In Brooklyn, at least, they were hardly alone. The three-day weekend coincided with the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and is traditionally observed with an all-night marathon of religious study, lectures and other programs.
"When Hashem came to give us the Torah, everyone was sleeping," the congregation's charismatic leader Rabbi Chezzi Denebeim, 26, explained. "There’s a lot of Kabbalistic explanations, and more practical reasons, but the fact is we all slept in that morning — so every single Shavuos since then, we stay up all night to make up for it."
But though almost every Jewish congregation in New York City hosted its own all-nighter, probably no other Hasidic shul in Brooklyn could boast a lecture list that included "Moshe, Rap and Freud" and a discussion on private browser settings.
"These are the richest traditions, and it would be a shame to have them wasted, with people just staying up for the sake of staying up," said Denebeim, who helped organize "TEDShavuos", a decidedly modern take on the ancient tradition. "The TED talks are good, because they keep your attention. You have to deliver your whole speech and all of your great ideas in 15 minutes."
In the year and a half since it opened in a basement on President Street, Ahavas Yisroel has earned its fair share of attention for its somewhat unorthodox — if completely kosher — approach to ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It's also built up a large following among young Lubavitchers, particularly women—more than two hundred people regularly show up for the Sabbath, while holidays draw hundreds more.
"All of the presenters are young people from our shul," Denebeim said. "We wanted people from our community who aren’t speakers but have some kind of passion or some kind of specialty to give a presentation on that thing, in a Torah light."
In addition to the unusual lecture series, the congregation also held a cheesecake bake-off (observant Jews eschew meat and feast on dairy during the two-day celebration) and a potluck picnic in Brower Park for the occasion.
"The cheesecake bake-off—it’s a fun thing, it promotes community, it gives people a sense of health," Denebeim said. "If we’re healthy, than we’ll make the right decisions."
The shul's unique mix of playfulness and piety seems to be paying off — despite some pushback from within the community, Chevra Ahvas Yisroel has seen so much success in the past 18 months that it hopes to close on a new, larger space on Albany Avenue this week.
"Our shul is mamish," Denebeim said, deploying a Yiddish emphatic with no true English equivalent, but which might translate to 'real' in the hip-hop sense of the word. "It was difficult, because our shul is full of young people," without the same means as a more established congregation.
But the money came.
"This is the power of the people," the rabbi said.