There is perhaps no better measure of the chasm separating religious and non-religious Jews than the celebration, or, as the case may be, the non-celebration of Shavuos. The Chag is simply not on the calendar of the overwhelming majority of American Jews. Rabbi Berl Wein relates that when he was practicing law, he once asked a judge for a continuance because a hearing came out on Shavuos. The judge informed Rabbi Wein that he was Jewish and did not take kindly to his attempts to pull the wool over the court's eyes by making up some fictional Jewish holiday, which the judge knew with absolute certainty did not exist.
Even those non-Orthodox Jews who take off from work or school for the Yamim Noraim, rarely do so for even one day of Shavuos, and were it not for Yizkor, the synagogues would be empty for the second day.
The reason that Shavuos is almost totally unknown in the non-Orthodox world is not hard to ascertain. For us, the Chag involves re-experiencing the central event in human history: the receipt of the Torah at Sinai. Upon the acceptance of the bnei Yisrael of the Torah, on that sixth day, the fate of the universe depended: If we had not accepted the Torah it would have returned to tohu va'vohu.
For non-religious Jews, who do not believe in ma'amad Har Sinai as an actual historical event, the day has no such significance. They know little of the Torah, and certainly have none of the reverence for it as the revelation of the Divine Mind and the blueprint of Creation.
The failure of non-religious Jewry to celebrate Shavuos, then is basically a measure of their distance from Torah altogether. That distance is hard to really grasp for most readers of Yated Ne'eman. But it is a fact nevertheless. And it should give us no rest. Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah and the pioneer leader of the ba'al teshuvah movement, often said there is no greater chilul Hashem than that most Jews today are totally unaware of Torah.
True, we are not responsible for either the historical processes or individual decisions that have caused most American Jews to be so far removed, and in most cases neither are they. But we are responsible for doing everything we can to rectify that situation.
It is also true that in the natural course of events we will not reach most American Jews no matter how intense our efforts. But we can reach many more than we are currently. Doing so depends on two things: belief in the power of the Torah and belief in ourselves.
I can still remember hearing Rav Simcha Wasserman, zt"l, say nearly thirty years ago, "You don't have to be a salesman for the Torah: The Torah will sell itself." The Jewish soul is built to respond to the Torah, he was saying. Trust in the power of words of Torah to enter a Jewish heart. Don't try to dress them up in fancy garb and gimmicks. That will only obscure their beauty and hide their power.
I was recently reading Partners in Torah; Partners in Eternity, a collection of testimonies by Partners in Torah participants, both mentors and mentees, compiled by Rabbi Eli Gewirtz, who heads the project. Many things stand out from the diverse collection of stories, but one of the most prominent is that one does not have to be a great teacher or a very learned by the standards of our community to be successful as a mentor. Just providing a Jew previously lacking in access to Torah the opportunity to learn a Torah text or even the Hebrew alphabet can often have a profound effect. Few of us fully appreciate the gift we have been given just by virtue of being able to learn Torah without help, and how much we have to share with our fellow Jews who have not been similarly advantaged.
Besides lacking confidence in the Torah, we often lack confidence in ourselves. Sometimes our tendency to healthy self-criticism causes us to forget how much we really have going for us, and the attraction of Torah society. I can remember once getting off a plane in Zurich, and seeing a properly dressed young chareidi couple wheeling a baby carriage. I turned to my wife and said, "It's like an oasis to see someone dressed like a human being." We may imagine that secular Jews would never notice such a thing, and that our modest dress would only strike them as strange, but that is not always true. For them too, something often resonates powerfully in the mores and family life of frum society.
At the convention of the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals in January, I ran into Rabbi Aaron Gruman, director of TorahLinks, the outreach arm of Beis Medrash Govoha. He had just run a week-long program for 27 Jewish college students and recent graduates in Lakewood. The week involved a full immersion in learning, with the learning in the beis medrash beginning in the morning and officially ending at 10:00 p.m. To Rabbi Gruman's amazement, almost all the participants asked for additional chavrusas so that they could continue learning until midnight or beyond. And when they did, volunteers instantly materialized to learn with those who were clamoring for more.
As important as the impact of the learning was the exposure to the Lakewood community – Hatzolah, Avos U'Banim, and above all, the generosity shown by those families who eagerly took complete strangers into their homes. One participant wrote afterwards, "We shared tefilos, seudos, and zemiros, with the Lakewood community. They made us part of their homes, a part of their Shabbos, . . . a part of their extended family. It was at that moment, I said to myself, 'I was afraid to come here, but I know it will pain me even more to leave this wonderful place.'"
A similar thread runs through Partners in Torah; Partners in Eternity: Just the fact that a frum Jew is eager to dedicate time every week to sharing with a non-religious Jew makes a tremendous impression, even before the actual learning begins. As long as it springs from a genuine desire to share with a fellow Jew and the assumption that any bond formed with another Jew benefits us as well, and not as the performance of an obligation to "do kiruv" or "make someone frum" (if such a thing were remotely possible), the effort to establish a connection has the power to open up hearts.
And the contrast between the world that they are experiencing for the first time and that from which they have come is felt. Prior to the Lakewood program, some of the campus outreach directors were concerned that a week of full-time immersion in learning might prove too much for their charges. So they arranged for them to attend a major sporting event. It turned out to be a good idea, though not for the reasons the outreach directors anticipated. "You probably did not realize that this would provide us with context and contrast. So there we were, sitting among a crowd of rowdy sports fans reflecting on how less than twenty-four hours ealier our neshamos were soaring as we sang at your Shabbos table," wrote one participant.
Rabbi Gruman told me in January that the single biggest lesson from the program was the untapped potential of the frum public. "We are own greatest resource," he said. That is one of the central messages of Project Inspire, which seeks to promote awareness among all frum Jews of the opportunities for making connections with our fellow Jews, and confidence in how much we have to offer.
Tapping into the vast potential that is waiting to be mobilized in our communities is the best hope that next Shavuos we will not again find ourselves celebrating alone.