Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life

Rabbi’s Blog

May, 2023

Dear Coalition Community,

When I went to work during Passover, no one blinked an eye. Although I was home for the seders, Jen and I went to work during the week and Talyah and Kol went to school. The world continued to spin, and little (outside of our diet) changed. This month, we will have a very different experience when we observe Shavuot. Although this happens with some regularity, I am often struck by the unique experience when an American holiday coincides with a Jewish one. This year, Memorial Day weekend overlaps with Shavuot, which begins on Thursday evening, May 25th. In America, neither holiday is taken too seriously, and that is really a shame. They both provide powerful lessons, particularly in combination, about how to make American Jewish life more compelling and relevant.

Unlike Israel’s Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day), America’s Memorial Day was founded after the close of the Civil War and is mostly observed with picnics, car sales, and rituals that mark the beginning of the summer. Instead, Israelis mark Memorial Day with rituals of reflection and memory best known for an air raid siren that calls the entire country to a hard stop for a minute. Americans are, by in large, aware of Memorial Day and take the day off. Jews in America pass by Shavuot with little notice, and it is often understood as one of the least-observed Jewish holidays.

There was an article in Ha’aretz several years ago about the ties between Memorial Day and Shavuot. American Memorial Day invites us to reflect on the heavy price of freedom, to explore the core values that carry forward our nation, and to ask the question, “what do we stand for.” Shavuot is also about this question, interestingly. After the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the rabbis began to shift the focus of Shavuot away from the sacrificial system surrounding the grain harvest, they turned to the story of the Exodus and the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. This newly-framed Shavuot holiday, then, is now understood as a reflection that freedom is not sufficient. What is required is purpose! It invites us to reflect on the heavy price of slavery, to explore the core values that carry forward our Jewish civilization, and to ask the question, “what do we continue to stand for.”

I think it is a missed opportunity to not think about this during the cycle of our Jewish year, just as it is a missed opportunity to not reflect on these questions during our American year. When we attend a BBQ, but don’t think about freedom and the associated costs, we are missing a chance to be relevant in continuing the journey of our nation. And when we see Shavuot as a time to eat cheesecake and learn Torah alone, we are missing the chance to be relevant in continuing the journey of the Jewish people. And this year, with these overlapping holidays, we miss a chance to see how these identities – Jewish and American – support one another.

Imagine a Jewish world where we insisted that Shavuot was not just a time to reflect on the purpose of Judaism, but also the purpose of being an American. The traditional all-night study could include the 10 Commandments and the 10 Amendments that make up the Bill of Rights. In our effort to keep the Jewish customs of this holiday, we might just need to have a dairy BBQ! Synagogues could also hold Memorial Day rituals where we recite Kaddish in memory of those who died in defense of our nation. Memorial Day could, in this way, also become a Jewish holiday that finds new life separate from the American norms that sideline its important historical meaning.

I offer this image not because our observance of Shavuot or Memorial Day is insufficient alone, but rather to offer that they may be incomplete. And, to invite you, during this year when they come during the same weekend, to think about how you might use one to complete the other. I hope that your Shavuot and Memorial Day observances are filled with thoughtful reflection, joyful food, and meaningful connection to these multiple civilizations to which we are connected!

Kol Tuv (Be Well),


Rabbi James