US stadium site of Talmud celebrationBy Katie Zezima
EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey — A New Jersey stadium was transformed into what organizers called the world’s largest synagogue Wednesday, as tens of thousands of people gathered to celebrate the completion of the reading of the Talmud, the book of Jewish laws and traditions.
The faithful streamed into the stadium for hours Wednesday night, many carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from a light rain. Audio of the program, which included speeches, prayers and videos in Hebrew and English, streamed throughout the stadium’s concourses.
“Tonight is a night of inspiration and opportunity,” Rabbi Elly Kleimnan told the gathering.
Organizers transformed the playing field, laying down white plastic flooring, setting up thousands of folding chairs and building a dais for about 500 rabbis.
A massive mechitzah, or divider that separates men and women during prayers, encircled the upper deck of the stadium, where women were seated. The green curtains were drawn on two-and-a-half miles of pipe during prayers and opened when they were over.
Women prayed from prayer books, listened intently and took cell phone videos of the gathering. Men rushed around the stadium’s hallways and the field, and some prayed in the concourse.
A little more than midway through the celebration the rabbis started singing and attendees danced, swaying in the stands and forming large circles on the field. Rabbis on the dais draped their arms around one another, sang into microphones and swayed.
The celebration, called Siyum HaShas, marks the completion of the Daf Yomi, or daily reading and study of one page of the 2,711-page book. The cycle takes about seven and a half years to finish.
Wednesday’s celebration is the 12th put on by Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization based in New York. Organizers say this year’s will be, by far, the largest one. More than 90,000 tickets were sold, and faithful gathered at about 100 locations worldwide to watch the celebration streamed on video.
“The program of study has grown. People are hooked into it. It’s become like the to-do thing in the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, the event’s chief operating officer and a vice president with Agudath Israel. “It puts regularity into study. It gives people something to look forward to every day.”
Officials said the gathering required security on par with — or exceeding — that for the Super Bowl, which will be held at MetLife Stadium in 2014.
In an interview, Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, said close to 600 troopers and officials from 71 other state, local and federal agencies were patrolling the event.
“They’re in the air, they’re on the ground, they’re on the boats. They’re everywhere,” Col. Fuentes said.
Fuentes said troopers completed an eight-hour course where they were familiarized with the stadium and learned about Jewish customs. The state police also worked with the Orthodox community to inform them of security procedures that were to take place.
The celebration cost approximately $4 million, said Rabbi Yosef C. Golding, executive director of the Rofeh Cholim Cancer Society in Brooklyn, New York, who was in charge of logistics for the event. Most of the money was raised from sales of tickets, which ranged in price from $18 to $1,000.
The event helped unite thousands of people worldwide who are studying the same page each day, said Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger, chairman of the Daf Yomi Commission at Agudath Israel. The 13th cycle of Talmud study begins Friday.
“In a certain sense it helps unite everyone, because you have these many thousands of people, tens of thousands of people, who are each studying the same page at any given day,” Weinberger said. “Someone could be from a different city, a different school, a different country. They have a lot to talk about. That was part of the original intent.”
Nachum Greenberg said he hasn’t yet completed the Talmud, but traveled to the celebration from New York’s Westchester County because he felt it was a “privilege” to see it.
“It’s a little overwhelming emotionally,” Greenberg said. “It’s amazing everyone is here with the same goals.”