Shavuot in Modern Times
Early in the 19th century, the German Reform movement, which had eliminated bar mitzvah as the “coming of age” ceremony for its 13-year-old boys, instituted a new initiation into Jewish responsibility for its boys and girls: confirmation. Designed as the culmination of a course of study for teens, it was originally held on the Sabbath during Passover, Sukkot, or Hanukkah.
Within a few years, it was moved to Shavuot, the holiday appropriate for expressing commitment to Jewish ideals and Jewish life, when the voluntary acceptance of God’s law is commemorated. Adopted by the Conservative movement and even some Orthodox congregations after being introduced in America in 1846, confirmation grew in popularity, becoming a widespread feature on the first night or first morning of Shavuot. [Today, Orthodox and the vast majority of Conservative congregations do not hold confirmation ceremonies.]
In Israel the pioneers of the early 20th century who reclaimed the Land refocused on the agricultural aspects of the holiday. In modern bikkurim festivals, children dressed in white, wearing floral wreaths, and carrying baskets of produce from their local villages and kibbutzim (communal farms) joined parades and processions to ceremoniously present their first fruits amid great pageantry. Reading poems, singing, dancing, displaying artwork, and presenting dramatic performances accompanied the donations, which were sold to benefit the Jewish National Fund. [Known in Hebrew as Keren Kayemet le-Yisrael, this was the fund created to purchase land from Arab landowners with the aim of settling Jewish pioneers on it.]
Shavuot continues to be observed this way in Israel and, throughout the Jewish world, with synagogue services.
Excerpted from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook. Reprinted with permission of the publisher (Jason Aronson Inc).