Jewish Pittsburgh studies all night and into the morning to mark Shavuot

Jewish Pittsburgh studies all night and into the morning to mark Shavuot

Jews don’t agree on everything, but many agreed to come together at the Squirrel Hill Jewish Community Center Saturday night, May 26, for Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

Jews of all different denominations were standing nearly wall-to-wall on the first floor of the JCC as the fourth annual Shavuot program began.

The holiday of Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The festival includes all-night study of Torah and other religious texts.

The first of three sessions of classes began at 10 p.m. They lasted 50 minutes each with several going simultaneously. Rabbis and cantors taught 23 classes on many topics connected with the holiday. The audience asked questions and voiced opinions to the group leaders, who replied thoughtfully and insightfully.

Lecturers also encouraged people to move from class to class to experience everything that the event offered. Many people heeded the advice and moved freely among presentations.

With people from all over the community in attendance, voices from numerous points of view were heard.

Rabbi Daniel Yolkuk of Congregation Poale Zedeck (Orthodox) lectured on ger tzedek, (the righteous convert of Vilna). In his class, “The Righteous Convert of Vilna: An 18th Century Shavuot Story,” Yolkut addressed the convert who embraced Judaism but was eventually burned at the stake as an apostate because it was a crime to convert to Judaism from Christianity.

Rabbi Michael Werbow from Congregation Beth Shalom (Conservative) spoke about milk being a nourishing substance. In this session, “Milk … It Does a Body Good: What About the Soul?” Werbow illustrated the parallel that as breast milk is needed to nourish a baby, the Torah is the nourishment for the Jewish soul.

Rabbi Scott Aaron, a Reform rabbi and community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning, talked about the counting of the omer and the adjustment of the calendar so that Shavuot remains a spring harvest holiday during his speech, “From Counting Wheat to Counting Commandments: The Evolution of the Shavuot Holiday.” Aaron also discussed how the rabbinic scholars added modern significance to Shavuot, turning it from a springtime cultural holiday to a celebration of the giving of the Ten Commandments.

“I like how they have rabbis from different denominations,” said Sam Siskind, a member of Beth Shalom. “It gives a well-rounded perspective and different angles on things. I definitely prefer that over having them all [from one affiliation] because you get different viewpoints.”

Siskind was not the only person that appreciated the wealth of outlooks.

“It was really nice — everyone came together,” said Zachary Sikov, a member of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation. “Young people, old people, all ages. Everyone has different ideas about what’s going on in all of these subjects. You might have thought their answers would be stereotypical, but they weren’t. Some Orthodox rabbis had some Reform ideas and all sorts of things.”

During breaks between sessions people snacked on cheesecake and coffee and poured cup after cup from pitchers of water located in each classroom, as the packed house added to the mugginess of the night.

As the evening wore on, audiences grew thinner as people began to disperse. By the start of the third session, much of the crowd that had been eager to begin at 10 p.m. went their separate ways.

The other class leaders at Tikkun Leil Shavuot were Rabbis Aaron Bisno, Sharyn Henry and Amy Hertz (Rodef Shalom Congregation), Art Donsky (Temple Ohav Shalom), Chuck Diamond (Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha), Howie Stein, Jon Perlman (New Light Congregation), Jamie Gibson (Temple Sinai), Aaron Herman, Yaier Lehrer (Adat Shalom), Danny Schiff, Aaron Kagan (Kollel Jewish Learning Center), Yisroel Altein (Chabad); Cantors Rick Berlin and Ben Rosner; and writer Beth Kissileff.

(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at