It's 5:00 a.m on Shavuot morning and I'm having trouble finding an empty seat in any shul in Jerusalem's Old City. Every synagogue is already packed as I make the mistake of lingering a few minutes too long at the Kotel amongst the tens of thousands who have made their way there after a night of learning.
After dropping in at three shuls, I finally find a spot on a bench under an outer archway of the women's section of the tiny synagogue inside the Old Yishuv Court Museum on Or Hahayim Street. After Hallel and the reading of the Ten Commandments, a swift Haftarah reading brings us to the Yizkor memorial prayer. Only three women are left inside as the young girls who filled the place and have not yet lost parents file out. It's about the same proportion down at the Kotel--it seems that at least two thirds of the masses thronging the Kotel plaza are under 30.
Coming barely a week after Jerusalem Day, when similar crowds filled the area to celebrate the reunification of the city, the Shavuot early morning spectacle is an affirmation of the strength of the connection of the people to its roots.
In the cool air of the pre-dawn, it's as if the Old City is a giant magnet pulling the multitudes in from every direction. Flooding down Agron Street in front of the U.S Consulate building and its sleepy guards, the crowd gathers force and takes over the Mamilla area where freshly-planted olive trees soften the concrete steps of the Karta parking garage. The Tower of David and Jaffa Gate rise in front of us, outlined in the slightly garish bright blue lighting trim that was turned on last week for the 40th anniversary of the reunification.
It's 4:45 a.m as we surge forward and down the steps of the David Street shuk only to encounter a human traffic jam as we make the turn onto the Street of the Chain and the approach to the Kotel. A few groups of Arabs heading to work are walking up in the opposite direction. No one bothers them as they make their way toward Jaffa Gate.
There are only four entryways into the Kotel plaza, and they're all completely overwhelmed by the numbers of people pressing to get in. With a few friends, I veer off to the left to double around and join the crowd coming in from the direction of Damascus Gate, via the tunnel. We manage to squeeze our way into the back of the plaza and start to move toward the women's section, passing a group of nuns from Holland earnestly reading from their bibles by flashlight. There's barely room to move as more and more people surge in from each of the four entry points.
The bright green lights adorning the two mosques behind the Temple Mount shine in the semi-darkness. As the sky begins to change color and turn slowly from dark grey to light blue, the garish lights vanish. Exactly at sunrise, chattering starlings swoop down, and the voices of the throng rise in prayer.
On this holiday of Shavuot that commemorates the giving of the Torah, the symbolic wedding between God and the Jewish people, most of the women are wearing white and the centuries-old Kabbalistic custom of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a night dedicated to Torah study is observed by hundreds of thousands of Israelis. On the eve of the holiday, commentators on Israel Radio remark on the phenomenon of secular Jews eager to take part in some kind of Torah learning on Shavuot. Shiri Lev-Ari writing in Haaretz observes: "The streets of Tel Aviv are full of life all night long, with wide-awake people circulating and exchanging tips that focus on the big question: Which lecture is worth going to now?" "People walk around with Bibles under their arms looking for interesting lectures, " says Iyun Academy Rabbi Roberto Arbiv.
In Jerusalem, many places, like the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and Congregation Shira Hadasha are forced to turn people away for lack of space at their study sessions.
On Palmach Street, the center of the English-speaking community in Jerusalem, the spacious open-plan apartment of Rabbi Ian and Rachel Pear of Shir Hadash is packed and abuzz with discussion at 1.a.m. Rav Ian has just delivered a stimulating hour-long session on Bikurim, the first in a series of lectures by different scholars that will go on until 4 a.m.
In another example of the widening gap between Jewish observance in Israel and the Diaspora, a May 18 editorial in the American Jewish weekly newspaper, The Forward, notes, "...the proportion of Jews that turns out for the festival (Shavuot) will not be great...Shavuot simply hasn't caught on with recent generations of Jews."