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Making Shavuot Come Alive for Young Children

Jewish holidays can be experienced meaningfully during the early childhood years in ways that create memories and traditions for a lifetime and contribute to building a Jewish identity. The upcoming holiday of Shavuot is no exception (this year, celebrated from sundown, Sunday, May 16th through  May 18th). All that is required is a bit of delving into the “leading/big ideas” of the holiday, some knowledge of how young children learn, and a creative, fun spirit.

Shavuot is a holiday with both historical and agricultural roots. Historically, it celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and agriculturally, the beginning of the harvest season in Israel. Aside from abstaining from work, there are no required mitzvot/commandments associated with this celebration. However, there are many customs that lend themselves well to experiences with young children. Many years ago, I read an article on ways to celebrate Shavuot with young children and it inspired me to put my spin on some possible ways to celebrate some common customs during the early childhood years.

  • a young child painting leavesTraditionally we decorate spaces in greenery and flowers on Shavuot. Doing this at home or in the classroom can be a very engaging experience for young children. They can hunt for and gather items in all shades of green (live greenery, as well as other materials) and decorate a special space for a Shavuot celebration. This provides an opportunity to include young children in preparation of a holiday celebration as well as a way to look through the Jewish lens of K’dusha/Holiness. When looking through this lens we support children in elevating a moment in time by slowing down to be truly present and intentional as we prepare for a holiday celebration. This could be a simple as taking a walk and noticing the many shades of green in their environment. Children can also represent plants and flowers through drawing, painting, or collage. Encourage children to look at the flowers in your yard or at the park and draw what they see. Provide colored pencils, watercolors, or tempera paint in many shades of green and the colors of the flowers. They might also enjoy collaging with scraps of green material and papers. The results may astound you and they will feel proud to have contributed in a meaningful way to holiday preparations.
  • The Book of Ruth is traditionally read on Shavuot. Ruth was a Moabite who embraced Judaism and represents a strong female character. She asserts the right of the poor to the leftovers of the harvest and her story is a lesson in gimilut chasadim/acts of loving-kindness. Consider how you might engage in a deeper exploration of these values. As you begin the growing season, how might you build in experiences with children related to the Jewish value of Pe’ah (leaving the comers of the field for those in need) and our responsibility to support those living with food insecurity, while preserving their dignity?
  • Shavuot celebrates the “giving” of the Torah to the Jewish people. “Receiving” it is an ongoing process of studying and finding meaning. This is behind the tradition of staying up all night to study Torah. Rather than actually “pulling an all-nighter” with young children, one can build on the concept of staying up really late by going outside in the dark to read bedtime stories. Since reading books is a form of study and learning it provides an opportunity for children to be part of this tradition.
  • There are many interpretations for why we eat dairy foods on Shavuot, such as Israel being known as the “land of milk and honey.” Another is that consuming rich dairy foods represents the richness of the Torah. What does the word “rich” mean to children? What do they think a rich food is? How is the Torah rich? Try sampling different kinds of rich dairy foods – cheeses, cheesecake, cheese blintzes, ice cream. Which do children prefer? Does everyone have the same opinions, or do they vary? This provides an opportunity to model acceptance of diversity.
  • Since here in Colorado, we are fortunate to live so close to mountains how might you create a ritual or tradition of taking a mountain hike before Shavuot begins and re-enacting the giving of the Torah? How might children symbolically represent the mountains at home or in the classroom and re-enact the story as part of the celebration? What are children’s understandings of the Torah? What do they think is contained in it?  What are their theories of why it is so special?
  • The agricultural significance of the holiday is related to the harvest of wheat first planted during Passover. The holiday occurs seven weeks later and the word Shavuot translates to “weeks.” The noting of the passage of those 49 days is called the “Counting of the Omer.” This is a time in which we prepare ourselves spiritually to receive the Torah. For older preschoolers making a calendar that goes from Passover to Shavuot and creating a ritual for crossing off each day of the Omer can support a meaningful numeracy experience as well as support the connection between the two holidays. Exposing children to real wheat seeds and plants provides many possibilities. The growing season in Colorado is quite different than in Israel; however, wheat can be grown here during the summer months, and growing a crop can be a valuable opportunity for children to make connections between the food we eat and where it comes from. What a powerful experience it can be to grind the wheat into flour and make challah from wheat you’ve grown!

As with all Jewish holidays and young children, it is more valuable to take a couple of ideas and experience them deeply and more meaningfully than to expose them to many things at a surface level. Especially for the youngest children, chose one or two meaningful ideas and experience them fully. You will have many Shavuot holidays to come to build on the experience!