Shavuot celebration embracing online format for 2020

Although social distancing measures are beginning to ease, too many restrictions are still in place to allow celebrations for Shavuot to take place at syniguages (synagogues).

“One of the main reasons behind the festival: we celebrate the receiving of Torah from God to Moses on Mount Sinai,” says Rabbi Carey Brown from Temple Sholom in Vancouver. “It’s when we went from oppression and slavery, to Torah and revelation. Very powerful. Traditionally, we would gather together in the community and do a lot of learning.”

Shavuot, one of the most celebrated holidays on the Jewish calendar, begins this year on the evening of May 28 until the evening of May 30. The two days are filled with prayers and blessings, chanting from the Torah scroll, all-night Hebrew Bible study, and delicacies from the dairy food group – with cheesecake and blintzes being among the traditional favourites.

Beyond the celebration itself, there are 49 days – which begin as soon as Passover ends – leading up to the event called the Omer.

“There’s a real sense of build up to Shavuot,” says Brown.

An international online celebration

Since large gatherings aren’t allowed to happen for the foreseeable future, adjustments have to be made for this year’s Shavuot celebration.

“There are going to be quite a few big changes, many of them are changes that we’ve been adapting to,” says Brown.

Rabbi Carey Brown from Temple Sholom in Vancouver. | Photo by Dan Walton

Temple Sholom has been offering worship services online on the Sabbath each week over the past two months; and most of this year’s Shavuot ceremonies will take place online as well. And while it’s preferred to hold ceremonies in person rather than online, one benefit of the temporary format is it gives Jewish followers living outside of the Lower Mainland the opportunity to be included in the service.

“That’s been really nice for accessibility – people from all over the world have been able to join us and celebrate the Sabbath, and it will be the same with Shavuot,” she adds.

During Shavuot 2019, there was a new element added to local celebrations. Numerous other Jewish communities gathered from around the Lower Mainland for an evening to study together and exchange ideas. And despite the challenges in place because of COVID, the new tradition will continue in 2020 – albeit this year’s gathering will have to take place online.

“This year we’ll be doing it on Zoom instead of [in] person. People from the Jewish community can come together, hear from different Rabbis,” says Brown.

This year the learning will focus on the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“Many modern Rabbis of today find him to be one of the most inspirational rabbis in modern times – most of us were impacted by his teachings in some way,” says Brown. “His interpretation and implementation of those teachings to the world – just to be able to share a little bit about his teachings, the different perspectives, and things we draw from his life – we think the community finds that very interesting.”

For this year’s celebration, an online community gathering will include the breakout groups, followed by an evening service.

“Kind of what we would have done in person, but it will be done through technology,” says Brown.

The story of Ruth

One section of the Hebrew Bible that receives extra focus during Shavuot is the Book of Ruth, a widow who remained loyal to her mother-in-law and their Jewish faith.

“Ruth is a very interesting woman…Known as the First Convert,” explains Brown. “After

losing her husband, her mother-in-law Naomi told her she can go back home, but Ruth said no.

‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.’ (Ruth 1:16 in the Hebrew Bible)”

This year’s services are streamed on Temple Sholom’s Facebook and YouTube pages, and on cable through Telus.

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