September 20, 2018

Shavuot Sessions Point to Jewish Diversity

“What does it mean to be God-fearing?”

Steve Lackner, a program manager in the U.S. Air Force, posed that question to a small group of people who had come out for a night of Shavuot learning at Pico Shul on May 19.

Responses ranged from being disciplined and religiously observant, to doing good deeds. Lackner validated each of the responses and then gave an example by discussing the story of Shifra and Puah, two midwives in ancient Egypt who defied the decree of Pharaoh to murder the first-born children of the Israelites. It was their fear of God, Lackner said, that compelled them to disobey Pharaoh’s order. And, he added, it was also the first recorded act of civil disobedience.

Pico Shul’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot went well past midnight, as part of the holiday tradition of commemorating the Jewish people being given the Torah on Mount Sinai by staying up all night to study. The gathering, organized by Pico Shul’s Rabbi Yonah and Rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein and billed as “Shavuot Night Live,” was one of many such events held at synagogues throughout Los Angeles.

The range and breadth of Shavuot classes provided people from different backgrounds with the opportunity to experience many different flavors of Judaism, and highlighted the diversity of Jewish thought and experience in the city.

“Who among us would you trust with the button? One who fears God or the atheist?” — Steve Lackner

At Pico Shul, Lackner left his audience with a question addressing faith in God versus atheism. He spoke of a scenario where, during a debate, a man asked a renowned atheist what he would do if there were a button that would give a man everything his heart desired but would also kill one anonymous Chinese peasant. “Who among us would you trust with the button?” Lackner asked. “One who fears God or the atheist?”

Additional speakers included stand-up comedian Sarah Afkami. In an exaggerated Persian accent, Akfami imitated her father introducing eligible bachelors to her and her sister as if they were cars for sale.

Rapper Kosha Dillz performed a freestyle rap about Shavuot. He then delved into a story about traveling from Poland to Colorado to perform at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. He had made the decision to travel across the world for the concert, thinking it would be his big break. However, as he was selling merchandise after the show, an employee told him he was not allowed to do so and kicked him out. He told the crowd he was embarrassed by the story but wanted to share it anyway.

“I think showing your true colors is what this holiday is all about,” he said.

At Young Israel of Century City, Senior Rabbi Elazar Muskin led about 70 men and women at 1:30 a.m. in a discussion of halachah, specifically whether it is forbidden to kill lice on Shabbat or if lice are so microscopic as to be unobservable, and thus not governed by the laws.

“Whatever the naked eye can see, that is halachah,” Muskin said.

At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, out-of-the-box thinking was the name of the Shavuot game. The Reform synagogue held an escape room-themed Shavuot. Titled “Escape to Sinai,” the program prompted people to solve puzzles, unlock clues and discover the mysteries of Revelation.

Progressive egalitarian community IKAR held a Shavuot program called “This, Too, Is Torah.” Attendees gathered until 1 a.m., learning in traditional and not-so-traditional activities about how everything can be Torah. Held at Shalhevet High School, the evening included, among other things, cooking, meditation and text study.

At Temple Beth Am, a Conservative congregation near Pico and La Cienega boulevards, people engaged in learning sessions from 8:45 p.m. until 4:45 a.m. The evening began with Journal Senior Writer Danielle Berrin moderating a discussion with Beth Am Rabbis Adam Kligfeld and Ari Lucas and Journal columnist Rabbi Eli Fink speaking about “Living on the Edge.”

Additional discussions at Beth Am included “God Is Dangerous and So Is God’s Torah,” featuring Rabbi Aryeh Cohen; and “Climbing to the Mountain: A Game of Spiritual Transformation,” with Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman.