In normal times, Shavuot is the holiday when Jews physically come together, usually in synagogue settings, and attempt to stay awake all night to study such Jewish texts as the Book of Ruth and commemorate the revelation at Sinai. This custom is called the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, repairing the night of Shavuot.

But these are far from normal times.

Still, the study of Torah has a timeless quality and cannot be stopped, sidestepped or rescheduled, even by the likes of the coronavirus.

Because of the pandemic, 19 area synagogues, temples and Jewish organizations, for the first time ever, will jointly host an array of virtual study classes on the first night of Shavuot, which begins at sundown on Thursday, May 28.

The holiday — which is one of Judaism’s three biblical pilgrimage festivals, along with Sukkot and Passover — concludes on Saturday evening, May 30. (In Israel and Reform circles, Shavuot is observed as a one-day festival.)

More than 60 classes will be offered at “Come and Learn: A Greater Baltimore Virtual Shavuot Experience,” covering a vast array of Jewish and spiritual topics taught by local clergy, educators and lay leaders.

Among the offerings are “The Midrashim of Receiving Torah” by Rabbi Debi Wechsler, “Connecting to the Agricultural Roots of Shavuot” by environmental educator Sarah Rovin, “Using Torah to Help Young People Through Tough Times” by Rabbi Dena Shaffer, and “Songs for Hope, Healing and Comfort” by Cantor Benjamin Kintisch.

After a 7 p.m. introductory segment offering a short video of welcoming remarks and logistical information, the 45-minute breakout sessions will start at 7:30 and continue through 4:45 a.m., when Rabbi Daniel Plotkin of Temple Isaiah and Beth El Congregation’s Cantor Melanie Blatt will lead sunrise minyamin.

Among the participating organizations are Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Beth Am, Beth El, Chizuk Amuno, Columbia Jewish Congregation, 4Front, Hinenu: the Baltimore Justice Shtiebl, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, Jews United for Justice, Na’aleh: the Hub for Leadership Learning, the Pearlstone Retreat Center, and Repair the World Baltimore.

Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg
Beth Am Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg
(Photo provided)

The concept for a night of virtual communal learning originated from an internal discussion between Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg and his staff at Beth Am.

“I didn’t anticipate it becoming such a large event, but I said, ‘If there ever was a year for an interactive, community-wide Shavuot experience, this would be the year,'” he said, noting that he helped run a community-wide Tikkun Leil Shavuot while leading a Chicago congregation several years ago. “I always wanted to go back to that all-night experience, and there had not been an opportunity in Baltimore — until now.

Initially, Rabbi Burg reached out in late April to members of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, as well as to his colleagues in Harford and Howard counties.

“We just figured someone out there might like to collaborate, but it became every non-Orthodox synagogue in town, plus organizations that operate under the Associated [Jewish Federation of Baltimore] umbrella and beyond,” he said. “Everyone was thinking, ‘We’re going through all of this stuff, day to day, week to week, month to month, and we just came out from under Passover.’ So the timing was good, and people were interested. It snowballed.”

Serving on the event’s planning team with Rabbi Burg are Rabbi Marc L. Disick of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom; Rabbi Jessy Dressin, president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and director of Repair the World Baltimore; Bolton Street Synagogue’s Rabbi Andy Gordon; and Dr. Bill Robinson, executive director of Na’aleh.

“It’s been fun and totally grassroots,” said Rabbi Burg. “It just bubbled up.”

In a twist of fate, the pandemic has provided ample opportunities for individuals and organizations to become more creative, innovative and cohesive in their programming, Rabbi Burg said.

“There is nothing good about the pandemic or about viruses or about the loss of lives or about the state of the economy right now,” he said. “But I’m finding that there are some creative responses to this global catastrophe. People are harnessing their energy and creativity.

“What we’re trying to do here is serve God and study Torah, and I’m excited to do this and come together as a community.”

Rabbi Eli Yoggev
Rabbi Dr. Eli Yoggev of
Beth Tfiloh will participate in
“Six Rabbis Reading Ruth and
Eating Cheesecake.”

Rabbi Burg said he respects and understands that some Jews will not participate in a virtual Shavuot program because they have a different interpretation of Halachah, or Jewish law, that precludes usage of electronics on Shabbat and holidays.

At the same time, he said he hopes “Come and Learn” will cast a wide net, including to unaffiliated Jews and synagogue members who might not normally participate in an all-night study marathon on Shavuot.

“What’s nice about this is it’s very egalitarian and can be experienced from the comfort of one’s own home. All who would like to join us are welcome,” Rabbi Burg said. “Shavuot is a beautiful holiday. It’s the bookend of the Passover experience, and you can’t really appreciate Passover without Shavuot. Without the [giving of the] Torah, we’re only telling half of the story. Shavuot is central.”

He said he would be delighted if the virtual communal night of learning becomes an annual Shavuot program, but “we didn’t create it for that. … This is not a Beth Am program or an Associated program. It’s a greater Baltimore Jewish communal program. I just hope people will come and learn and enjoy it.”

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In addition to “Come and Learn,” Beth Tfiloh Congregation will host the virtual Shavuot program, “Six Rabbis Reading Ruth and Eating Cheesecake,” on Tuesday, May 26, from 7:30-9 p.m.

Leading what is billed as “an unforgettable night of learning, exploration and unity” will be Beth Tfiloh’s Rabbi Chai Posner and Rabbi Dr. Eli Yoggev, Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro and Rabbi Seth Herstic of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation, Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’nai Israel Congregation and Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz of Netivot Shalom.

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