Israel's Anglos Carve Out Their Own Niche This Shavuot

The Jewish festival of Shavuot, which begins on Saturday at sundown, marks the nation of Israel's receipt of the Torah from God at Mount Sinai.

From partnered groups and lectures to the traditional sunrise walk to the Western Wall, English speakers in Israel will have a host of options to choose from this weekend as they embark upon the annual battle to make it to sunrise as part of the Shavuot festival's all-night study marathon.

"It's a fantastic evening, just to be out on the street," says Dr. David Bernstein, dean of the Jerusalem-based Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, where hundreds of English speakers are expected to attend five lectures and participate in chavruta, or partnered learning, as part of its Tikkun Leil Shavuot program. "It's inspiring to see how people from so many different backgrounds are now involved in Torah study on this night."

The Jewish festival of Shavuot, which begins on Saturday at sundown, marks the nation of Israel's receipt of the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. The centuries-old practice of night-long study is generally interpreted as an attempt to relive the experience at Sinai by bringing Jews together in a communal setting. Jewish legend says the skies open their gates on this night, essentially turning the heavens into an overhead wishing well.

Dozens of English-language lectures and sessions, cutting across a vast spectrum of religious streams, are planned in the major Anglo strongholds of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with food and plenty of coffee to spare.

At the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Jerusalem, a 1:15 A.M. lecture called "Look Who's Coming to Dinner: A Look at Hosts and Guests" will be presented by Rabbi Edward Romm, director of education and campus programs. The center has been holding Tikkun programs for 35 years, according to Rabbi Romm, who calls its Fuchsberg Center "a magnet for the Anglo community."

Some lecture-goers, meanwhile, prefer to pick and choose, customizing their Shavuot preferences.

"You go to the first class at 11 P.M. and that goes until 12:30 in the morning," explains Ariel Markose, a native of Atlanta, Georgia. "And in the next class you're already falling asleep in the middle."

The 25-year-old Markose - a third-year student in law and government at the IDC in Herzliya, who has lived in Jerusalem since she was 9 - says she prefers to exact her own blend.

"I try to attend a powerful and interesting lecture right after dinner, and then I make study dates for as long as I feel like staying up," she says.

In Tel Aviv, the English-language JNI Shavuot Limud will be held at 9:30 P.M. at Kikar Habima. Lectures include "Israel's Nationalist Avant-Garde," "Imagining Israel" and "Shavuot, A Blueprint to Spiritual Zionism?"

"Some of us are more secular, some of us are more religious, but the important thing is to find that middle ground," says San Diego, California native Ashley Rindsberg, one of the Limud event organizers.

For Markose, her first Shavuot in Israel is now something of a blur - she was only 9 years old when she marked her first Shavuot here with her family. But her memory of its dramatic coda - the traditional walk to the Western Wall for morning services at sunrise - still endures, she says.

"For an Anglo or someone who is not a native Jerusalemite, this is a very powerful experience, seeing streams of people dressed in white and walking with them in the dark toward the Kotel at four in the morning," says Markose. "It was very peaceful and quiet, and it was pretty fantastic."

Though she appreciates the diversity of Tikkun programs, Markose says deciding how to spend Shavuot is for her a purely personal decision.

"With so many different options in Jerusalem and so many different schools of thought, you can sort of find your own niche," she says. "You have a friend who challenges you intellectually, you have a cup of coffee, and you pass the night talking or studying about things that are meaningful to you and that you're passionate about."