 25 to 35, attends. It’s a mixed crowd: Israelis and Americans, religious and secular, affiliated and unaffiliated.
"We got the Torah together at Sinai," Calderon says. "We want to celebrate it together."
Her version of a Tikkun Leil Shavuot introduces Judaism’s forgotten holiday (one of the Torah’s three pilgrimage holidays, along with Passover and Sukkot) in a decidedly unorthodox fashion.Traditional synagogues and yeshivot offer a night of lectures by rabbis and chevruta study with a learning partner.
"Stay the Night," whose theme is the Ten Commandments, will present lectures and chevrutas. It will serve, as is the custom on Shavuot, cheesecake and coffee. It will also feature Israeli dancing, klezmer music and jazz, a tallit-making workshop, yoga instruction, meditation sessions and Israeli films. At the end, participants will greet the sunrise on the buildings’ roofs.
Sexuality expert Dr. Ruth Westheimer will discuss her specialty, and Eytan Schwartz, winner of the Israeli reality show "The Ambassador," will talk about "Everything You Wanted to Know about Israel but Never Had the Chance to Ask."
"There is a large reservoir of people living here," both secular Israelis and unaffiliated American Jews, who "don’t come to Jewish things," Calderon says, especially "religious" things in synagogues. "We’re making a new language."
"You have to find a new language" (a fresh approach and innovative events) "to bring the young generation back to Judaism," says Tzameret Fuerst, a Sabra who two years ago helped establish the Dor Chadash organization, which brings young Israelis and American Jews together here.
Dor Chadash is a partner of Alma New York in sponsoring "Stay the Night," along with UJA-Federation and the two host institutions. Other sponsors are Bnai Zion, Limmud NY, The Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning, the Israeli Consulate, and the Cojeco organization, which represents the Russian emigre community.
"I did not even know what the term [a Shavuot tikkun] meant until I met Ruth [Calderon]" a few years ago, says Fuerst, who has worked on Shavuot programming with Ofri Cnaani and Jeffrey Schwartz. "Living in Israel, I took my Jewishness for granted. In the diaspora, I cannot take my Jewishness for granted."
Fuerst now serves as a nonprofit strategy consultant in the Jewish community.Generations X and Y prefer an interaction with Judaism that is egalitarian, interactive and non-authoritarian, she says.
"They’re not going to go to the rabbinate," Fuerst says.
The Shavuot program is typical. It’s part of a trend of putting a new spin on old Jewish activities.
"It’s a huge movement," Calderon says, pointing to Israelis who are studying classical texts, getting married and buried, and celebrating other parts of traditional Jewish life in an untraditional manner.
The old barrier between Jewish and Israeli identities is falling, she says.
"I don’t want to choose, ‘Are you Israeli or Jewish?’ " Calderon says.
Calderon says such activities as Alma College appeal to young, third-generation Israelis, the grandchildren of the state’s founders. The first generation, largely European-born, established the country, she says. The second generation built the roads and settlements.Her generation, Calderon says, grew up with everything in place.
They ask, "What is the meaning of all this?"
Calderon says her generation is seeking the spirituality that their grandparents disbanded and their parents never learned about, and is finding its own approach to Judaism.
"It’s our responsibility to claim it," she says. "Ignorance is the worst enemy. Our tradition is not a museum piece."
Calderon’s two teenage daughters will attend "Stay the Night" with her and attend some of the "very teen-friendly" sessions.
Her daughters don’t buy fruits for classes at school, she says. But at home, some parts of her Tel Aviv Shavuot remain.
"The cheesecake stays," Calderon says. "The wearing white stays."
The JCC in Manhattan is at 334 Amsterdam Ave. The 92nd Street Y is at 1395 Lexington Ave. Information about the Tikkun Leil Shavuot is available at www.92y.org/tikkun, www.tikkunNY.org or www.jccny.org.