How can you weather the storm of the housing crisis this Sukkot?

We need a voice that echoes throughout the land of Israel, strengthening the fragile sukkah dwelling, turning it into an affordable, permanent, dignified home for all.

 CHILDREN DECORATE a sukkah.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
CHILDREN DECORATE a sukkah.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Of the many themes and lessons derived from Sukkot, resilience resonates in particular. 

This virtue, along with a beautiful interpretation of the sukkah, is presented in Avrom Reisen’s Yiddish poem A sikele, a kleyne. In it, the sukkah is described as a frail, vulnerable structure, teetering as it defies the elements.

In response to a child crying out alarmingly that the sukkah is about to fall, in loose translation her father gently says: “Dear child, please, don’t be so riled, the sukkah is standing long. We’ve lived in fear almost 2,000 years, and the sukkah remains so strong.”

Here, the sukkah is the symbol of Jewish resilience. In the face of overwhelming challenges, the goal of this resilience is to endure, rather than overcome. This is the sukkah of the stateless, powerless Jewish people living in an antisemitic milieu, inspiring the beleaguered to find the strength to push through, to survive.

But, contrary to the picture painted in A sikele, we are no longer the stateless, powerless Jewish people. Matters ought to be different now. Here, in a Jewish state, we do not wander – we govern. And we must strive for a reality when the sukkah not only weathers the storm, but breaks it. In this calm after the storm, our people should live not like Jews in exile, but as Jews who have resettled – permanently – in this wondrous land of ours.

 DECORATING A sukkah at the end of Yom Kippur, on Wednesday night, for the upcoming festival of Sukkot: Even amid the weariness from the fast, there is the anticipation of getting the building of the sukkah underway (credit: Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90) DECORATING A sukkah at the end of Yom Kippur, on Wednesday night, for the upcoming festival of Sukkot: Even amid the weariness from the fast, there is the anticipation of getting the building of the sukkah underway (credit: Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

In many ways, we have achieved this vision. In other ways, however, we have not, as too many of Israel’s citizenry continue to wander inside Israel.

What is it like living in Israel?

Much has been written about the significant financial difficulties of living here. Israel ranks seventh in terms of overall cost of living among developed nations and sixth-highest for groceries. 

Yet most troubling of all is that Israel is the second-most expensive country in the world to buy property. In July 2022, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics announced that housing prices jumped 15.9% over the last year, the highest annual increase in a decade. 

So dire is the housing crisis that in a particularly memorable story from April 2022, local media ran headlines about a tent available to rent on a Tel Aviv rooftop for $1,680 per month. Likewise, investors are converting storage spaces into small apartments and renting them out for enormous sums.

The people who suffer most from this untenable state of affairs are the vulnerable among us, who cannot afford a permanent home or comparably expensive long-term rent, and who continue to wander in perpetual limbo between temporary dwellings. These include Holocaust survivors, new immigrants, veterans of the IDF, and young women and men who have served the state in Sherut Leumi and Shanat Sherut programs. Young families, as well, bear the heavy emotional toll of having to find a home for themselves, only to have it stripped from them soon after as prices drastically increase.

David Rosenberg, the economics editor of Haaretz, summed up the plight of young Israelis by stating: “To be frightfully cynical, the majority of Israelis have no problem with rising home prices – quite to the contrary, they have been seeing their home equity grow and grow over the years. The housing problem is real, but real only for the young, for whom buying a home is beyond their means. The alternative of renting is rapidly reaching that point as well.”

What has been done to help?

COUNTLESS PROMISES to relieve and alleviate the burden have been put forth by government agencies and elected officials, with little positive results. Still, many of these families will clench their teeth and persevere, thankful that they wander in the land of their forefathers and foremothers, not a strange, inhospitable land. Yet we must ask, “why should they persevere, rather than thrive?”

For millennia, the Jewish people have dealt with more difficulties than most, and have developed a nearly unrivaled ability to stand with grit and fortitude in the face of adversity. This stiff upper lip attitude is a source of great strength, and indeed has allowed us to continue on. But we cannot become too reliant on this deeply ingrained attribute. Why not, this Sukkot, take the lesson of resilience one step further.

There is virtue in resilience, but it becomes invaluable only when channeled into something proactive and productive. Otherwise, it can descend into complacency and apathy, where we come to accept certain circumstances as irreparable, when they are anything but.

Such notions, in part, may be why a large protest against soaring costs planned for Tel Aviv’s Habimah Square in July attracted a mere 2,500 people – far behind the 300,000 who flooded the streets in the summer of 2011 for mass demonstrations of the same cause.

Our tzav hasha’ah (order of the hour) is that we must not resign ourselves to the situation as is, no matter how hopeless it may seem. This is not to say that the issue can readily be solved, or even that a true solution exists at the moment.

What it does mean, however, is that in this remarkable young state of ours, we have the duty to use our self-governance ethically, to demand more of our elected leaders and raise a voice of Jewish moral conscience to create a new reality in which the people of Israel need not wander any longer.

We need a voice that echoes throughout the land of Israel, strengthening the fragile sukkah dwelling, turning it into an affordable, permanent, dignified home for all.

Eitan Fischberger is an analyst based in Israel whose writing has been featured in NBC News, ‘National Review’, ‘New York Daily News’ and various other op-ed pages. He is a lifelong student and admirer of his grandfather, Rabbi Avi Weiss.

Avi Weiss is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – the Bayit. He is the founder and co-founder, respectively, of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. An activist for Israel, Jewish causes and human rights, he is the proud grandfather of Eitan Fischberger.