SHAVUOT: 10 ways to celebrate

Saturday, May 26

Rabbis Yonah Bookstein (Jewlicious) and Sharon Brous (IKAR) meet for a rabbinic head-to-head during a night of Shavuot celebration, which features TED-style learning, challah baking, meditation, tequila shots with the rabbis and more. Special guest speakers include Rabbis Shawn Fields-Meyer, Adam Greenwald, Rebecca Rosenthal, Shlomo Seidenfeld and Ronit Tsadok; David Myers, UCLA History Department chair; educators Batsheva Frankel and Becca Farber; filmmaker Tahlia Miller; Rachel Bookstein; and musician Hillel Tigay. Hosted by IKAR and Jewlicious, the celebration includes drinks, food, coffee, beer on tap and desserts throughout the night. Sat. 7 p.m. (dinner), 8 p.m.-1 a.m. (program). $10 (dinner), free (program). 1134 S. Crest Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870.

What did God say to the Israelites when they gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai? Answer: “Can you hear me now?” We’re called to answer the same question every Shavuot, when Jews traditionally gather to read the Ten Commandments and study all night in celebration and commemoration of receiving those commandments. In keeping with that, the LGBT synagogue remains open all night and invites the community to participate in learning, prayer, meditation and maybe even movement, starting with the chanting of the Ten Commandments, then a Yizkor service, followed by noshing and studying. Please bring something to share for the vegetarian/dairy potluck. Sat. 7 p.m. Free. Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6090 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023.

Valley Beth Shalom’s celebration features interactive text studies: “Removing the Slumber From Our Eyes: Religious Awakening in the Jewish Tradition,” led by Rabbi Joshua Hoffman; “Romancing the Torah: A Mystical Perspective,” led by Rabbi Paul Steinberg; and “The Hooker, the Spy, the Judge: Girls of the Bible,” led by Noah Zvi Farkas. Rabbis Ed Feinstein and Harold Schulweis discuss “Holy Heresy — Why God Loves Doubters,” followed by a blintz reception and late-night study with Rabbi Farkas.  On Sunday, May 27, Rabbi Schulweis officiates services (8:45 a.m.). On Monday, May 28, the second day of Shavuot, Rabbi Hoffman officiates services and Yizkor (8:45 a.m.). Sat. Through May 28. 7 p.m. (text studies), 8:30 p.m. (Ma’ariv and conversation), 10:30 p.m. (late-night study). Free. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000.

With many clergy come many opinions. Tonight at Stephen S. Wise Temple, learn how the values of our Jewish tradition inform clergy’s positions on relevant modern issues. A brief service includes the traditional reading of the Ten Commandments, followed by discussions “The Death Penalty: Moral Dilemma or Moral Insight?” led by Rabbis Spike Anderson and David Woznica; “What Is the Place of Taxes and Tzedakah in Creating a Moral Economy?” led by Rabbi Ron Stern and Cantor Nathan Lam; and “Judaism and Gay Marriage” led by Rabbis Eli Herscher and Lydia Medwin. Stick around for cheesecake. Sat. 7 p.m. Free. Stephen S. Wise Temple, 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-8561.

Author and educator Rabbi Yitzchak Blau travels from Israel to serve as scholar-in-residence during three days of celebration. Blau discusses “How Does the Prophet Differ From the Fortune Teller” during today’s Shabbat lecture. A full night of learning with Rabbis Blau, Elazar Muskin and Zeev Goldberg; chavruta learning and parent-child learning follow (11:45 p.m.-5 a.m.). On the afternoon of Sunday, May 27, Blau examines “Miracles and the Natural Order in Jewish Thought.” Finally on Monday, May 28, a women’s Shavuot lecture addresses “Fear, Anger and Arrogance,” and a special Shavuot party at the shul features food, singing and a presentation by Blau on “Excuses and the Meaning of Life.” Sat. Through May 28. 7:40 p.m. Free. Young Israel of Century City, 9317 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 273-6954.

In commemoration of mystics who began a tradition of studying late into the night as a commitment to receiving Torah anew each year, the independent congregation holds a night of learning led by Rabbi Naomi Levy. Please bring a dessert for the dairy potluck. Sat. 8 p.m. Free. Brentwood Presbyterian Church, Room 121, 1200 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles.

Experience the divine through the body and soul. Mincha, soulful singing by Minyan Kol Chai and Ma’ariv begin the celebration. A panel features body and soul professionals — including Taly Bar (Healing Body Work); Rabbi Sara Brandes, a certified yoga instructor; hypnotherapist Jesslyn Shani; and American Jewish University’s Rabbi Jay Strear — on “Experiencing the Divine Through Body and Soul,” followed by break-out sessions with individual panelists. Stick around for desert and late-night study sessions, going from 10:30 p.m. until midnight. Sat. 8 p.m. Free. Shomrei Torah Synagogue, 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. (818) 346-0811.

Cantor Ila Bigeleisen, Rabbinic Intern Matt Rosenberg and Rabbi Deborah Silver conduct a carousel of learning over three sessions during “On One Foot,” seeking a modern response to the challenge posed to Hillel: “Teach me Torah while I stand on one foot.” Break for cheesecake at 10 p.m. At 10:45 p.m. Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard leads late-night session “The Original On One Foot Judaism.” Sat. 8:30 p.m. Free. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.

Will the real Judaism please stand up? Temple Beth Am partners with Adat Shalom, Temple Emanuel, prayer group Pico Egal and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies for a joint Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Emanuel’s Rabbi Laura Geller and Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz of the Chai Center lead a midnight session. On Sunday, May 27, participate in combined services at Temple Beth Am at 9:30 a.m. Second-day services on Monday, May 28, include Shir Hadash in the synagogue’s sanctuary at 9:15 a.m., and the Library Minyan gathers in the synagogue’s Dorff Nelson Chapel at 9:30 a.m. Yizkor follows at both locations. Immediately after, join a shul-wide picnic at La Cienega Park (meet at the picnic table on the east side of La Cienega Boulevard, north of Olympic Boulevard). Bring a dairy picnic lunch, drinks and blankets. Child care provided. Sat. Through May 28. 9 p.m. Free. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353.

“How is the Jewish community both a blessing and a burden?” Listen to personal stories, spoken-word pieces and music, and explore ancient and meaningful texts. Eat, drink, study, share, celebrate and stay up until midnight and beyond. Sat. 9 p.m. Free. Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 876-8330.

Shavuot 5768: Praise for the scroll

In a knowledge world ruled by books and pages and digitized memory, why do Jews hold onto the scroll?

As Shavuot (with its focus on receiving the Torah) begins, I must ask: Could it be that rolled along together somewhere in our minds with the love of Torah is the love of scroll?

We are fascinated with book forms that when opened, extended, unfolded or unrolled change shape before our eyes. In the scroll, we have a form that can also expand our minds.

Though the scroll is used in other cultures and religions, it remains a distinctive Jewish form, distinguishing it especially from early Christian writings that used the newer form—the Roman codex, or book, to record their writings. It is our handmade, not mass-produced form passed from generation to generation that we read, study and honor.

Seeing the words of the Torah scribed in perfect columns makes us think of a book. But as the parchment unrolls without a beginning or an end in sight, we think of a journey. You find your place in a book by turning the pages, moving through paper by the numbers. With the Torah, you turn and turn and move through place and time.

Grab on to the wooden spindles to which the Torah is attached, the etzai chaim. As your hands and arms move, you also move through time, places, names and law. As you cross the Red Sea, you cross the sea of context as well. As you scroll, and the portion is chanted, the physical action moves you inside the story: the sea parts, you hurry through, and are saved and ready to sing as you reach the other side.

Consider that in the Torah when the Ten Commandments are given, they are written on two tablets. From a book designer’s point of view, the tablets are two pages—a spread. Form-wise this is perfect—attention is focused only on the two tablets; nothing more is needed.

Yet the Torah is not contained on a series of tablets or pages, it is on a roll. So where is our attention directed?

Open the Torah scroll to a single column and that is what we see. Open it two columns, three, four, and our attention suddenly opens to the entire beautiful calligraphic panorama before us.

As time passes the scroll becomes more modern. As an information system, the scroll is a forerunner to many of our modern information systems that also work by revolving mechanisms: computer hard drives and DVD players. We scroll down our computers only reluctantly, hoping what we need is in the opening screen. But unlike the monitor, the Torah scroll encourages us by its form to scroll across—to continue to read, visualize and, week after week, make the journey’s end.

Our brains are wired mostly for visual experience. It‘s a visual system that is ready for more. As you scroll through the Torah, names and places pass by and the mind makes connections. The scroll encourages the particular form of Jewish study that requires skipping from passage to passage, and from book to book. (So, add Web surfing to the claims of Jewish invention). The form helps the mind hold together as one the words, the verses and parashot from throughout the Torah.

For those whose task it is to the find the place in the Torah for their congregations, the scroll can be a curvilinear calendar, the position of the reading being associated with season or date. Many of us know that if the left side is small, then the end of the Jewish year is approaching and it is time to send out your Rosh HaShanah cards.

Even our Shavuot readings remind us of the scroll’s circularity. On this holiday, many read the liturgical poem Akdamut, which pays poetic homage to the endlessness of Torah. The end of each line ends with the Hebrew letters tav-alef (image, right), the final and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet, reminding us that when we get to the end of the scroll we begin anew.

Our culture places high value on creating whole designed environments. In restaurants, hotels, theaters and homes, we surround ourselves with music, lighting, art and colors. We admire the seamless and the artful motif.

The scroll, the Torah, is a gateway to a whole environment as well. It unrolls in so many ways, and as it does, we can become enveloped by its words and texture, and understand that indeed everything is in it.

It is said that on the first night of Shavuot, at midnight, the heavens open.

This year, imagine they unroll.

Edmon J. Rodman, a book and toy designer, designed “Mitkadem” and “Jewish Holidays Building Blocks” and is the author of “Nomo, the Tornado Who Took America By Storm.” He is a Torah reader and occasional roller at the Movable Minyan. Rodman built a pyramid of matzah last Pesach

—Jewish Telegraphic Agency

On 27 May, 2007, 10 Sivan, 5767. The United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, Jamaica, celebrated the arrival of a new sefer torah. The torah was carried by Rabbi Yitzhak Kimchi from Jerusalem. They were met at the Tinson Pen airport in Kingston. The rabbi and the torah preceded the motorcade through the city to the Jewish Heritage Centre in Kingston. The scroll was then taken into the synagogue Shaare Shalom. Rabbi Yitzhak Kimchi completed the writing of the torah. Then the sefrei torah were taken out of the ark and paraded in a semi-circle. The congregation exploded in joy with dancing and clapping of hands. This was followed by a service of thanksgiving.

Shavuot 5768: Multitude of views from majestic Mount Sinai

“Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law” by S.Y. Agnon, translated by Michael Swirsky (Jewish Publication Society, 1994). Originally published in Hebrew as “Atem Re’item” by Schocken Books in Hebrew in 1959.

What will you study the night of Shavuot? How about immersing yourself in a collection of classic texts of rabbinic literature, creatively compiled and presented in one convenient volume by an iconic Nobel Prize-winning author?

S.Y. Agnon’s “Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law” is a rich anthology of biblical, talmudic, midrashic and mystical texts — all on the subject of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This unique volume, you will find texts that speak of the Torah’s mystical origins in heaven prior to the creation of the world, the revelation of Torah from heaven by God at Mount Sinai, a section on the Ten Commandments and a post-Sinai reflection on the deeper meanings of Torah beyond Sinai.

In “Present at Sinai,” Agnon is at once editor and author. As editor, he consulted hundreds of books of rabbinic literature and selected from them the texts to include. His talent as an author is expressed in the creative way that he arranged the texts. Rather than present them by textual chronology (Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, etc.), Agnon presents the sources by theme, creating a chronology from “Before Creation” to “The Giving of the Torah” and beyond. Each section contains selections from the full gamut of the rabbinic corpus, and with his storytelling genius, Agnon arranged these texts in a flowing narrative, with the sources doing the talking in their original language. In this book, you are not reading stories written by the author; instead, you are reading one grand epic “Story of Torah,” as told in the language of the classical texts of Torah, woven together by Agnon.

What prompted Agnon, a master of original writing, to create an anthology of rabbinic texts relating to Shavuot? As an author with a deep connection to his religious roots, Agnon related to the experience of Shavuot, a celebration of the centrality of books in Judaism.

“In God’s love for His people, He still gives us some of that same power which He gave us as we stood before Sinai and received the Torah and commandments,” the narrator says in Agnon’s story “The Sign.”

Agnon was intrigued, I believe, by the divine origins of Judaism’s very first book. Both “Torah From Heaven” and “Torah From Sinai” ascribe authoritative status to Judaism’s “Original Book” and to the canon of sacred books that were written as commentaries on that “Original Book.” This spoke deeply to Agnon, and is reflected in many of his writings.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1966, Agnon said, “Who were my mentors in poetry and literature? First and foremost, there are the Sacred Scriptures, from which I learned how to combine letters. Then there are the Mishnah and the Talmud and the midrashim and Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. After these come the posukim — the later explicators of talmudic law — and our sacred poets and the medieval sages, led by our Master Rabbi Moses, son of Maimon, known as Maimonides, of blessed memory.”

Earlier in his life, in 1937, Agnon wrote the story “The Sense of Smell,” where the narrator (who, in typical Agnonic fashion is a vehicle for Agnon’s own voice) proclaims: “Since the Temple remains destroyed and we have no priests at service or Levites at song, instead I study Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, the Mishnah, the halachah and the haggadot, tosefta, dikdukei Torah, and dikdukei soferim.”

In both instances, Agnon connects himself to the sacred texts of the Jewish tradition, the very texts that helped him shape his unique style of writing in modern Hebrew literature. The language of Agnon’s novels and short stories is based on the Hebrew of rabbinic literature, whose many periods and genres Agnon brilliantly synthesized in a style all his own.

Agnon opens “Present at Sinai” with a midrash about the creation of the world, where the Torah declares, “I was the artistic tool [kli omanuto] of the Holy One, blessed be He.”

This midrash is as much about Agnon as it is about God. Much like the Torah served as God’s artistic tool in creating the world, so, too, did the library of Torah serve as Agnon’s artistic tool in creating his own world of literature. Agnon’s voice is deeply embedded in “Present at Sinai,” the voice of a modern author who is in love with the texts and language of his ancient tradition. Use “Present at Sinai” on Shavuot, and you will delight in the story of Torah, as told in its own language, by an author who, in the words of literary critic Gershon Shaked, “is one of the few Hebrew writers besides those of scripture to gain international recognition.” From “Torah at Sinai” to Stockholm, Agnon was in good company.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Shavuot 5768: Creative twists fill large field of holiday events

Three days before revelation, the ancient Jews prepared themselves to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Had they been around today, one might ask, would their ritual have taken place at a wine bar? Or by practicing yoga? Or staging a dramatic play?

Those are some of the more creative ways Los Angeles communities will be taking part this year in Tikkun Leil Shavuot — the tradition of staying up all night studying Torah on the first night of Shavuot, which this year takes place on Sunday, June 8.

Like many rituals and customs once celebrated only by the very observant, the practice of attending a tikkun has become increasingly popular among Jews of all denominations. And many have added their own creative twists.

“My sense is that people gathering in synagogue for all or part of the night is expanding,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “A lot of great learning takes place in the Los Angeles Jewish community on Shavuot.”

Some synagogues use the traditional chevruta method of partner learning, but many schedule speakers to give presentations throughout the night, especially to help congregants stay awake. Other communities will hold a shorter night of learning for family-friendly congregants.

B’nai David-Judea’s begins its study lineup at 11 p.m. with “The Case of Jacob the Wrestler: A Study in Biblical Ambiguity” and continues with sessions on “Sefirat Ha’Omer, Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Shavuot: A Continuum” and “The Lost World of the Mishnah.”

Internationally known teacher and lecturer Mrs. Shira Smiles offers this Shauvot lesson on ‘Redemption’ (Flash audio)

Nashuva has planned its fourth birthday celebration to combine a concert followed by Torah study.

“I think Shavuot is the time for making a renewed commitment and to receive inspiration,” said Rabbi Naomi Levy, the community’s spiritual leader. “Nashuva is a place that allows people to make connections to Judaism and to inspire people who haven’t had that connection before.”

Some communities will go beyond traditional topics to link the holiday to modern-day concerns. Temple Beth Am, IKAR, PicoEgal Minyan and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University will gather at Temple Beth Am for a communitywide Tikkun on the topic of “Can We Talk?”

“The basic theme is can we maintain civil public discourse?” said Rabbi Joel Rembaum, senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am. “You have factions in the Jewish community that say unkind things about each other or unkind words about people who disagree on Israel.”

Rembaum said the idea behind the community gathering is to share Jewish traditions on the subject of how to talk in a public setting.

“Jewish tradition is very clear,” he said. “You cannot cause a person shame in public.”

Rembaum called the all-night study a preparation for Mount Sinai: “You are creating for yourself a virtual Sinai by engaging deeply in the study of Torah — you are creating a very powerful spiritual moment,” he said, the middle of the night being a more “pure” time.

“This is one of the legacies in kabbalah that has been generalized now into circles that are non-kabbalistic,” he said.

Indeed, the idea of a tikkun is a kabbalistic one. Some say the custom emerged in the 16th century, when two kabbalists stayed up all night studying the secrets of creation with a celestial being.

The idea of a tikkun is literally a repair or atonement for a past mistake, said Rabbi Moshe Bryski, executive director of Chabad of the Conejo in Agoura Hills. Quoting a midrash, or commentary, that says the people of Israel were sleeping when the Torah came, “We tikkun to fix the mistake” by staying up all night to study Torah, Bryski said: “The whole message of Sinai is to wake up and live like a Jew in this world.”

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe made a major campaign that everyone should relive the Ten Commandments,” Bryski said. “It’s not just reading something from history; it’s for every single person today.”

To make the experience relevant today, some synagogues are going beyond the traditional Torah study and lectures.

The Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center will hold a Torah and yoga session that ends with a midnight meditation, said Rabbi Joshua Grater. “We always try to do something interesting to entice people to come.”

This year resident musicians, Nimrod Nol and Duvid Swirsky (of the band Moshav) will also sing and tell stories of Shlomo Carlebach, as Swirsky grew up playing with Carlebach on his moshav.

“Things happen differently in the middle of the night, when you yourself pass a plane of rational understanding,” he said. “That helps us grasp the enormity of revelation when we read it in the morning.”

Some want to make the experience even more personal.

“I was thinking about what is Torah and what is our individual connection to Torah and to relate our relationship to Torah and to God,” said Jeff Bernhardt, a member of Beth Chayim Chadashim. Those thoughts led him to write “Standing at Sinai,” a play that will be performed at Beth Chayim Chadashim and other synagogues around the country on Shavuot.

The play is a collection of 10 monologues by fictional characters who find a meaningful or life-changing piece of Torah in modern-day life, such as a bar mitzvah boy whose Torah portion is about leprosy or a person who cannot speak after surgery. At the end of the play, each character remains on stage and recites the blessing, “This is the Torah God gave to me,” to symbolize the receiving of the Torah.

“It’s the idea that we were all there at Sinai,” Bernhardt said.

But were the people of Israel meant to prepare for revelation at a wine bar? Rabbi Lori Schneide is holding Temple Shalom of the South Bay’s first tikkun at Brix Wine Cellar on June 9, the second night of the holiday (so people away for the weekend can attend). She will re-examine Exodus and Ezekial’s prophesy using artworks, such as Ansel Adams on revelation and clips from the film “Field of Dreams.”

“My congregation is a new congregation, and a lot of people are intermarried, so a part of what I’m working with them is relevant Judaism for the 21st century,” Schneide said.

She is holding the tikkun at a wine bar, as might have been done in Roman and Greek times, when important discussions took place with wine.

“I’m presenting Torah to them at a place where they go to feel things with more levity and meaning in their lives through wine and good foods,” she said. “Where do we manifest revelation today” is part of the discussion. “After drinking, they’ll start talking.”

For more information, visit:
Temple Beth Am


Chabad of the Conejo

Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center
Temple shalom of the South Bay

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halchmi of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem talks about three ways of receiving Torah and revelation at Sinai