| Double Take |

A Night to Remember  

This may have been the best Shavuos night they ever had but we paid the price

Shuey: We planned something special, for the people who needed it. Is it my fault it was so popular?
Eliyahu: We have a tradition that we follow here every year. Your big event ruined it for everyone.



“Bar Yochai, nimshachta ashrecha…”

Spirited dancing, lively music, and dozens of voices raised in song filled the parking lot behind the shul. In the center, flames leaped and soared from the carefully constructed bonfire.

I gently let my youngest son down from my shoulders and he scampered off to his friends. I joined one of the ever-evolving circles and let myself go. The dancing, the atmosphere, the uplifting songs, nothing like it. And our shul had built up something beautiful over the years, a real warm and welcoming atmosphere, so many families, a mix of ages and stages and backgrounds, but still with that feeling of unity and all being a part of things.

Chaim Mensch, one of the younger shul members, grabbed my hand and pumped it as he kicked and jumped in time to the music.

“Reb Shuey! Let’s make a matzav!”

Chaim was a leibedig guy, the type to draw a crowd wherever he went. Sure enough, a bunch of the younger chevrah appeared out of nowhere, and suddenly I was in the center of a large, whirling circle of energetic men, going faster and faster.

Lichvod Rabi Shimon!” someone called, lifting one hand to the sky.

Over Chaim’s shoulder, I could see the circle of more senior shul members, dancing with the Rav, more staidly. Maybe I belonged over there, but the young guys were kind of my guys too. They’d become that, sort of by default, when I’d taken on the role of organizer of the popular evening Daf Yomi chaburah.

It was interesting how that happened — a couple of guys had mentioned to me that they wished there was a Daf Yomi shiur that worked with their schedule (and, though they were polite enough not to say it, something more on their wavelength). The Rav gave a Daf Yomi shiur each morning, but it didn’t work for everyone.

I’d tapped Reb Binyamin Lowi, a popular mechanech and talented orator, asked him if he’d start a small chaburah, a few guys who needed it. Working guys, the kind who didn’t have a regular learning seder, it would be a big zechus…

Turned out it was an even better idea than I’d thought. The guys went wild over Reb Binyamin’s shiurim — they were short and incisive and thorough and entertaining, all at the same time. It was just what these guys — a younger, working crowd, the ones who couldn’t sit for hours over a Gemara — needed.

The chaburah had been going strong for a couple years now, and I’ve kept up the responsibility for it — making sure the room’s prepared, taking care of the little details, putting together the siyumim. It sort of happened on its own, and somehow snowballed into a nice-sized crowd each day, and while I never really signed up to be one of those guys taking charge of shul events, it somehow kind of happened.

I danced a little longer with the chaburah chevrah, then went to check on my kids. They were happily dancing with the other boys, and the keyboard player started one final song. It was getting late; time to wind down. I saw some of the bonfire’s organizers approach the fire, which had already started to die down, with pails of water to put out the flames.

“Hey,” called Chaim when the music crescendoed into a finale and then finished, last few chords echoing in the smoky night air. “Kumzitz?”

A couple of guitars materialized, and some of the guys started marshalling everyone into a circle. I noticed some bottles of l’chayim appearing out of nowhere.

One of the gabbaim approached Chaim and said something. He didn’t look happy. The bonfire-extinguishers started dousing the flames.

Curious, I stepped closer.

“What’s this about?”

Chaim shrugged. “I figured, everyone’s having a great time, let’s cash in on the inspiration and have a nice kumzitz, everyone will enjoy.”

The gabbai waved a hand. “It’s late, the program’s over. We don’t want to cause a disturbance. We told everyone what time it’ll be over, and we need to stick to it. If you want to sing, you can do it in a room inside. Take the guitars in there.”

Chaim looked annoyed, but the moment was already lost, the crowd dispersing. I saw one of the guitar-players shrug and put his instrument away.

Chaim caught my gaze and rolled his eyes, walking over. “Should’ve known. They’re so boxed-in over here. Everything exactly like they always did it, This isn’t how we do things, it’s not part of the program…

“It was a fair point he mentioned, about the timing,” I pointed out. “It is late at night.”

“Seriously, ten minutes would’ve made a difference?”

My kids ran over, sweaty and flushed, showing me their loot — someone had distributed ices to the kids, cute.

When they were done, I turned back to Chaim, who was still scowling at the dying embers of the bonfire.

“Look, I know the shul is very… conservative. And they’re catering to a lot of different types, you know? The founding members, they tend to like to keep things traditional, how they’ve always been. And there’s something nice about it. But I agree that sometimes it’s nice to have a change, too. It just has to be the right thing at the right time.”

“Like the Daf Yomi shiur, huh?” Chaim gave a half-smile. “Okay, so you know what we really, really need? Something for Shavuos night. I don’t know, it might work for you, or for some of the older guys or whatever, the ones who sit and learn all day anyway. But I know that for me, this sitting-all-night-over-a-Gemara just doesn’t cut it. I mean, I can barely sit half an hour on a regular day, forget about hours after midnight. And I’m not the only one. Last year, I ended up just leaving after a bit, couldn’t stay awake.”

“Mm,” I said, wondering what he was getting at.

“It would be cool if we had a program, you know? Other shuls do it. Like a different speaker every hour, more of an event — like learning together, not everyone sitting with a chavrusa doing their own thing. It would be so much easier, more geshmak. Like, if Reb Binyamin could speak and stuff, I think I’d be able to sit a lot longer than if I’m just breaking my head on my own, y’know?”

I nodded slowly. His point made sense. Not everyone could handle an intense learning marathon, late Yom Tov night no less, and there was definitely a swelling crowd of young guys who would appreciate something different. Like the Daf Yomi guys.

“You know what?” I told him. “I think it’s a great idea.”


haim was an action guy, but he didn’t have the zitzfleish or the connections to pull off an event like this on his own. What he did have was lots of persistence, energy, and friends.

Over the next few days, I kept hearing comments from his chevrah — “Heard you might do something for Shavuos night, maybe I’ll finally manage to stay up all night, ha ha” — and some offered to help with organizing, setup, funding, and so on.

The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that there was a real need for this — the shul had to keep developing and growing to accommodate the newer, younger crowd as well as the founding members.

Before doing anything practical, though, I spoke to the Rav, explaining that I wanted to arrange a small program downstairs for the guys who struggled to sit and learn Shavuos night, and asking for his okay. It was more a formality than anything else; these guys wouldn’t have shown up for the full-night seder anyway, and I didn’t see what could be a problem with creating some program to accommodate their needs, but it was only right to run it by the Rav, same way I’d checked with him before setting up the second Daf Yomi shiur.

“We’ll have Reb Binyamin give a shiur, and make some sort of little program, refreshments, you know,” I said.

Avadeh, no problem,” the Rav said.


originally planned to ask Reb Binyamin to deliver the main shiur, and get a couple of other speakers to share something small, but somehow, one thing led to the next, people had some great ideas, and we ended up with a jam-packed program. Every half hour, something else, speakers and whatever, a panel that some of the guys had suggested where various prominent kehillah members would share their own perspectives on making Torah a part of their daily lives — and, of course, culminating in an uplifting pre-Shacharis kumzitz.

A couple of the guys took on managing the refreshments — “And not just a tray of rugelach and some tired cheesecake” — as they put it. I didn’t really mind what they did, it was something off my head, but they did approach me several times to make sure I would include the words “Hot and cold milchig buffet” on the program.

“Program?” I asked, the first time.

“Yeah, sure, we need some sort of printed program, like a schedule of speakers. Maybe we can distribute it on small cards in the main shul in case people want to join for one of the speakers…”

That made sense. I drafted up the program, added a note about the buffet, and sent it to the graphic designer I used for my business, just to make it look nice and appealing.

We printed several larger copies and a couple hundred small bookmark-sized versions, too, so it could be distributed easily and everyone could refer to it throughout the night.

Everything was coming together, and I knew a lot of the guys were excited.

“I’m actually looking forward to Shavuos night,” one of them said.

Then there were the other comments, from those kehillah members who didn’t get what this was all about.

“What’s all this about a full-night program Shavuos night with speakers and food and stuff?” Meir Kirschenbaum asked me, his tone a little disapproving. “Aren’t we going to be learning, like regular?”

“Of course you can,” I assured him. “Most people will. This is something just for a small group, the guys who aren’t up to just sitting over a Gemara. It’s going to be downstairs, it won’t disturb anyone in the main beis medrash.”


spent a couple of hours on Erev Shavuos making sure everything was set up nicely. I knew for this kind of crowd, presentation mattered, and together with Chaim and a couple of his friends, we got busy with nice tablecloths for the buffet, some flowers and branches strategically placed around, and even draping the chairs with chair covers that someone had picked up from a gemach. It felt a little extra to me, but once everything was in place, the room — a small function room one flight down from the main beis medrash — looked transformed.

“We want this to be really inviting, like people should want to sit here all night,” Chaim said.

As we were finishing up, the refreshments guys arrived, lugging several huge boxes. “Oh, Shuey, good, you’re here. Where should we set up the hot plates — can we use the kitchen?”

“Hot plates?” I repeated, then I remembered the wording of the text on the program — hot and cold milchig buffet. Right.

“Yeah, for the quiches, lasagnas, blintzes, you know.”

I peeked inside one of the cardboard boxes, and whoa. There was a lot of food. And it looked amazing — they’d really gone all out here.

“You haven’t even seen the cheesecakes yet.”

“I’m not sure I should,” I chuckled. “It’s not good for my diet.”

David, one of the guys, unpacked one, two, three hot plates. “They’ll fit in the kitchen. I think.”

“Yeah, unless anyone else was planning to use hot plates tonight.”

David snorted. “Are you kidding? You know what they serve upstairs. Bakery rugelach and trays and trays of that standard plain cheesecake. They don’t need a hot plate. They barely need a fridge.”

He was right; we’d never served hot food Shavuos night.

“Okay, go ahead,” I told them.

I made an effort to come early, wrapping up the Yom Tov meal as quickly as I could so I could help get the evening off to a good start. Still, David and a couple of others were there first, setting up the food in a manner that resembled a luxurious kiddush or siyum event more than anything else.


“Wow.” I shook my head. They had everything — hot dishes, salmon, salads. Drinks, elegant cheesecakes in flavors like caramel and coffee swirl, flaky cheese pastries…

“Everyone’s gonna come for the food, forget about the program,” I joked.

Turned out, it wasn’t really a joke.

We began the program with a nice turnout — 30, maybe 40 guys. Many of the kehillah members couldn’t resist a little peek inside, to see what this was all about. Some came in to sample a slice of cheesecake or load a plate up with goodies to take upstairs. I didn’t mind; let everyone enjoy. There was more than enough food. Others ended up hanging around, grabbing a chair and joining the program for a while.

The program began, rolling like clockwork, one speaker following the next. There was inspiration, electric energy, a give-and-take with questions and answers… these guys were learning, really learning. Granted, it wasn’t Gemara, it wasn’t necessarily text-based, but they were engaged and enjoying and learning about Shavuos and Torah and hashkafah topics, and the night hours were creeping on and the crowd was only growing.

The door kept on opening. Before Reb Binyamin was scheduled to speak, at 2 a.m., a crowd entered from upstairs, not wanting to miss his derashah. I noticed that it wasn’t just the young crowd, or the ones who couldn’t sit and learn all night — even some of the older guys, or the ones who’d usually sit upstairs all night, came for a change of pace during the night. They were excited by the program too.

It felt so good, knowing I’d been a part of creating something that was helping so many people celebrate Shavuos night with more energy and inspiration. And the cheesecake buffet definitely didn’t hurt, either.


hen we concluded the program in time for Shacharis, the guys were on a high.

“This was incredible. Epic. Seriously, I’ve never experienced a Shavuos night like this… maybe since yeshivah. Or ever.”

“That panel — it was so practical, you know? I feel like we actually learned something concrete, something to implement.”

“Nu, you ready to start planning next year?”

I laughed and shook hands and credited Chaim Mensch for the inspiration behind the whole program.

“Aw, come on, Shuey, I told you we wanted it, but you made it happen,” Chaim protested.

We headed upstairs, exhilarated. It was the kind of night that left everyone on a high, touched by some kind of magic.

Upstairs was quieter, the atmosphere nothing like the charged electricity we’d left behind us in the small function hall. Men were sitting scattered around the large beis medrash, learning quietly, starting to daven. On one side, a half-eaten tray of plain cheesecake quietly turned stale.

A gut Yom Tov,” I greeted Eliyahu Stern, one of the gabbaim, as I passed him on the way to my seat.

He pressed his lips together and gave a tight nod in return.

“It was a good night up here?” I asked, suddenly wanting him to ask how our event had gone, downstairs.

Something inside me just wanted to burst out with it all, how incredible it had been, how satisfying to transform what could have been a wasted night for so many, into an opportunity for real inspiration and growth.

Eliyahu raised his eyebrows. “Not exactly, no,” he said pointedly.


Another man, Reb Pinchas, looked up from his Gemara and offered me a small, sympathetic smile. “It was a little… quiet up here. There wasn’t the special atmosphere we usually have. Hardly anyone stayed here the whole night, and it wasn’t… just not what we’re used to.”

A couple of other of the older men looked up and nodded. They were all quiet, too quiet, and didn’t look happy.

“To be honest, that program kind of ruined the whole Shavuos night atmosphere for everyone up here,” Eliyahu said.

My heart plummeted.

Was I really being condemned by some of the leading, most choshuve members of the kehillah, simply for creating a program that worked for those who couldn’t sit and learn all night like they could?

If I could tell Eliyahu one thing, it would be: I created something that the shul needed, for the people who needed it. How can you blame me if other people gained from and enjoyed it, too?



The flyer was green and pink with curvy lettering and pictures of flowers. It looked like some sort of women’s event; what was it doing on the main shul  bulletin board? Shouldn’t it be hanging near the ezras nashim or something?

I went over to the board to move the flyer to the right place, glancing at the title as I did so.

Shavuos Night 5784: Your Shul, Your Program.

I blinked. What on earth?

The shul’s logo featured prominently in the upper right corner. Who on earth — who was behind this? Shavuos night program? We already had a program. We came to shul after the seudah and sat and learned, thank you very much. What on earth was this all about?

I scanned the page, a list of speakers, something about a milchig buffet — a buffet, seriously, what on earth was wrong with a tray of cheesecake and some drinks? Was this a party or an all-night learning session? — and, in bold letters, a panel, “The Torah and Me,” with a cluster of panelists’ headshots around it. I saw a doctor, a therapist, and a lawyer among the group. “The Torah and Me,” indeed — what on earth was this all about? What happened to sitting and learning on Shavuos night?

Experience Shavuos night like never before… in our very own shul.

Like never before. Indeed.

I unpinned the flyer, headed for the Rav’s office.


he Rav, though, didn’t seem perturbed.

“Thank you for bringing it to my attention, Reb Eliyahu,” he said gently. “I know about this program. Reb Shuey Klein, who runs the evening Daf Yomi program, he asked me if he could run this too. It’s for a certain oilem, the crowd who doesn’t feel able to sit and learn through the night. I agreed with him that it would be correct to have a program that could cater to their needs, as well.”

Well. I wasn’t about to argue with the Rav, but this felt… like it was going too far. This program, the elaborate designed flyer, it wasn’t a “small program for the few yechidim who needed it.” This was a full-fledged party.

We’ve never been that sort of shul. I know, because I was one of the initial minyan members, I’ve been the gabbai for years, I remember the Rav’s first Shabbos with the community. We’re a serious makom tefillah, we don’t make parties out of serious occasions, we don’t turn every event into a sushi and smorg with a big-name speaker. As if Shavuos night was a fundraising dinner or something.


he Rav had assured me there was nothing to worry about.

But I worried.

It seemed like this program kept becoming more and more elaborate by the day.

“I heard they’re bringing in Rabbi Schroen, and he’s gonna speak, something to do with music, and then he’ll lead a kumzitz right before Shacharis,” I overheard one guy telling another, excitedly.

“Rabbi Schroen? He tells the best stories, wow, what a character.”

“And Yanky Moller said they’ve ordered crazy refreshments, forget about cheesecake, they’re really doing this right.”

Doing this right? I thought. They’re watering down the entire Torah experience to try and “market” it better — is that what the Yom Tov of Kabbalas HaTorah is meant to be all about?

But I kept that comment to myself. It wasn’t like anyone was asking my opinion.

Still, the closer it got to Shavuos, the more disturbed I became — and I wasn’t the only one.

A couple of the men waylaid me after Shacharis one morning. Like me, they’d been part of the kehillah for years, real mainstays of the shul, and they both didn’t seem happy with the turn of events for Shavuos night.

“My sons are all excited for this panel, and I think it’s such a big shame,” Kalman Brown said, shaking his head. “Every year, we learn together all night. Yes, it’s a push, but afterwards, they all feel thrilled. And this year, they’re going to sit downstairs and listen to some therapist talk about how he integrates Torah into his day job.”

“First the Daf Yomi shiur that ended up kind of taking over the Rav’s, and now this,” Dovid Zellman complained. “What are they going to come up with next? It’s like anything that isn’t glitzy and flashy and trendy just isn’t good enough anymore. But this is a shul, not an entertainment center. We didn’t sign up for this. This is not what our kehillah’s supposed to be about.”

I shrugged. “I personally agree with you, but the Rav okayed the program.”

“What’s he supposed to do?” Dovid countered. “He can’t exactly tell them no. That would look like he’s too rigid, enforcing his way of doing things… They say it’s because there’s a need, the young people who can’t sit still, whatever. But they end up taking things too far.”


aking things too far was a good way to put it.

I took the liberty of peeking into the shul’s function hall before davening on the first night of Shavuos. It looked… it looked like it was set up for some mega fancy event. Chair covers, for heaven’s sake! And the tables — how many tables did they need? How much food did they have?

A detour to the kitchen gave me my answer. There were five hot plates plugged in, and a look inside the fridge revealed it to be jammed with foil containers — quiches and lasagnas and salads and blintzes; cheesecakes and cream puffs and mousse cups and more. Then there were boxes of non-perishables, meringues and cookies and paper goods and, and, and…

Forget about the learning. How could anyone even eat so much at night, after an entire Yom Tov meal?

What were these guys thinking?

Maariv, seudah, and back to shul for a night of learning. Usually, the beis medrash is packed, there’s a kol Torah of fathers learning with sons, men with their chavrusas, children chazering and avreichim arguing over pshat, the occasional burst of chatter near the back table, which is where the coffee and cheesecake platters reside.

This time, though, the difference was obvious. People trooped into shul and then split off in two directions — some to the beis medrash, but others (more?!) to the function hall. The Downstairs Program.

Even once we were sitting and learning, the beis medrash seemed to empty more with each passing hour. I had this vision of the men around me holding out a little longer, a little longer — then giving in to the pull of the glamour downstairs (and, okay, the lasagna).

“Ta, we’re going to get some cake, okay?” my sons said at some point.

“Sure, go ahead,” I told them, thinking they would head over to the back table and come back with their plates.

A few minutes later, I turned around. They were nowhere to be seen. Oh, right. Cake — downstairs.

They didn’t come back up to join me. And there was no way I was going to walk out of the beis medrash now, not with the message that would convey.

At around 2 a.m., there was what could only be called a mass exodus. Gemaras closed, chairs scraped back, a couple dozen men streaming through the aisle to leave.

“What’s going on?” I asked one, as he walked by.

“Reb Binyamin’s speaking now, downstairs. He’s supposed to really be something, I don’t want to miss it. Give me energy for the rest of the night.”

I clamped my lips together. Last year, none of these men had needed Reb Binyamin to “give them energy.” And for the past ten years, no one had thought about needing lasagna or salads, either.

From a few seats down, Efraim Morris turned to me with a small smile.

“Hey, you’re also learning on your own? Wanna learn together?”

“Sure.” I moved over. “My sons went downstairs. I think.”

“Your sons are kids, no? I get that they couldn’t resist. My son-in-law decided he wanted to go, too.”

Efraim shook his head. He wasn’t going to say more, not about his son-in-law, but he didn’t look happy.

We began learning together, but the emptiness around us was just… distracting. The Rav was sitting up front, a gentle smile on his face, but the rest of the vast beis medrash hosted just a smattering of men.

It didn’t feel nice, didn’t feel like the uplifting Shavuos we were hoping for. And what’s more, it didn’t feel right. Are we really supposed to make parties to make Torah “appealing” and “fun”? Is that what it’s supposed to be? What happened to focusing on what Shavuos night was meant to be about?


nd so the night went on.

My older son came upstairs briefly to update me — “Avrumi’s downstairs, there’s a whole panel now, it’s really interesting! And Ta, they have insane refreshments, want me to bring you something?” — and I tried valiantly to focus on the page of the Gemara instead of resentment toward Shuey Klein and his crew, who’d just sabotaged Shavuos night in the name of a “program for people who needed it.”

The people who really needed it were a small fraction of the shul; they’d created something that dragged so many others down with them. So many men and boys who could have, would have, sat and learned all night, and experienced the sweetness of toiling in Torah — for real, not hearing stories with a side of caramel mocha cheesecake.

By the time it came to Shacharis, I was rattled and frustrated, as were some of the men around me. Not so the Downstairs Group — the oilem trooped up into the beis medrash on a real high.

“Epic. It was epic,” one was saying.

“I’m not even tired, could learn another five hours easily,” I overheard from another.

Learn. Yeah, right.

When I saw Shuey Klein approach, beaming, I literally didn’t want to look him in the eye.

A gut Yom Tov!” he enthused. “It was a good night up here?”

A good night? He actually had the gall to ask that?

“Not exactly,” I said tightly.

Shuey looked so astonished, it was almost amusing. How could he not realize what he’d done?

I didn’t want to say anything more; I was nervous what might come out if I opened my mouth. But some of the other men around started talking, “It was a little quiet up here, you know… not the special atmosphere we were used to…” and I felt like I had to explain, put things straight out.

“To be honest, that program kind of ruined the Shavuos night atmosphere for everyone in the main shul,” I said. “We’ve been doing it a certain way for years, and for a reason. We’re not here to give people a good time, we’re here to connect with the Torah, by learning it. Panels and pastas… it’s like watering down the whole thing. And this… change… turned something serious and special into just another kumzitz.”

Shuey looked stricken. “But — but that wasn’t the point at all,” he said.

I shrugged. “It might not have been. But that’s what happened.”

If I could tell Shuey one thing, it would be: Your parties ruined what Shavuos in our shul is supposed to be all about. 


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1015)

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