Shavuot day 2014 on a military base near Tel Aviv. I was in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit training course, on base for the holiday. About 50 of us sat in a circle and our commander asked if anyone knew what the holiday was about. Silence. Nobody spoke a word. My eyebrows raised suddenly. This was not a bunch of people who were ever silent. I raised my hand, feeling obligated by wearing a skirt to share what I knew about the holiday. As I briefly told the story of Ruth, I kept thinking, “These are Israeli Jews. Their vacations are according to the Hebrew calendar, and yet know nothing about the holidays. The story of Ruth is such a great story to connect all Jews; what have we come to if so many people know nothing about the story of Ruth?”
I’ve often experienced this lack of basic Jewish knowledge. In fact, not only is the norm to know nothing of Jewish heritage, the knowledge itself has become a source of ridicule. Being religious, knowing the Jewish law, keeping Shabbat and the holidays is looked down upon by those who do not observe it. My sister, who now serves in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, has been ridiculed many times for being religious and she has had to over-extend herself to prove that she is as capable as anyone else in her unit.
With Shavuot coming and the celebration of 50 years since the unification of Jerusalem, I have begun to wonder — why are so many Israelis ashamed of their Jewish heritage?
Ben Gurion and the founders of Israel, who were not necessarily religious, constantly quoted the Tanach in their speeches. Also, I recently heard a moving quote from an Israeli radio broadcaster, Rafael Amir, from the Six Day War: “I am not a religious person, I never have been, but this is the Kotel, and I am touching the stones of the Western Well!” I think that this captures the idea that you do not have to be religious in order to have the pride of Jewish heritage. Where has that gone? Why has that gone?
This past Independence Day, the winner of the International Bible Quiz for Youth was a young boy from a secular school. He had private lessons in order to apply for the Bible quiz. Newspapers were awed that this boy showed such interest in his Jewish heritage. My question is: Why are we in awe of this? Why shouldn’t it be a given that secular children and youth know the Bible, that they have a connection to Jewish heritage and are proud of it?
This Shavuot, as we celebrate receiving the Torah, let us use this opportunity to bring Judaism to those who are far away from it. I believe we should be proud of our Jewish heritage and that we should share that pride with all those around us. We don’t have to be religious to be proud. It is definitely not something to be ridiculed or to be ashamed of.
I hope that sometime soon, I will again be in a circle with 50 secular Jews and when the leader asks us about Shavuot, it won’t just be me raising my hand, but everyone together raising their hands. Our Jewish heritage is not an option, it is our obligation.