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Miriam Kosman

Oxen with gilded horns, baskets lovingly woven, processions of joyous Jews making their way to Jerusalem--- this is the stuff of our dreams for the future. Bringing the first of the fruit of one's labor to the 'bais Hashem', puts the whole agricultural scene in to the context of Shavous, the day when we receive the Torah.   Bikkurim, and the declaration we made upon bringing them, defined our history and our destiny.

And yet, there are Jews who have been cut off from their own Source, who through no fault of their own, have no one but their lonely selves to whom to turn.

A friend of mine, who grew up on a secular kibbutz, tells me how they used to celebrate Shavous on her Kibbutz.  In the agricultural milieu of the Kibbutz, Chag Hashavout was one of the holidays that made it big time.  The children would dress up in white shirts and put wreaths of flowers on their heads.  They would open up a big platform in the middle of the field, and each kibbutz member would march across the stage with a beautifully decorated basket holding the products he had produced that year. They called this ceremony 'bikkurim' but  in a subtle travesty, these "bikkurim"  were not brought to Jerusalem, were not lovingly handed to a kohein to symbolize a relationship with the  Source of all plenty-- but were a celebration of the hard labor and the fruits thereof--a gift from the workers back to themselves. How lonely to stand alone, on the unforgiving land, with no one to turn to but your own frail self!  Born not from a deep sense of love and purpose, but from a dependence on the dubious wiles of Mother Nature and their own fallible selves, the brittle gaiety was easily smashed. 

Part of the folk lore of my friend's childhood was what had happened at another kibbutz near hers.   The kibbutz used to bring in temporary workers from the neighboring development towns to help with the harvest. In a magnanimous gesture the kibbutz invited these workers to join them, with their families, on Shavout, to experience a 'real, authentic, 'bikkurim'' ceremony.   The workers, of Sephardic descent, sat happily in the clear, country air, thrilled to be out of their cramped city quarters and especially thrilled to see how the heroes of Israeli culture celebrated such a special day. The problem started when the man in charge of one section of the barn, started his march up on stage. His produce was a bit less innocuous than the proceeding quaint little lambs and calves, and abundant baskets of grapes and flower. His produce were cute, little, pink creatures with curly tails, and split hooves, who don't chew their cud.  As his protégé's made their galloping way over the stage, there was pandemonium in the field… the rank and file city dwellers stepped right out of their role of grateful guests.  Not given to reticence, the city guests, most of them from a strong, traditional background, gave voice to their disgust vociferously.

"Here in the Holy Land!  On Chag HaShavuot!  At a 'bikkurim' ceremony!" 

No amount of reasoned explanations managed to calm their guests, and the happy, enlightened occasion soon gave way to an angry brawl….


But that was many years ago, on a kibbutz.  Today, most of the Israeli students I meet at the various universities, don't live on a kibbutz, and even those that do, don’t always have such colorful memories of their chag.

And it is not just memories that they don't have.  Surprisingly, living in Israel is not enough to create a Jewish identity. For the average Israeli university student, Judaism is a mixed bag of rituals, annoying customs, a touch of warm feelings, folk lore, a primitive, archaic legal system, and mostly, a racist, misogynist world view.   If these students are looking for spirituality, meaning, a sense of connection or identity—unfortunately—Judaism is the last place to look. For that they go to India, or leave Israel to make it in academia in the States. Intermarriage is becoming more and more common, since many Israelis have no idealistic opposition to intermarriage.

In to this, steps Nefesh Yehudi.  An organization that offers stipends to Israeli university students to learn about Judaism, Nefesh Yehudi aims to strengthen Jewish identity through Torah learning.  Operating on the premise that knowledge is power, the idea behind the organization is, that the more that people know about their Judaism, the greater their commitment will be, and the more passionate they will be about it

Students commit to four and a half weekly hours of intense Judaic study, as well as two weekend seminars a year.  Through lecture series and chavruta programs, the students are exposed to a wide range of Jewish thought, on topics such as:  Jewish medical ethics, free choice; the World to Come; man's responsibility to the animal kingdom; marriage and building a Jewish home and the depth of meaning in the Jewish life cycle and calendar, as well as a deeper understanding of Shabbos, Kashrus and many other mitzvos.  In the one on one chavruta programs, the students themselves grapple with texts in intense, intellectual debate.

The standard response from students is one of intense surprise that the Judaism they thought they knew, is, in reality, rich and beautiful as well as contemporary and relevant.  Suddenly, Judaism becomes not just something to be proud of, but something worth investing in and cultivating. 


In order to get accepted in to the program, the students undergo an interview process. Recently we added something new to the interview.  We give the students a General Jewish Knowledge Test.  The questions are basic—just what one would assume that a Jew growing up in Israel would have picked up—if only by osmosis.  We tell the students that they don't even have to sign their names—the purpose of the test is not to decide who we will accept but just to give us a signpost of what their Jewish background is. 

And the truth is they are happy not to sign their names—the results are embarrassing.  Students who can rattle off facts and figures on any subject, have trouble remembering the names of the forefathers and how many tribes there were.  Students who study comparative religions don't know what chol hamoed is. They bring back their papers somewhat sheepishly—and it strengthens their desire to enroll in the program.

But the question that really stumps them is Chag Hashavuout.  What are we celebrating there?   With the changes in the kibbutz movement in recent years, even the wreaths of flowers and jolly songs about working the land are becoming obsolete. So what is this chag about? If they scratch their memories very hard—they usually come up with—cheese cake.  (Tnuva would be proud.) 
Putting Shavous back on the map is just a by product of learning about Judaism. It wasn't our main goal—but still sometimes, a by product can be sign post of progress. For my first group in Nefesh Yehudi, seven years ago,  Shavous was so non-existent that many of the students didn't even go home for it.  It was just an extra day off, for studying for the exams that sprout up towards the end of the semester.  I wrote about that first Shavous then, in an article that was published in the Jewish Observer:


I think of my own Shavous in Bnei Brak- the richness so thick you can cut it with a knife.  I can't bear to think what their Yom Tov will be like in Tel Aviv on the campus. But this isn't part of their program. They didn't sign a contract for this. Would they want to come?

Let’s offer it to them. If we don’t try, we will never know. In two hours fifteen girls have signed up.  We rent an apartment (the Old City is ridiculously expensive during Yom Tov) and I wrap up our pots and take my daughters. My husband and sons stay home to be near the yeshiva.  It’s stressful; we are staying in a tiny hole in the wall. The Old City has steps and more steps and more steps, and everywhere I go I shlep the baby stroller, up and down, up and down. I feel like my arms are going to fall off.  All-night learning hastily arranged, I sit in on some of the classes with them, and then run back to check on the children.  Netz is fast approaching. I go back to wake up my daughters, and we start the walk in the cool crisp air. The trickles of people turn into streams and then into oceans.  I am exhausted, my arms ache and as we get to the Kotel plaza I somehow get separated from the group. I am left with my baby and Roni, and I begin to wonder if this was all a mistake. The sun is high in the sky now. The place is so crowded you can't move.  Roni of all people.  Roni is a kibbutznik doing her second degree in biology.  Intellectual, sharp, atheistic and your quintessential, say-it –like- it- is Israeli. “I don’t believe any of this. It’s all something that was just made up in order to fulfill some psychological needs.”

I was surprised that she had come at all… she looks none too pleased. This was supposed to be the highlight and we missed dawn; it’s crowded and hot. How am I supposed to create any atmosphere without the rest of the girls?  I look at her face. She looks pretty grim.  Maybe I should just take her back so she can go to sleep. It looks like she has had enough, but do we leave the Kotel just when we came?

"Roni," I say tentatively, "do you mind if I just pray for five minutes and then we can go back so you can take a nap?"  I look down into my stroller bag and lo and behold I have two siddurim there.  My daughter must have left hers there. Should I try it?  Roni is an atheist, as she has told me pointedly on several occasions. But, it’s Shavous.

"Roni, look I have two siddurim here. Would you like to say the birchot hashachar while I am saying mine?"

"Sure, why not?"  She opens the siddur and I try to keep my mind on my davening as I hear her reading in a loud voice next to me,

“Shelo asani goy, sheasain kirtzono, al tevianu lo leyday nisayon.”

  I steal a look at her face. She is involved, intense. 

I finish brachos and say, "OK, Roni, let’s go back now.  You've had enough; I will finish praying in my apt."

  She shrugs, "If you want to say some more, I don't mind staying.". 

My heart skips a beat. I hand her the siddur and show her Shema.  After Shema, she wants to say some more.  I hand her Shacharis Shmonei Esrei and then Mussaf.  Asher bachar banu… I glance sideways; Roni is crying.


Shavous the next year we decided to do the daring and invite the students to Bnei Brak.

Three in the morning.  Our Yeshiva connection clears out the ezras nashim.  The cacophony of noise greets us before we even enter the building. We climb up the worn and winding steps.  I look at Liraz. She is glued to the mechitza. Her eyes take in the boys pacing back and forth, the thumbs flying in the air, the pair in the corner yelling at each other, the grandfather and seven year old grandson on the same bench, so involved that they don't look up once.  I finally pry them away.  As we walk down the stairs she says, " I always thought that religious people were like robots, plugging away doing what they were told. I never saw so much energy, so much passion, so much excitement.  Then I reminded myself—and this is at three o’clock in the morning!"


Last year, Shavous came out connected to Shabbos, so it was a two day Chag. We had long out grown a small, intimate Shavous in Bnei Brak, but would anyone register for a two day yom tov?  We closed the registration at four hundred.  Two hundred boys and two hundred girls at two separate hotels.  The hotels couldn't hold anymore, and while the desire to grow is unlimited, the budget is.

Three days is a long time to be together.  Five long meals, with singing and discussions, all night learning sessions, and a two hour walk to the kotel in the middle of the night.  People mellow, hang around in the lobby and on the porches talking and discussing.  Some of them have brought family members for a taste of what they are learning.

Family members are another whole issue.  Students are undergoing changes, and it is so hard to go home to spouses and parents and try to share the process. It is hard to give over information when it is so new and unfamiliar even to you, and it is even harder to transmit the feeling of excitement and joy of discovery that many of them are feeling—especially, when your spouse is cynical, jaded, and sure that you are being brainwashed in that ridiculous program, that is giving you a stipend, so I will put up with it, but please—don’t take it seriously!!   We allowed some of the married students to bring their spouses as an introduction.  In the best case scenario, some of them might join the program, in the worst case, at the very least, maybe the antagonism level will be reduced.

For those with husbands there, the weekend was particularly intense.  As one girl put it, "After the tenth time, that I asked my husband, 'so how was the lecture', and ' what do you think', he blew up at me.'Stop taking my pulse every minute. I am alive and breathing, and in the meantime, no major changes have taken place!! I will let you know if I decide to become religious!'"

And yet, if not major changes, minor changes were taking place. The discussion groups lasted until the wee hours of the morning. Sivan came over to tell me that her husband said to her, "I don't agree with a lot of what I am hearing, but these people are definitely wise—I can see why you are so excited about the program."

In a strange kind of dynamic we found our students on our side, joining in to explain to their spouses why the Torah lifestyle makes sense.  We had to laugh to ourselves. Back at our Student Center, these are the very students who fight us tooth and nail on every point, but in an interesting switch, as hosts to their families, they find themselves passionate defense lawyers instead of prosecuting attorneys.

Right before havdala, I noticed that Noah and Shai had disappeared. I went to look for them, and found them sitting on a grassy pocket outside the hotel. They looked quiet and introspective.

Shai spoke up, "We have been talking about the messages we have been hearing—and I think that basically what you are offering us is purpose and meaning in life. I can see how that can change a person's life—but I am wondering if I couldn't find a purpose in life that doesn't carry such a high price tag…"

Noah shook her head despairingly.  "See, the problem is that he is just fine. He doesn't feel like he needs meaning in life. He is perfectly happy just the way he is.  I am the one that feels like I need more. Shai never worries about a thing. Just look at how relaxed he looks on that deck chair!"

We laugh and then Shai speaks up.  "The truth is that I am happy. But I can't deny the fact that on the other hand, I am here. I didn't have to come... Noah did not tie me up in ropes and carry me here."

He looks up at the sky for a minute and then says, "So what would you say the next step would be for us—if, let's just say, for interest's sake-- that we would want to pursue this a bit further?

Just for interest's sake, I suggest he start learning once a week with a chavrusa…

I was at a meeting with a donor a while back, with my boss, Rabbi Ilani, who heads the whole Nefesh Yehudi program.  The donor said to him, "I see you have six thousand students in your program today.  What are your goals for the future?"

Rabbi Ilani answered immediately, "For every college and university student in Israel to be part of our program." The donor smiled but I laughed to myself.  He probably thinks Rabbi Ilani is joking.  But we went from thirty students to six thousand in about seven years.  We went from fifteen students for Shavous to four hundred and counting… Who knows what the future holds? 

If knowledge is power, than engaging in study together-- two Jews in front of an ancient text-- is one of the most powerful ways to heal the rift in our fragmented society.  We can't bring bikkurim right now, but as Rav SR Hirsh tells us, bikkurim were a way to connect every aspect of our lives to Hashem and His Torah.   I look up at the canopy of trees above the hotel garden and think to my self, that as a way to celebrate Shavous-- Shai starting to learn with a chavrusa-- sure beats a parade of pink tailed, bow betied creatures, running across a platform…

©Miriam Kosman

Dean of Students, Ort Braude College


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