I cheated on Shavuot–twice. And I’m not sorry.

Every year on Shavuot night I try to stay up for at least one or two of the classes offered in different spots around Jerusalem before heading to bed for a few hours and then setting out on the darkened streets to join the flood of Jews hurrying to the Kotel, drawn like iron filings to a magnet.

This year, I just couldn’t keep my head up to wait for the classes to start at 11:30 p.m, and I rationalized that being counted amongst the mass of Jews going up to the Kotel was actually a more meaningful manifestation of Jewish peoplehood. No all-night learning? several of my friends say that’s cheating…

I haul myself out of bed and leave at 4:05 a.m, breathing in the blessedly cool pre-dawn air, joining others all heading toward the main streets where we become absorbed into the river of people of all ages.

On this holiday of Shavuot that commemorates the giving of the Torah, the symbolic wedding between God and the Jewish people, many of the women are wearing white. We hear Hebrew, French, English, Russian, Spanish, as we flood down Agron Street in front of the U.S Consulate building and its sleepy guards, before the crowd gathers force and takes over the Mamilla Mall area.

The Tower of David and Jaffa Gate rise in front of us, outlined by spotlights. It’s 4:35 a.m as we surge forward through Jaffa Gate, passing the strings of lights already set up for this week’s Old City Light Festival, and divide–some heading down the steps of the David Street shuk, the rest of us stepping off to the right, past the Tower of David to the St James Street turn-off that leads into the Jewish Quarter.

There are only four entryways into the Kotel plaza and they’re all completely overwhelmed by the number of people pressing to get in. There’s barely room to move as more and more people surge in from each of the four entry points.

My second cheat of the night: I don’t even go down to the Kotel plaza: I take up a position at the railing just in front of the gold menorah overlooking the plaza adjacent to the last flight of steps leading down to the Kotel. It’s the best place to take in the majestic transformation from night to dawn over the Temple Mount.

Photo: Zvika Sion

The sky is an exquisite shade of deep midnight blue, with the floodlit ancient structures of eastern Jerusalem standing out in stark outlined contrast. It takes about 15 minutes for the heavens to begin to change hues and turn slowly from a midnight blue to a lighter, overcast blue that’s eventually tinged with pink. Chattering starlings swoop around the walls, and the voices of the throng rise in prayer.

Now it’s 5:15 a.m on Shavuot morning and I’m having trouble finding an empty seat at any shul in the Old City. Every synagogue is already packed as I make the mistake of lingering a few minutes too long watching parents clutching the hands of their sleepy but awed kids; Masorti Jews slipping off to the Robinson Arch area for their egalitarian tefilla, and listening to the expressions of amazement of American students as they round the stairs and absorb the sight of the largest gathering of Jews they’ve ever seen.

The atmosphere is light, almost light-headed you could say from lack of sleep, as young and old congratulate each other for making it through the night.

At the nearby Yeshivat Hakotel the women’s section is completely packed, with dozens standing and others sitting on the stairs.  I find an empty classroom that’s on the same level with windows looking out over the rooftops, the kotel and the Temple Mount.  I can hear everything; join in at the top of my voice with no one to shush me, and wait to recite the Yizkor prayer.  Every rooftop overlooking the kotel is full of people, either observing or praying in the direction of the Temple Mount.

I’m back home before 8 a.m, grateful that the nearby Hartman Institute has scheduled a couple of classes in the late afternoon.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman pulls it all together in a thought-provoking session on “Mending Democracy.” Hartman provides a prescription for Israelis to start a new conversation about how to reconcile democratic and Jewish values. He asserts that the definition of Jewish in Israel should not be based on halacha, but “on what Jews do.”

One of the things Jews in the Israel of 2012 do is to observe the centuries-old Kabbalistic custom of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a night dedicated to Torah study, as well as to show up en masse at the Kotel. Anyone taking part in this Shavuot experience has not only changed him/herself but contributed to the definition of modern Israeli identity.

In contrast, several years ago, a May 18 2007 editorial in the American Jewish weekly The Forward, noted, “…the proportion of Jews that turns out for the festival (Shavuot) will not be great…Shavuot simply hasn’t caught on with recent generations of Jews.”

Maybe things have changed this year, otherwise Shavuot could sadly be another indicator of the widening gap between Israel and the Diaspora…and then who’s been cheated?