East Bay Jews come together for Shavuot all-nighter

With two minyanim — one "egalitarian" and one Orthodox — about 200 celebrants gathered Saturday night to mark Shavuot Berkeley-style, with an all-night study session.

Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews set aside their differences for one night to gather together at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

"It was a fine example of something that only happens in Berkeley," said Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Congregation Netivot Shalom.

"All the classes were led by exceptional people," he said. "Teachers were well prepared."

The manner in which a Jew celebrates Shavuot historically has been a kind of litmus test that identifies just what kind of Jew one is.

Many traditional Jews study sacred texts all night on the eve of Shavuot, the day that the Torah was given to the Jewish people, while others simply go to services or choose not to observe the holiday at all.

Last weekend, however, East Bay Jews of all levels of observances got together to study such topics as Jewish music, rupture and reconstruction in Orthodoxy, women's roles, Ruth and conversion, contraception and liturgical change. A special teen program focused on Kabbalah, sex and issues of class.

Participants included members of the Orthodox congregations Ahavat Yisrael and Beth Israel, both of Berkeley; the Reform Temple Israel of Alameda; and the Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom of Berkeley as well as individuals from the wider community. The congregations also co-sponsored the event together with the JCC and Jewish Family and Children's Service of the Greater East Bay.

The event marked the group's fourth year of congregational collaboration for Shavuot. Before that, the congregations joined forces only for Simchat Torah celebrations.

Kelman stressed that pluralistic friction is minimal in Berkeley and had little impact on the evening. The views of each movement were represented in the classes.

Chanan Feld, a member of Chabad, noted, "There was a lot of energy. People were excited about classes and socializing. There was a constant buffet of food all night long and [many] made it to morning davening" the next day.

Feld, who taught a midnight session on talmudic and kabbalistic perspectives on the giving of the Torah, said women represented at least half of those who participated in the event.

Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman of Beth Israel, one of the 20 instructors, said he enjoyed being a student for a change while sitting in on other classes.

He said lightheartedly of his own class, "The brain functions just fine at 4 a.m. I am charged up to have a class of 50 to 60 people who are not my regular students.

"People don't fall asleep in my class."

Laura Shepherd, an organizer, said she enjoyed the Mizrahi-style niggunim and an unforgettable morning service the next day.

"When you actually stand up and listen to the Ten Commandments being chanted it's quite a moment because of all the personal limits that have been pushed all night long.

"Then, you walk out the door and it's a bright, sunny Berkeley morning and something has transformed," she said. "That's what Shavuot is about."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.