Young person reading from a religious text.

Meet the Community Builder Behind a Unique All-Day Learning Event

By on May 17, 2023

Sarah Wolfman-Robichaud, the Director of Community Engagement at the JCC East Bay, is the hard-working maestro who pieces together the year’s can’t-miss Jewish community learning event: the 35th Annual East Bay Tikkun Shavuot. A super-collaboration between so many Jewish organizations we love, the Tikkun Shavuot is a long-standing local initiative and will be happening this year on Friday, May 26, 2-8 p.m. at the JCC’s campus in North Berkeley.

As Sarah and I chatted on Zoom, a last-minute deluge of new classes poured in just ahead of the programming deadline. The efforts of Sarah the Nudge, as she teasingly calls herself, seemed to be paying off. What can you expect this year? Read on! The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sarah Wolfman-Robichaud with her chin in her handsJason: I’m relatively new to the Bay, and I was struck that the East Bay Tikkun has been going on for 35 years—wow! I’d love to hear about the event and its history.

Sarah: Absolutely! I’ve been at it for five years, which is just a fraction of the time. It began with a smaller group, and we used to do it overnight. Tikkun was the one time that all of the East Bay organizations and synagogues would come together. This beautiful gathering of hundreds and hundreds of people would start at 6 p.m. and end about 7 a.m.

Over the years, the event grew to about 800 people over the course of the evening! They tend to come in waves. There’s those who would say, “I can’t stay up past midnight,” and they would show up at 6 p.m. And then waves of Modern Orthodox attendees would walk over and the teenagers drink their weight in coffee! We would have bonfires and people kibitz and it becomes this gorgeous gathering of an overnight experience.

Could you explain how Tikkun is woven in with Shavuot, and ideas of study and learning?

Shavuot is typically a holiday arou

nd receiving the Torah. We were all at the base of Mount Sinai and received the Torah together! Our event is a continuation of that. In Jewish tradition, there’s havruta [Editor’s note: pairs of learners committed to Talmudic study]. You study together—you don’t study alone. This celebration drives the point home that you truly do learn in community.

That’s so appealing! I can be a lone wolf sometimes, especially in learning contexts, so the idea of doing it as this collective consciousness sounds amazing. What’s behind the switch to daytime this year?

COVID stopped everything, and we pivoted to online with partners creating their own Zoom classes, and we did that during daytime. We had over 2,000 people registered and so we realized there’s a strong interest in having it be during the day. Many Tikkun-goers are older so I’ve always heard comments like, “I can’t stay up late these days, Sarah.” For the last few years, we’ve been thinking about how to still encourage this experience of learning—of being in community with every Jew of every denomination and interest, but to do it comfortably and safely under one roof, and we pivoted to daytime to achieve that.

Corralling all these different groups and organizations—and for so many years—is such a feat. Is there any secr

et to how the JCC has done that? What do you attribute its success to?

I think it’s because the event is truly a shared success; every organization has ownership over it. They all encourage attendance. I’ve heard a rabbi saying, “Oh, we should really go to that talk because we were having a conversation about it the other day!” When else would you hear a rabbi say, “You should go to another synagogue”? This is the one time that all of the East Bay Jews have the opportunity to come together under one roof.

Tikkun has become such a beloved holiday! The experience is truly communal and usually full of wonderful delirium—there’s bodies of people napping everywhere and people sharing kosher cupcakes. We have volunteers who come in just to direct traffic of all the people! It’s quite fun, and it’s utter chaos, then it’s quiet for 15 minutes, and then chaos again. Just to be surrounded by so many Jews in itself is amazing. My understanding is that ours is the longest-running large-community Tikkun in the country.

I love that the event feels baked into the architecture of the year. It’s something that people know to expect. Could you give us a taste of what’s on offer this year?

I have spaces for up to 45 classes happening over the course of six hours, so it’s going to be bustling! The beauty of being in the East Bay is that you really do get the full range, which is less about Reconstructionist Judaism over Modern Orthodox or something like that. Our range is more from “What It’s Like to Tremble Before Mount Sinai” to “Kink and Judaism” and also, by the way, a discussion of how the two relate.

We’ve also got talks like “All of Jewish History in One Hour,” “Mindfulness and Metaphor,” “Making Jewish Amulets,” and “Surviving a Crash: Taking a Page out of the Jewish Survival Playbook.” There’s always a meditation on the Aleph-Bet, and we have “Neo-Hasidic Approach to Torah, Mitzvah, and God.” A new organization that just opened up, the AriYael Jewish Healing Center, is doing a class on end-of-life teaching. Something for everyone.

Everyone loves a smorgasbord! Do you have a favorite part of Tikkun?

The small beats! Those little connections. I always make sure to have a really good sitting place around the food because, inevitably, it’s those in-between conversations where you actually learn so much about the community members and continue exploring the ideas you’ve had. This year, we’ve got a big open courtyard, and we’re hoping to set up little clusters of comfy chairs so people really feel the sense of coming together to talk and connect. The food will be incredible—we’ve been talking with Grand Bakery and Saul’s Deli. Think snacks more than full meals.

Art piece by Hagit CohenThat sounds like an inviting cocktail of comfy chairs, snacks, and surprising little conversations!

Depending on the weather, we might even have to hand out sunscreen. In the past, everyone would be in our open courtyard under the stars so that wasn’t an issue. There’s something magical about being outside, though.

I love that Tikkun is this big moving circus and there might be these unexpected needs that have to be triaged as best as possible. Thanks so much for chatting, Sarah.

Editor’s note: There’s also learning happening before and after Shavuot, from a Thursday night DIY learning at Kehilla Community Synagogue to some Friday night learning at Base, all the way to a meditative Saturday morning service at Chochmat Halev. Explore all the offerings on our calendar!