Staying up to study with Pittsburgh’s Jews has its rewards

Staying up to study with Pittsburgh’s Jews has its rewards

What do cheesecake, coffee and Torah study have in common?
Ordinarily nothing, but on erev Shavuot (the eve of the holiday of Shavuot) all three play an intricate rule in observing what might be the world’s first all nighter — observed this year at synagogues across the city and suburbs.
The ritual study session was also evident at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, where 16 congregations came together for a Pittsburgh Communitywide Tikkun Leil Shavuot program, held Tuesday night from 10 p.m. to 12:50 a.m.
In case you were too tired to make it, here’s a play by play of some study sessions:
10 p.m.: A long night of studying begins at the JCC. As the second annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot program commences, people file into eight different classrooms, each with a specific lesson plan.
As the first set of classes finish, people gather in the lobby and are treated to a vast array of cakes from Sweet Tammy’s bakery, as it is tradition to eat milk products on Shavuot. The turnout for this year’s event is large, almost assuredly surpassing last year’s crowd of 400.
Midnight: The crowd has dwindled a bit at the second break. People are beginning to move slowly toward their classes spending more time at the food tables. The coffee machines are being used more as these marathon students tire.
People leaving their classrooms are heard debating everything they were told. This is a sign of excellent teaching, as Jewish study is built on the foundation of debate. Jews from all denominations are embraced in conversation. Orthodox Jews are steeped in debate with Reform Jews, creating a spectrum of interaction that is not always on display.
As the Tikkun Leil Shavuot program ends, many rabbis plug their own synagogues’ events, and urge people to continue their learning.
1:40 a.m.: At the Kollel Jewish Learning Center, the learning atmosphere is much more traditional. Debate among the scholars in the main sanctuary is almost deafening; it’s even difficult to hear the person next to you.
Throughout the building there are classes being taught, but many people choose to study with a single partner, or keep to themselves. The format of study at the Kollel is much different than at that the Tikkun Leil Shavuot. There, one instructor taught the lessons to a captive audience. At the Kollel, the learning is much more interactive with much deliberation taking place.
In what became a constant throughout the night, regardless of where one studied, there was plenty of coffee and cake for learners in need of sustenance, but unlike at the JCC, it does not seem that Kollel classmates are taking too many breaks to gossip.
3:08 a.m.: As my night shifts to Poale Zedeck Congregation, many adults have already retired to their homes. Most have done so in preparation for the long morning of davening that is mere hours away. Those who do remain have their heads down in their books trying to catch a few minutes of sleep in between study sessions.
In the main dining room, many teenagers continue studying intensely. There are pancake making stations set up for younger kids, who seem to relish the opportunity to stay up way past their bedtime.
Older teenagers are leading the study groups, teaching the younger kids the importance of studying through the night. As 5 a.m. approaches people begin to trickle back into the synagogue for morning prayers.
5:10 a.m.: Delirium sets in as I try to retain everything I saw and heard throughout the night — a daunting task, but the night’s events created a great sense of Judaism within me.

(Brandt Gelman can be reached at