A Shavuot show of unity

A Shavuot show of unity

Synagogues band together, study to include Torah’s take on pandemics

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Melinda Panken of Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan said that given the circumstances, multiple synagogues collaborating on joint online study programs could provide people the opportunity “to really dig in” on Torah study.
Rabbi Melinda Panken of Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan said that given the circumstances, multiple synagogues collaborating on joint online study programs could provide people the opportunity “to really dig in” on Torah study.

It’s bring-your-own-cheesecake time as many communities across the state join forces. In some areas as many as eight congregations are working together to provide meaningful study experiences for the holiday of Shavuot, which begins on the evening of May 28, the date corresponding to the holiday’s start on the fifth of Sivan in the Hebrew calendar.

“We felt now, more than ever, we should be striving to offer community programming and look out for the larger community,” said Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, one of six congregations participating in joint learning sessions. “We are stronger together. We hold each other up and support each other, especially now. And together, holding each other, we hold up Torah as well.”

Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, is one of three pilgrimage holidays — the others are Sukkot and Passover. It is traditionally celebrated by eating dairy foods (think blintzes and cheesecake), reciting the Book of Ruth, and staying up all night to study Torah.

And if you think the ancient Torah has nothing to say about a modern plague, you are mistaken. Many of the planned learning sessions are digging into traditional thought on quarantines, pandemics, and personal space.

All-night or into-the-wee-hours-of-the-morning learning, known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot, takes many forms across different congregations. Obviously the in-person tikkun is off-the-table this year, but video conferencing is creating opportunities for shared experiences across a broad swath of geographic locations. Also, Zoom and other apps are neutral platforms, allowing congregations to effectively sidestep any negotiations over which synagogue gets to host classes and events.   

Six congregations in four Essex County towns have pooled their resources (and talent) to present eight sessions on the night of May 28, covering
everything from lost love and healing in the Book of Ruth to Jewish views on the afterlife. Clergy from all of the congregations will open the evening leading a joint Maariv service.

The congregations affiliate Conservative, Reform, and independent; Conservative Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn is a co-sponsor, but its clergy will not participate because of prohibitions on the use of electricity during Shabbat and holidays.

At least three Union County congregations, Reform and Conservative, are putting together a joint learning experience, with topics including the poetry of Yehuda Amichai and songs of comfort. As it happens, the rabbis had talked about a similar plan pre-Covid-19, but they hadn’t worked out the logistics, according to Rabbi Howard Tilman of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains.

“It’s a chance to have more people learning from more teachers, for lay people to learn from people they don’t normally get to learn with and a chance to build community across synagogue lines,” said Tilman. The joint event builds on past collaborations around Selichot, a prayer service held before Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Other Union County synagogues participating include Temple Emanu-El in Westfield and Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford.

In Monmouth County, the collaboration involves 10 rabbis at eight synagogues, representing four towns: Aberdeen, Manalapan, Marlboro, and Old Bridge. The event has been dubbed, “Two Tablets, Two Days: Ten Rabbis Teach Ten Commandments.” The congregations are affiliated with the Conservative and Reform movements.

“While collaboration is always positive, especially this year we wanted to show unity — we are stronger together,” said Rabbi Michael Pont of Marlboro Jewish Center.

The sessions are being held Thursday via Zoom, May 28, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. and Friday morning from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., with a half-hour focused on each commandment.

Rabbi Melinda Panken of Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan came up with the idea of having many rabbis teach while she and Pont brainstormed ways to make the experience meaningful “and give people the opportunity to really dig in,” she told NJJN.

The other participating congregations are Temple Beth Ahm and Temple Shalom in Aberdeen, Temple Beth Shalom in Manalapan, Congregation Beth Ohr in Old Bridge, Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, and Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro. While some of the congregations have paired up at times for joint programming, none have taken on collaboration with so many other colleagues. “I guess we could have done it before, but it never occurred to us,” said Panken. “And that leads us to the question of what can be done after Covid.”

Other congregations in the state are planning online programs but flying solo, and study sessions for those who eschew the use of computers on a holiday will occur in the days leading up to the holiday, or in some cases, just before it starts. At Congregation Sons of Israel in Manalapan, Rabbi Robert Pilavin will lead a pre-Shavuot tikkun on May 28 at 6:45 p.m. via Zoom on the topic: “Kohen, Coronavirus, and the Quarantine: A Torah approach to epidemics.” Rabbi Mark Mallach of Congregation Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield will be teaching May 28, 8-10:30 p.m., on the concept of personal space expressed by the idea of four cubits in the Babylonian Talmud. And at Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit Jewish Community Center, its second annual Shavuot Night Live has been moved to Zoom with programming for adults and children. The full night of study features both serious engagement with Torah and the lighter side (such as wine tasting, Jewish yoga, or trivia on Jews in sports). Some learning sessions with particular relevance to this year have been added, like one on anxiety in children during lockdown.

Collaboration for Shavuot is not actually unique in New Jersey. Montclair-area synagogues have been holding a joint tikkun for years, and they continue this year online; and in Morristown, eight synagogues and a day school have collaborated several times — last year the group expanded to include local Israelis and Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

Said Panken of Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan: “On Shavuot when we say we are all standing together on Sinai, for all of us to be studying together and seeing each other’s faces and not be alone — I think that will be really powerful.”

Online learning in honor of Shavuot

SOME DENOMINATIONAL organizations are hosting virtual study sessions:

Orthodox Union. “Vayichan,” a worldwide pre-Shavuot tikkun, held on Sunday, May 24, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m., in partnership with Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem. More than 60 speakers, including rabbis and educators, in a variety of sessions that will change every 30 minutes. Visit hakotel.org.il/vayichan.

Rabbinical Assembly. The Conservative movement livestreams its first Tikkun Leil Shavuot on Thursday, May 28, 9 p.m.-9 a.m., featuring keynote addresses, panels, discussions, and music. Some pre-recorded material is also available for congregations holding a pre-Shavuot tikkun. Visit rabbinicalassembly.org/tikkun-leil-shavuot-torah-coast-coast.

Union for Reform Judaism. The Reform movement’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot will be held Thursday, May 28, 8 p.m.-midnight. It will be an evening of learning, music, prayer, and poetry. Registration required; visit urj.org/calendar/reform-movement-tikkun-leil-shavuot.


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