As Rockets Keep Falling, Israelis Near Gaza Find Creative Ways to Celebrate Shavuot

Shavuot is observed by Jews as the date of the divine revelation on Mount Sinai, and in Israel it's also an agricultural festival. But this year, the fields near Gaza are burning and the holiday requires a special effort

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Children at a structure bearing traces of rockets fired from Gaza, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, last month.
Children at a structure bearing traces of rockets fired from Gaza, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, last month.Credit: Jack Guez / AFP

Last week, as rockets began pounding southern Israel, Yael Lachyani and her family joined other residents of Kibbutz Nahal Oz who fled to the north to Mishmar Ha’emek to wait out the conflict. Of the dozens who remained at Nahal Oz, only about a kilometer from the Gaza border, few plan to celebrate the Shavuot holiday that begins Sunday evening.

“We can’t put a lot of people together, so at Nahal Oz we’ve decided to delay the holiday,” said Lachyani. “We hope it’ll be in two weeks but we don’t know yet. We want to celebrate. We have our tradition of bringing newborn babies [before the community] and bringing new crops onto the stage, and we have singing and a dinner.”

In recent days, Jewish communities across the south have been grappling with just how to mark the holiday while under near constant bombardment. Shavuot is observed by Orthodox Jews as the date of the divine revelation on Mount Sinai, and by secular Jews as an agricultural festival.

At Sa’ad, an Orthodox kibbutz just off the border of northern Gaza, many residents still intend to go to synagogue, longtime resident Rosie Wiesel told Haaretz.

One minyan, or prayer quorum, that during the pandemic would meet outdoors near her home has been forced to stop because of the rockets, and “most people are just hunkering down inside their houses.” But that doesn’t mean that the holiday has been canceled.

She said the kibbutz synagogue has relocated to a safe room under the communal dining hall, and she expects up to 50 people to attend services Shavuot eve, when Orthodox Jews traditionally stay up all night studying Torah.

An Israeli firefighter extinguishes a fire caused by rockets launched from Gaza on Sunday.Credit: Jack Guez / AFP

“We’re very interested in holding on to routine as much as possible. We’ve found a protected space where we have been praying all week, and the studying for the evening of Shavuot will also be underground,” said Ari Set, the kibbutz’s rabbi.

“If someone holds on to routine it gives him strength, and if he’s closed up in his home all the time it’s bad for his spirit. We will pray and learn together and strengthen one another. Everyone understands that routine is strength.”

A little further north, in the city of Sderot, many synagogues have thick concrete walls like a safe room and will remain open, although it’s still unclear just how many congregants will brave the rocket fire to attend services, said Rabbi Ari Katz, the PR chief for the local hesder yeshiva, which plans to remain open. Hesder yeshivas combine religious study with military service.

Katz's students, who come from across the country, will remain at the yeshiva and continue their studies over the holiday, he said, adding that the school’s “study hall is the safest place on campus because it’s totally rocket-proof, so the guys learning there, when there’s a siren, don’t have to go anywhere.”

As he put it, “I think fewer people will be going to synagogue because people want to be careful and play it safe, but the fact you have yeshivas that are active in the city is also a statement, and that sends a message to the people of Sderot.”

In Be’er Sheva, the capital of the Negev region in the south, synagogues belonging to the Chabad Hasidic sect will remain open but adhere to Home Front Command’s safety regulations, said Rabbi Yitzchak Sebbag, who works with the city’s English-speaking community.

Israeli civilians dancing with soldiers near the Gaza border on Sunday.Credit: Jack Guez / AFP

“Of course, when it comes to Shavuot, we want to celebrate everything we can and not be deterred by any threats, but we want to make proper preparations,” he said, adding that his synagogue has its own protected space and is within an easy sprint of nearby shelters.

“The schedule we have is our regular schedule, with sushi during all-night learning and an ice cream party” for the children.

But at Kibbutz Nirim, veteran resident Adele Raemer, an American immigrant whose house was hit by a Hamas rocket in 2014, said the holiday was the least of her problems.

Most of Nirim’s residents have left for now, and while she has suggested that the far-flung members of the kibbutz join together Sunday evening for a remote celebration over Zoom, she’s more concerned about making sure that everybody is safe.

“As long as everybody is safe we can postpone Shavuot or celebrate it virtually. It’s a beautiful, wonderful holiday and one of the most meaningful holidays,” she said.

But, she added, “we have to keep everybody safe and secure and get ourselves through this period and then look ahead. Maybe we’ll have Shavuot in a few weeks, but as long as everybody is safe and no rockets explode in my community, I’m willing to forgo a holiday.”

Back in Mishmar Ha’emek, Nahal Oz spokeswoman Lachyani said she plans to celebrate Sunday evening with her hosts at their own communal observances in a local field.

Lachyani is no stranger to celebrating under fire; in 2018, the field where her kibbutz usually celebrates Shavuot was set on fire by an incendiary balloon launched from Gaza. But she’ll be marking the holiday as a temporary refugee in a strange kibbutz on the other side of the country.

“It’s bizarre. It’s really, really weird. It’s really hard for us to change our routine. In a moment we have to stop our entire life,” she said.

“The kids can’t go to school and we can’t go to work and we can’t hang out like we used to and, besides that, war is never easy and it’s not easy to see what’s going on, the casualties. We’ve kind of had enough. The feeling is ‘I want to get it over with and go back to my home and have a routine.’”

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