Shavuot is my favorite holiday, in part because it combines several of my favorite things: ice cream, warm feelings of Jewish unity, a study party, and staying up all night. It is also my favorite holiday because something about the change of scenery that night provides seems to give us permission to be more creative about how, and with whom, we spend our time. Not in the same ribald way that Purim does, but maybe with some of that holiday's flexibility and good humor.
It was not until I was 22 and out of college and back home in St. Louis that I attended my first tikkun leil, or full night of study on Shavuot. This event is interdenominational, and though it was my first time attending, it turns out it had been going strong since 2006. At the time, I did not grasp quite how special it was that I was studying in a Modern Orthodox shul, along with my friends from my Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues (yes, I belonged to both). At Bais Abraham ("Bais Abe") in University City, in an old stone shul flanked by enormous stone lions, we gathered first in the basement social hall to eat the requisite dairy desserts, and I chatted with people I had not seen since we attended Conservative Jewish day school together eight years earlier. Afterwards, we all convened on the women's side of the mechitza and Rabbi Hayim Shafner of Bais Abe welcomed us to their home, after which a Renewal rabbi led us in a niggun and told a mystical tale to set the mood. We then went off to learn from various teachers until the almost-delirious hour of 2 a.m.
This type of interdenominational Shavuot tikkun leil seems to be a growing trend. From my research, I know that the St. Louis celebration is unusual in having such a long history and is especially unusual in that it has consistently included communities across the full Jewish spectrum. In a personal investigation of what makes these large-scale rituals successful, I decided to go back to the source and interview the two rabbis who have been involved from the beginning: Rabbi Hyim Shafner and "my" rabbi, Rabbi Randy Fleisher of Central Reform Congregation.
It struck me in speaking to them both that, although they greatly enjoy and look forward to this tradition, they also find their collaboration to be fairly unremarkable. A collaboration which in other communities might require delicate navigation is, for them, an easy and enjoyable interaction based on friendship and mutual respect. In fact, Rabbi Fleisher tells the origin story as a casual one, in which Rabbi Shafner of Bais Abe telephoned him and the rabbi at the Conservative synagogue to invite them to join Bais Abe for Shavuot. He gives all of the credit for the idea to Rabbi Shafner, admitting, "I don’t think we would have pitched it, even though Hayim and I have a friendship. It would have never occurred to us." He also emphasized a theme that would continue throughout our conversation: " At first it may have seemed novel, but now it has become a given."
When I asked if there have been any barriers to continuing the celebration, he laughed and said, "The one thing that comes up for people is that they don’t want to be up that late at night!" When I mentioned how unique this event is among even interdenominational celebrations, Rabbi Fleisher spoke to a sentiment that Rabbi Shafner later echoed. He said, "You know, I think this happens at Shavuot because I think it feeds into the notion that we were all at Sinai [...] and also the nature of all-night study is unique anyway. It’s out of ordinary time. So why not do something you don’t ordinarily do? And Shavuot creates the mythical moment that we were all at Sinai."
When I spoke to Rabbi Shafter, his memory of the evolution of the celebration was similar, though he also spoke to the particular challenges he faced as an Orthodox rabbi hosting an event of Jewish pluralism. He actually got the idea from another Orthodox rabbi who hosted a similar tikkun leil in Chicago and was optimistic that it might work in St. Louis, but he was surprised at how successful it was on the very first try. "We had 150 people the first year, and then it came to 3 a.m. and there were people that wanted to stay! So I took a story from the Gemara and taught it."
Rabbi Shafner acknowledges the difficulties he has faced, but he emphasizes the values of intellectual engagement and spiritual risk-taking. "I have gotten flack for it from parts of the Orthodox community, but the truth is, the people who had a problem with it, it’s not like they had ever come to it [...] You should be afraid of being too afraid...These are adults, they can think for themselves.
As Rabbi Shafner spoke, I heard the Shavuot themes of revelation and unity, and I thought of the historical risks and rewards of wrestling with Torah. Then he ended matter-of factly: “And really, at the end of the day, when a Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi teach Torah, it’s not really that different.”
Sarah Barasch-Hagans has just completed her first year of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She arrives there by way of New Orelans, though most of her heart belongs in St. Louis with the muddy Mississippi.