Michigan Jews embrace Succot during hard times

Michigan Jews embrace Su

Judy Davis never thought she would need four jobs. In November, Davis, 65, had to leave her senior analyst position in the employee benefits department of American Axle with a small buyout. She found part-time jobs, but her salary was cut in half. Things worsened when the GM dealership that employed her husband laid him off on July 31. Even Michigan's Jewish community, which resides mostly in Oakland County - the state's wealthiest, with a per capita income of $55,207 in 2007, more than $20,000 above the state average - feels its wallet lightening. "I think that we thought money would just keep coming in," the Farmington Hills resident said last week. "But now you say, 'What's really important?'" That question made Succot meaningful for Michigan Jews. With the 10 days of repentance from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur completed, Succot offers a different atmosphere. On Succot, Jews celebrate the fall harvest, as well as the Israelites' wandering 40 years in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt, by living in a succa for one week. Now, Succot has added significance for Michigan Jews. "We find ourselves in a tough period and one of the lessons of Succot is that it represents a getting-together," said Rabbi Hendel Weingarten of Chabad House in East Lansing. "When times are tough and when people are having a hard time, we have to remember there is a God." Stability hasn't come easily for many Michiganders. Since October 2008, Michigan's spending on the Food Assistance Program has increased by 36 percent - $53 million - to cover 257,179 more recipients. Yad Ezra, a Berkley-based organization that provides kosher groceries to needy Jewish families, now serves 35% more people than in December 2007. It supports 5% of the Metro Detroit Jewish population - 1,600 families - and that number has grown recently. "There are people in Farmington Hills, West Bloomfield, Huntington Woods who never thought they would be in this position," said Yad Ezra development director Lea Luger. Luger said one mother of three, an attorney who had stopped practicing to have a family, had unsuccessfully looked for a job in the wake of her husband's layoff. "For a lot of people, it's very hard for them to admit they need our help," Luger said. "She can't bring it upon herself to come here. She said to me, 'I gave you money.'" Josh Davidson, 18, from West Bloomfield, is a Michigan State University freshman whose parents are "doing all they can" for his education. "It has been tough. It hasn't been the same," he said. "I'm just happy to have a family that loves me, a good education - not everyone has what I have." It's not a coincidence that Succot reminds Americans of Thanksgiving. When the pilgrims searched for Thanksgiving's festive design, they found Succot's passage in the Bible. Whitney Harris-Linton, Jewish learning coordinator at MSU's Hillel Center, said living in the succa gives perspective. "Whatever roof we have over our heads," she said, "just be thankful that we have structure, we have stability, we have somewhere to live." Davis had to eliminate luxuries, but said her good marriage and health kept her happy. "It's amazing how when you have to, you can spend a lot less money," she said. "But you look around, and in my age group I have two friends who are suffering from cancer... So I say to myself, 'My God, I have to stop worrying about [how] I'm not making the same amount of money, and [be grateful] that I have my health.'" The Succot blessings must be made with the Four Species - willow and myrtle branches, a palm frond and a citron. Weingarten said this tradition was testimony to Jewish unity. Despite the economy, Luger said Yad Ezra had broken fund-raising records at its charity dinner this month. "I am constantly amazed at the level of commitment and generosity our community has," she said. "We really behave as one big family." Andrew Goldberg, 45, from West Bloomfield, plans to pack boxes of food for people in need with his family. "With the shortages at food banks and with more people who have less food than they have had in the past just because of economics, a lot of people don't get to celebrate the fall festival, because they don't have enough food," he said. Like the Israelites, Michiganders hope these times will pass. And Michigan Jews know that if they offer help to the community, that hope can become a reality. "God judged us on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and it doesn't matter what we do, it's already decided what we're going to make financially this coming year," Weingarten said. "The question is, how bumpy is that ride going to be? And that's up to us - and by us doing good deeds and everything that we do that makes that ride smoother."