BRJCC stages all-nighter for Torah and Talmud talk

They burned the midnight oil last week on Shavuot.

Several hundred highly caffeinated Jews, Bibles in hand, pulled an all-nighter at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center for the 10th annual Tikkun Leyl Shavuot.

Tradition holds that Moses received the Torah on Shavuot, and Jews around the world have returned the favor on this festival night by staying up until dawn, studying, probing, discussing and no doubt yawning a bit.

The BRJCC event is noteworthy for drawing people from all movements of Judaism. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist and unaffiliated participated, brought together by a mutual love of Torah and Jewish fellowship.

"Tonight, we are all serious about our Judaism," said Robin Braverman, coordinator and official den mother of the event.

Serious yes, but in the prelude to the study sessions, the mood was positively ecstatic. A late afternoon service led by Maggid Jhos Singer from Chochmat HaLev (an East Bay Jewish meditation center) got 'em on their feet, chanting, singing, praying and swaying.

As sundown and the chag drew near, attendees grew more excited. "This is one of the greatest events for the Jewish community," said Elizheva Hurvich of Berkeley, one of the evening's presenters. "All the denominations together under one roof is fantastic. I hope I stay all night."

Several dozen noted Bay Area rabbis, scholars and cantors participated, each packing them in during intense one-hour break-out sessions that lasted until 7:15 the next morning.

Like a frenzied rush for classes on the first day of school, people scattered across the BRJCC campus in search of their scheduled study sessions.

The topics were as varied as the session leaders themselves: "Jewish Medieval Attitudes Towards Secular Hebrew Poetry." "Justice and Hope in Amos." "Reinterpreting the Prohibition on Homosexuality in the Torah and Talmud." The list goes on. Every room was filled.

David Seidenberg's topic, "Studying Torah Is Like Being Naked," brought an overflow crowd. The engaging Conservative rabbi pointed out that the Hebrew word arum used in the Adam and Eve story, also means "clever."

He had students re-read aloud the story of the serpent and the forbidden fruit, only this time replacing the word "naked" with "clever."

Across the hall, eight high-schoolers from a cross-section of Bay Area shuls and day schools (and all amazingly well versed in Talmud), led their elders in a sophisticated, if arcane, discussion.

It was quite a sight: kids, who by all appearances would have fit right in at a Linkin Park concert, heatedly splitting hairs about Mishnah vs. Tosefta, two classic talmudic texts.

At Rabbi Mimi Weisel's class on "The Romantic Imagery of Shabbat," the program director from Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom put it to her students: "What are some of the similarities between Shabbat and a good lover?"

One quick-witted man in the back offered: "Shabbat always stays for breakfast."

After the laughter died down, some in the room thought his slogan just might make a good bumper sticker.

Between classes, attendees noshed on hummus, crackers, veggies and cookies. The coffeepot stayed warm through the wee hours.

Even after refreshments, most in attendance were still hungry for Torah.

In Chanan Feld's class, "When We Were Angels: The Days The Seven Heavens Opened," the affable Chassidic rabbi and local mohel walked his students through an intriguing but difficult passage from the Talmud.

Rabbi Ferenc Raj of Berkeley's Congregation Beth El examined Maimonides' commentary on how to wage war and peace properly and ethically. One man in the room brought his two preschool-age sons.

Throughout the night, in darkened corners around the BRJCC, small groups of two and three huddled together, flipping through pages of the siddur, the Tanach and other texts.

At one point in the middle of the night, as the crowd thinned somewhat, Rabbi David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Berkeley, said, "Now the only ones left are the Chassids and the neo-Chassids!"

It gradually became clear as the event went on that this is one thing Jews do best. Learning, discussing, putting sacred texts under the microscope, all seem encoded in the Jewish genome.

With the first light of day, after morning prayers, the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot came to an end.

Robin Braverman was as tired as Jerry Lewis after a telethon, but she couldn't have been more satisfied. "As far as I know, there's no other Shavuot event like this anywhere," she said. "I hope we can be a model for the rest of the country."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.