When Alexander Rapaport walked into New York's Madison Square Garden with his father shortly before his bar mitzvah, in 1990, for the 9th Siyum Hashas, or celebration of completing the seven-and-a-half year cycle of daily Talmud study, he was overwhelmed by the sight of 20,000 Jews gathered in one place.
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On August 1st, he anticipates a similar feeling when he looks around New Jersey's MetLife Stadium, where some 92,000 Jews will be gathered for the 12th Siyum Hashas. Many, but not all of those in attendance, will have completed the cycle by having studied one Talmud page each day, known by Jews around the world as Daf Yomi, literally, a page a day.
"For people in my universe, who never go to a stadium for a circus or a ballgame, just coming in to see so many people being there for Yiddishkeit [Jewish tradition or culture] is very moving," said Rapaport, a Hasidic Jew who lives in Borough Park, Brooklyn and runs a network of kosher soup kitchens in Brooklyn and Queens. He and his seven siblings, as well as their spouses, all plan to attend.
Tickets for the 12th Siyum Hashas sold out about two weeks before the event, say sources at Agudath Israel of America, which is running the massive undertaking.
While MetLife Stadium normally holds 82,500 football fans, an additional 8,500 folding chairs will be set up on the field, from which the football goal posts will be removed. Some 500 rabbinical dignitaries will sit on a large dais, along with 1,000 men who teach daily classes on the Talmud page being studied. There will be 2,200 plasma screens erected inside the stadium and four massive JumboTron screens outside the arena.
There will also be 2,000 New Jersey State Troopers and other agents of local, state and federal law enforcement on hand, including 60 bomb-sniffing dog units to examine every car and truck entering the parking lot, according to Agudath Israel.
About 20 percent of the people in attendance will be women, said Rabbi Shlomo
Gertzulin, executive vice president for administration at Agudah, and the
Siyum's chief coordinator. They will sit in upper tier seats and be hidden by a 12-foot-high mechitzah, a partition to separate men and women, fashioned from four tiers of curtain at a cost of $250,000. At 2.5 linear miles, it is the largest mechitzah ever created, says the organization. Women will watch the proceedings from behind the partition, on huge video screens.
Michelle Huttler Silver, a modern-Orthodox professional photographer, will be one of those women. She has studied Talmud in the past, though not as part of the Daf Yomi. "The fact that we can fill up not just this stadium, but so many places in the world, to celebrate the completion of Talmud is amazing," she said in an interview. "So many people uniting for the same cause is really the beauty of the event."
The Siyum Hashas dwarfs other American Jewish gatherings, underscoring the recent growth of the Orthodox community, as highlighted in a recent Jewish population study conducted in New York. The next-largest American Jewish gathering was the AIPAC policy conference, which brought 13,000 people to Washington D.C. last March. The Reform movement's biennial gathering had about 6,000 attendees in Washington last December, and the Orthodox Union hopes to have 3,500 people attend its next convention, in New Jersey, next winter. The Jewish Federations of North America's annual General Assembly attracted 3,000 people to its gathering in Denver in November 2011.
Even those who have little in common with the people gathering for the big Siyum Hashas admire the ability of the Orthodox community to muster such massive turnout.
"How can anybody not be excited that that many people are learning? I think that's wonderful," said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents 877 synagogues.
The siyum's organizers have "emphasized the importance of Judaic study as being critical to the meaning of being a Jew today. They've taken an old value and put it in new bottles, and I give them enormous credit for that," said Steve Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee. "Passion is the key to a vibrant Jewish future and the challenge to all of us."
The memory of the Shoah will be a focus at the siyum. Some 16,000 boys have learned 1.5 million verses of Mishna to commemorate the 1.5 million children murdered by the Nazis, according to the Agudah.
"Just to see that 70 years after the Holocaust 100,000 Yidden are coming together only for Torah, it means the real Torah Judaism survived and is now going forward with big steps and big numbers," said Shaya Stern, a rabbinical student at Kollel Mateh Ephraim in Borough Park and the teacher of a daily lecture on Daf Yomi.
Of course it wouldn't be a Jewish gathering without controversy. When the Agudah invited Israel's former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, to speak at the event, the Vishnitzer rebbe from Monsey, N.Y. said that he would boycott the event because "Zionist rabbis" are speaking, according to Haredi publications.
The Agudath Israeli siyum is just one of many being held worldwide to celebrate completion of the Daf Yomi cycle. Many people have a small ceremony at their synagogue or with their study group or family to celebrate the accomplishment.
And there are other, somewhat larger gatherings planned. Modern-Orthodox Rabbi Dov Linzer, head of Yeshivat Hovevei Torah, which bills itself as an "open Orthodox" rabbinical school, is convening an event on August 6, at Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan. Unlike the Agudah siyum, this one will include female speakers. Linzer told Haaretz he expects between 400 and 500 people to attend.