Three Sukkot snapshots

Three different events on Sukkot show how special this festival is.

A BOY looks out through a window of a sukkah in Ashdod (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A BOY looks out through a window of a sukkah in Ashdod
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Everyone should have a claim to fame associated with a Jewish holiday. Mine came when I was 10 years old and I was living in Jerusalem for the year. My mother was in her third year of rabbinical school and studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
My sister and I went to local public schools in Kiryat Shmuel. Somehow my school was chosen from all the schools in Jerusalem to decorate the sukkah of Chaim Herzog, then the president of Israel! And of all the classes in my school, my class was chosen to decorate an entire wall of that sukkah.
My teacher took a few volunteers. Somehow my hand shot up. She handed some of us large pieces of poster board. I became an artist that day and make a very elaborate full-page poster sign of the hadassim, or myrtle, one of the four species of the holiday. And then a few days into the holiday, we were invited as a class to come see our work. I was invited to the president’s sukkah to be his guest. Although I did not fully comprehend the significance of this moment, I knew this was a special experience and something I would remember for a long time. That was in 1984. Sukkot was going to be the holiday that discovered me.
Fast forward 22 years. It’s 2006 and I’m in my fourth year of rabbinical school myself! I hear about a brand-new Sukkot retreat for people in their 20s and 30s up at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in the Berkshires. Just one sukkah, but so many Jews! With all these Jews of different stripes, how will it work? The retreat coordinators decided that we needed three minyanim: an orthodox minyan, a traditional egalitarian minyan, and a Jewish Renewal minyan. But the problem was that these were mostly young people who didn’t wake up early on holidays for prayer.
On the first morning, we barely had the 10 people needed for a minyan in each group. So on the second morning, we decided to combine forces. Rabbis Shai Held and David Ingber ended up collaborating for one meaningful prayer service. Shai lead Shacharit (morning prayers) while David lead the Torah service. Dara and I lead the recital of Hallel psalms together.
WAS IT easy and comfortable? Not at first. Many Jews in that room were not used to singing songs during prayer like this one: “We are opening up in sweet surrender to the luminous love light of the one.” A few curious Orthodox Jewish women came into the service. One of them even received an aliyah, that is, was called up to the Torah. Jewish pluralism was alive and not conforming to any pre-set conditions. “All Streams – One Source” was born.
It is 2016. Year 10 of Sukkahfest, which has now expanded from a two-day holiday to a multi-pronged nine-day festival of joy. All of the old regulars now come for last days. More and more sukkot are built around the premises of Isabella Freedman. “Sukkat Shalom” has been solidified as the sukkah we all eat in together, while “Sukkat Chalom” is where we sing and share stories and dream big dreams. It is no longer a retreat for folks in their 20s and 30s, but people are now coming with their siblings, parents and children.
Couples who have met at Sukkahfest are celebrating anniversaries. “All Streams moments” happen on purpose and spontaneously. New songs are composed. Old notions of Jewish identity are composted. Our Kohenet community weave together and lead us in new/ancient rituals of water celebration as described in the Talmud as Simhat Beit Hashoeva. We pray, we eat, we bless and we sing – joyously. We channel our ancestors and invite them as guests into the sukkah. We remember friends who are no longer with us and bring their spirits into our sukkah. We CELELBRATE the Earth, led by our friends from Teva and Adamah.
And everything builds to Simhat Torah. We dance with the Torah scrolls. We share Torah – literally and figuratively. We celebrate in our separate minyanim, and then we come together for the seventh and final hakafa-dance – the ALL STREAMS hakafa. We have no idea what is going to happen. We live in the uncertainty guided by the living metaphor of these temporary huts that bring us inside and shelter us. Fully immersed and fully satisfied, for just a moment in time. This is the annual pilgrimage
Rabbi Ezra Weinberg is a longtime Hazon ambassador as an alum of the New York Ride, the Israel Ride and Sukkahfest, and was a fellow at the UJA’s Ruskay Leadership Institute. He is raising his two children in Washington Heights where he also works in the local YMHA.