In college, we would occasionally pull an all-nighter. We’d study all night long with ample caffeine, and go right into the test without sleeping. I’m not sure whether there was any real science behind the practice, but I think it sometimes resulted in a decent grade.
The Shul equivalent is the first night of Shavuos. We follow the custom of staying up and learning all night, with the hope that our Shacharis and Musaf the next morning are acceptable and pass the test before Hashem. In fact many of my friends over the years have stopped the practice because the benefit of the learning did not outweigh the wiped-out davening and day long feeling that comes in its wake. If you are running a Shavuos program here are some thoughts based on my experience over the years.
The center piece of the program of course is the learning, so make sure there’s space with tables set up for chavrusas and for people learning alone. Make sure the Shul is opened to accommodate the earliest arrivals, which in Queens is around 11:30 PM.
Some Shuls have shiurim throughout the night. Even if you don’t have continuous shiurim, a lead off shuir at the start of the night (11:30 or so) might make sense, because there are a number of people who will stay up a little later and the lead off shiur is a good accommodation for them. With the growing popularity of Daf Yomi, we’ve added a Daf shiur to the program. On most years there is also a program for women and girls learning in a private home during the night.
A more active program with which we’ve found success, is a Shiur preceded by preparation. The teacher gives a brief introduction before the learning begins and hands out relevant source sheets for the chavrusas to learn. After the learning the teacher gives a shiur reviewing the important points. A good ratio is at least twice as much chavrusa learning as shiur time, for example, 1 hour of learning and 30 minutes of shiur time.
For early teen and pre-teen boys, one of our members gives a shiur throughout the night. He happens to be a master teacher, so he keeps the boys involved, entertained and under control. It’s too much for most younger boys to be involved in learning all night, which is fine as long as they don’t run around or disturb others.
The food break is a key component of the program. Make sure you have a water urn, plenty of coffee, sugar and non-dairy creamer for those who will be fleishig for most of the evening. Although I’ve heard some shuls go high end with Sushi and beyond, we normally put out fruit, cake, candy, salty snacks and beverages. The food area needs to be cleaned up periodically and replenished with snacks. Make sure there is a final cleanup before davening so a mess is not left for those who come to Shul at the regular time.
The evening ends, when the day begins with a sunrise (vasiykin) minyan. It makes sense to give a little time for people to freshen up before Shacharis and to be ready in Shul to hear and be yotzei the morning berachos from someone who slept during the night. The big stay awake test for many comes when Akadamus and the haftorah are recited.
Although we call Pesach a night of contrasts, Shavuos also follows that pattern. There’s a tremendous energy with all the learning, while at the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of effort made just trying to remain awake.