The gathering of 90,000 Jews at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium on August 1 is the culmination of what could be seen as the world’s largest book club celebrating the completion of one of the world’s longest books.
For the past seven and a half years, men — and some women — around the world have read the same page of Talmud each day: 2,711 pages from beginning to end, in a practice known as Daf Yomi, or “page of the day.” The August 1 event, dubbed Siyum HaShas, is being billed by Agudath Israel of America, the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group sponsoring it, as a “once-in-seven-and-a-half-year Jewish unity opportunity.”
Still, despite the huge numbers the event will draw, the 90% of American Jews who are neither Orthodox nor ultra-Orthodox may well ask themselves: a unity opportunity for whom?
READ the Forward’s full coverage of the event at MetLife Stadium.
Women, separated from the men by a $250,000 mechitzah, will fill only about one-fifth of the seats, and none will be onstage as a speaker. The majority of affiliated American Jews, who belong to more liberal streams of Judaism, will be unrepresented, not to mention the unaffiliated. So, too, will leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America.
“It’s self-evident that the gathering will not appeal to the overwhelming majority of American Jews,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which despite recently declining numbers remains American Judaism’s largest denominational movement.
Nevertheless, no non-Orthodox organization claimed to be capable of staging an event on any theme, religious or nonreligious, that could draw Jews in anything approaching such numbers.
That was not always the case. In 1987, a broad-based coalition led by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and other Jewish agencies drew some 250,000 to the National Mall in Washington to support freedom of emigration for Soviet Jews on the eve of a crucial summit between Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan. While some non-Jews participated, the vast majority were Jews, men and women marching together — including many Orthodox Jews, marching side by side with their non-Orthodox brethren. For weeks prior to the event, Jews in congregations from all streams of Judaism across the country were urged repeatedly by their rabbis to attend, and were provided with buses to make the trip — much as leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community are dong for the Siyum HaShas (though in this case, participants must also buy tickets for admission).
In terms of its ability to draw huge numbers from across the spectrum of American Jewry, the Soviet Jewry rally could boast being a bigger and broader show of Jewish unity. But that was a one-time event. And the Soviet Jewry cause, won long ago, has no rival anywhere on the horizon. Israel, for example, is today as much a source of division as it is one of unity. The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which sponsors the country’s largest annual Israel Day Parade, estimated participants at 30,000 last year, after many years in which they claimed 100,000 took part. This year, the council estimated 35,000 people marched. Three-quarters were Modern Orthodox.
As causes, both Israel and the Soviet Jewry movement focused on missions that brought Jews together in ethnic solidarity, as a people. In contrast, the Siyum HaShas — which translates literally as “completion of the Six Orders,” referring to the six tractates of the Mishnah, one of the Talmud’s two components —defines itself as a Jewish unity gathering rooted in shared religious belief. And that may be a sign of how times have changed.