Friday, August 3, 2012

Siyum HaShas Photo Essay

LAST NIGHT I HAD the pleasure of attending my first Siyum HaShas, the 12th communal gathering celebrating the thousands and thousands of daily daf yomi learners who spent the past seven and a half years learning a page of Talmud a day to completion. For those unable to attend, this intrepid Rabbinic reporter covered the event for all of you. Here is a video essay of my experience.

As a New York Rabbi for one whole day (I just began my post as Rabbi of WSIS on the Upper West Side of Manhattan) this was going to be a great opportunity for our family to get acquainted to Jewish life in New York. From what we had heard, there are many Jews who have taken up residence in New York. I can now verify the veracity of that assertion. For our kids, who have grown up in San Francisco, this was a religious and cultural experience. It was also a quintessential New York experience. First a subway ride to Penn Station, which my kids thought was an airport from the inside, and then a harried trek through the maze that is Penn Station looking for NJ Transit. There were hundreds of well-dressed Orthodox Jews meandering around trying to find out how to get to New Jersey. I’m afraid there are still some Brooklyn based Chassidim who took the wrong train and are lost in Atlantic City as we speak.

I wasn’t sure how many kids would be there, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how many there were. There was a presentation for a children’s siyum that went concurrent with the siyum hashas and they handed out a special kids magazine to all children in attendance. A really nice touch.

As I got to my seat the view was overwhelming. This was a football stadium, packed with Jews! Not that most Jets and Giants games aren’t packed with Jews, but this was different. I was trying to gauge the crowd, and I would estimate it as 50% “yeshivish” of different types, 25% Modern Orthodox, 20% Chassidic and 5% undeclared. It was pretty diverse, but it was an Agudat Yisrael production with predominantly ‘Yeshivish” Rabbis speaking. The speakers were fantastic. They were uplifting, positive and truly captured the communal feel of the evening.

This might be parochial and nit-picky of me, but I would have liked to have seen at least one Yeshiva University Rosh Yeshiva or RCA Rabbi do something from the dais. They couldn’t find a spot for Rav Herschel Schacter? Really? Considering the crowd had so many Modern Orthodox Jews and so many Modern Orthodox Shuls (including mine) have a daf yomi it seemed appropriate. To their credit, the speakers all spoke to the importance of Torah learning and how it creates unity. There was a tremendous sense of unity in the audience and it truly felt like a communal experience. Unfortunately, I felt the choice of speakers did not demonstrate the same diversity.

The most prominent Modern Orthodox Jew was philanthropist Jay Schottenstein, who sponsored the event in memory of his father Jerome and, of course, commissioned the Artscroll Talmud series which helped so many learn Daf Yomi. They showed a well done video talking about the family’s role in the Siyum HaShas (the videos at the event were fantastic). Still, it bothered me a little that the evening’s main sponsor was a committed member of his Columbus, Ohio Modern Orthodox Shul, but there was no chance his Shul’s Rabbi would be asked to speak at the event.

If you look carefully at the top tier you can see a dark green mechitzah (divider), which was put up specifically for the event at a reported cost of $250,000. The mechitzahs were used for davening, but were then opened up for the rest of the event. The New York Times story on the Siyum chose to focus on the womens’ experience and that Charedi women don’t learn Talmud. It kind of missed the point of this event, but I understand how an outsider looking in would quickly be drawn to the gender disparity at the event, especially a female reporter from the New York Times.

First, I was surprised by how many women were there. There were well over 10,000 in attendance. I thought the level of segregation was a bit unnecessary. As I noted earlier, there were separate entrances, even though men and women walked freely throughout the entire stadium. In the “male section” the women’s bathrooms were turned into men’s bathrooms. This became quite a challenge when my three daughters wanted to use the bathroom. Let’s just say I am a big fan of the “family bathroom” concept. Thank you Met Life Stadium.

With so many women in attendance, I’m not sure why they needed to be in the nose bleed seats. Why couldn’t they have been given a lower level section too? You might say because they were only observers and not actual Siyum participants, but how many of the men there were actually finishing Shas? Half? Many, like me, were just there for the experience. Plus, in the skyboxes (yes, there were skyboxes), men and women were together, even though it was officially the “men’s section”.

When people spoke of the Siyum HaShas, they all spoke of the spine tingling communal Kaddish. As the video shows, they were absolutely right.

Having such an event at a football stadium created some odd and humorous moments. Some speakers referenced the setting. One speaker used it as an elaboration of a part of the special Siyum prayer that everyone runs to something, but Jews are supposed to run to things that have lasting value while others run to things that ultimately are meaningless. That does accurately describe football fans, and I am a football fan. Still, there were some absurdities that the setting produced. The gate names are all sponsored, “Pepsi Gate”, “Verizon Gate”, etc. As we entered, a staff member on a megaphone was announcing, “All Rabbis who are sitting on the dais should enter through the Bud Light Gate”.

These men were not exactly buying Papa John’s pepperoni pizzas, but all of the stadium signage was up and it created some cognitive dissonance. I was really hoping the concessions would be serving hot cholent and kishka. Unfortunately they only sold snacks, water and sodas. Actually, maybe it was for the best.

I know the Jets care about their Jewish fans. A few years back the team complained to the NFL that too many of their early season home games fell out on Jewish holidays thus precluding their vast Jewish fan base from attending (take that Nazis!). Nonetheless, this was pretty funny. The video monitors had rotating borders promoting future stadium events, sponsors and the local teams. Only in New York.

In the end, the Siyum HaShas was a wonderful experience for me and the entire family. I look forward tomorrow to teaching the first daf tomorrow at our Shul. I have every intention of completing Shas and celebrating in earnest seven and a half years from now. For me the Siyum HaShas was an inspirational communal experience that will kickstart a whole new learning experience for me, and I suspect, tens of thousands of others.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is rabbi of Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.