Shavuot in American history

By being confirmed on Shavuot, a teenager in the 1940s was receiving and accepting the Torah as one of the chosen people.

‘Moses the Prophet’ by artist Arthur Szyk, 1918 (photo credit: IRVIN UNGAR)
‘Moses the Prophet’ by artist Arthur Szyk, 1918
(photo credit: IRVIN UNGAR)

Please return with me to June 20, 1948 to the Central Park Mall in New York.
A month after Israel had become a state, the Bureau of Jewish Education of the city decided to hold a “Bikkurim – first fruits festival” starring thousands of school-age children from the New York metropolitan area.
There were baskets and more baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables, which were used in the many pageants that day. Was I there, you may rightly ask? Since I was only nine years old and lived in Atlanta, that would have been impossible. However, in my random reading of old newspapers, I found very large pictures in an Israeli weekly Hebrew newspaper for children from 1948. 
When I realized it was all happening at the Central Park Mall, I felt compelled to find out how that locale could be used for such a Jewish celebration. What follows is what I learned.
“I was dressed as a pilgrim of the Second Temple period,” recalled a native New Yorker, my age, living in Jerusalem. “I was a student at the Beit Hayeled school, which was very progressive for those days. Dr. Israel Chipkin, the headmaster, advised us exactly how to dress for the occasion. He emphatically said that we were reliving exactly what our ancestors experienced in Jerusalem, almost 2,000 years ago. He stressed to us, practically in tears, that now the Jewish people had its own state of Israel and so we could really celebrate.”
Working together with the education department of the Jewish National Fund, Dr. Samuel Citron, director of programming of the BJE of New York and a noted author of Jewish drama epics, planned out the entire event. In material I located from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Citron explained “there was a desire on the part of American Jewry to identify publicly with the struggles of the new state of Israel. I suggested that the best way to link our two communities was through a natural bridge, the “bikkurim-first fruits festival.” The Jewish state was only a few weeks old, so we decided to hold the program at a well-known New York site, the Central Park Mall. There, young and old might express deep feelings, with gusto, for the new-old homeland.”
More than 2,000 schoolchildren and youth-group members were invited to be the bearers of the first fruits. Leading Jewish actors were asked to don the garb of the Kohanim, priests, and Levites of the ancient Temple. The grand march by the children was accompanied by the music of a small orchestra. Basket after basket of fruits and vegetables was brought forward and placed as an offering on the well constructed and decorated platform before the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), Paul Muni, the other Kohanim and the Levite associates.
Judge Morris Rothenberg, chairman of the event and American president of the Jewish National Fund, proudly read a letter from US Secretary of Agriculture, Charles F. Branson.
Those words from the federal government stressed that “the harvest this year will be one of the most important in world history.” Both symbolically and realistically, the point was made.
“We are here to rededicate ourselves,” Judge Rothenberg asserted proudly, “to the higher ideals the festival of Shavuot-Bikkurim stands for. With great vigor which all Americans can see, we register our solidarity and support for our fellow Jews, those brave freedom fighters in Israel.”
The crowd went wild. The Central Park Mall resounded with the cheers of the 20,000 people in attendance, according to The New York Times. That reenactment of the bikkurim festival, publicly in the center of the city, center of the US, elevated the spirit of American Jewry. How very tightly the bonds linking Jews on both sides of the world were tied that day in June 1948.
Shavuot was already a festival of interest for the Jews in colonial period.
As early as May 14, 1772, Michael Gratz of Philadelphia wrote to his Christian partner in western Pennsylvania as follows: “Please be advised that I cannot see you on the date you suggested because it is the Jewish feast commemorating the Giving of the Ten Commandments (Shavuot).”
The festival of the first fruits, also known as the festival of weeks, has been celebrated widely in the US since then.
Not long after the Civil War, May 27 1868, under the headline, “The Feast of Weeks,” the Savannah Daily News reported, “Today the Israelites  throughout the world celebrate the Feast of Weeks, the anniversary of the revelation on Mount Sinai, the great event of the giving of the first written law,” and the writer added, “ still the foundation of all laws and the base of all constitutions.” 
What praise for the Ten Commandments the 600 Jewish residents of Savannah felt that day. Now the article continued with the chronology of events. “The event transpired in the third month after the Israelites’ departure from Egypt about 1,509 BC and still so ‘fresh’ in Israelite memory that it annually assembles the people in their houses of worship to render praise and adoration to Him who gave the Law.”
Our Jewish sisters and brothers on the Atlantic coast of Georgia had such pride back then. For some unknown reason, the Savannah paper decided to amplify the story with a lengthy quote from the Nashville Banner: “Not only in its synagogue but also in the bosom of each Jewish family, that beautiful feast brings men gladness and joy.”
Personally, I wish that I had the name of that writer in 1868 because he or she truly perceived what our responsibilities were. “For 33 centuries they have adhered to this promise.”
Yes, adumbrated that May Day how Jews had continually aspired to their promise of fealty until three years after the terrible battles on American soil. “Mankind has no other systems of doctrine to show and no other people to point to - which have thus outlived all revolutions of history; all changes of the globe and all the successions of empires, religious and philosophies.”
Tikkunim (reading from the first and last part of every weekly Torah portion) were rarely conducted at the synagogue until the late 1950s. Because of this, alternate methods were sought for the observance of Shavuot in addition to yomtov prayers. The first element of the holiday which became important was confirmation, which was initiated in Reform Temples in San Francisco and New York.
In the 1950s, approximately 750 “confirmations” were held annually on or around Shavuot in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues. That number has dropped dramatically because of two significant factors – bat mitzvahs for girls and Jewish high school education.
Some may also argue that the frills of confirmation are no longer needed to dramatize a teenage commitment to Judaism after the big events celebrated at 12 and 13 years of age.
The Atlanta Georgian, a regular daily paper, is a fine source for information about the Atlanta Jewish community in the first two decades of 20th century. Since that daily newspaper, until the end of 1911, is online, it can be easily studied.
A major advertiser, the Eiseman Brothers, the “Old Reliable Manufacturing Clothiers” established 1865, cared for its customers at Whitehall 11-13-15-17 “from head to foot.”
Next to an Eiseman ad on May 20 1907, we find the story of the confirmation at the Temple, the day before, on Sunday, May 19.
The headline read in large letters: “Feast of Weeks Observed by Ceremony of Temple Confirmation Class.” The writer was impressed by what he saw. “Practically every pew in the handsome Jewish Temple on South Pryor Street was filled Sunday when 6 young ladies and 2 young men were formally and with impressive ceremony confirmed into the Jewish faith,” he wrote. “The entire Jewish  congregation of the city was in attendance, as well as many friends of the young confirmants (sic) who are not members.”
The question we can ask almost 120 years after that confirmation is whether the “friends” referred to were youngsters from a synagogue or Christian youth. I would think that these individuals in attendance were bot Jews and Christians. The Temple was the major institution in the Jewish community because the members were among the financial leaders of Atlanta, movers and shakers.
Confirmation was defined as “the most important event in the religious life of the Jew.”
How so? “It is the stepping stone from childhood into adulthood, the day on which the cloak of responsibility for his(girls and boys) falls from the shoulders of parents or guardians to his own. And it is the declaration of faith.”
The writer had an advanced scientific view how the Ten Commandments traditionally identified as being given on Shavuot, feast of weeks, were transmitted to Moses and the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. “Ten Commandments flashed to Moses on Mt. Sinai that day (Shavuot) when light of right and wrong the Ten Commandments were flashed by the Lord through the minds of Moses and the fathers.”
The assumption is that “fathers” was used to identify the Jewish people at that momentous spiritual moment.
Dr. David Marx, the rabbi of the Reform Temple, was master of ceremonies for the confirmation. The girls wore white and were carrying bouquets. The young men were mostly dressed in black. The eight confirmands marched down the center aisle. After the girls placed their floral offerings, Marx gave the charge to these confirmands, “fired with feeling,” the newspaper reported.
The idea of confirmation was a way to grant the youth official membership in the Jewish people. On Shavuot was a perfect time since the school year was over, and summer was beginning. This was the great moment when Moses received the Torah. By being confirmed on Shavuot, the teenager was receiving and accepting the Torah as one of the chosen people.
Unlike Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot has no ritual meal connected with it.
Some will argue that there is a dairy meal on the night of the holiday. As it is clear from the quotations cited here, however, Shavuot is most connected with the giving of the Torah. The journalists quoted were trying to understand how the Jewish people survived. And the most natural answer was the fact that they received this gift – the greatest one possible.
The writer is a Conservative rabbi who has lived in Israel for more than four decades