Is the Sukkah safe? Local leaders grapple with an unprecedented Sukkot
Vintage photo of sukkah building at Congregation Beth Shalom. Photo courtesy of Congregation Beth Shalom
Congregation Beth Shalom. Vintage photo of sukkah building at Congregation Beth Shalom
SukkotCOVID-19 and the holiday

Is the Sukkah safe? Local leaders grapple with an unprecedented Sukkot

The holiday might be weird, but it will be OK, say spiritual guides and Jewish professionals

Main image by Congregation Beth Shalom. Vintage photo of sukkah building at Congregation Beth Shalom

Sukkot begins Oct. 2 and, like the holidays preceding it, it’s going to be a bit weird. Anyone longing for densely populated sukkah hops will be out of luck. That exercise in pushing aside a stranger for that last piece of kreplach after kiddush — forget about it. And, if communally shared bowls of snacks even exist anymore, best think twice before dipping in your hand alongside those of fellow eaters.

Even with COVID-19 adjustments, Sukkot is still predicated on celebrating outdoors, welcoming guests and fraternizing. And for that reason, although it may be a quieter, smaller affair this year, local spiritual leaders and Jewish professionals are striving to ensure participants enjoy a meaningful holiday experience.

In order to limit the number of people gathered on-site, Temple David in Monroeville is replacing its “large sukkah” with a “family-size” model and asking congregants to reserve a designated time for usage, said Rabbi Barbara Symons.

Although the space is smaller than in years past, congregants should still arrive ready for the holiday, but come empty handed, as Temple David will provide registrants a table, chairs, printed blessings for recitation, a lulav, etrog and a children's project, said Symons.

Chabad of Squirrel Hill’s Rabbi Yisroel Altein likewise is encouraging people to schedule time in a sukkah.

This year, advance registration is required to join the Altein family in their 500-square-foot sukkah. For the past 17 years, the Alteins hosted seasonal meals with 45 attendees.

Not this year.

“We’re maxing it at 12 people at a time,” said Altein.

As they’ve done for months, congregations’ leaders are relying on medical experts and CDC guidelines to navigate the path forward.

Eili Klein, a professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, offered suggestions for a safer holiday, including inviting only one family to a meal as opposed to inviting several unrelated individuals, but cautioned that even in that scenario, time inside the sukkah should be limited and participants should have ample room to distance.

“Any activity which has mixing with a large group of people either serially or in a big group is not a safe activity,” said Klein.

At Hillel JUC, staffers are adhering to health guidelines while trying to preserve the spirit of the holiday.

“Hillel JUC is holding very strictly by university policies and will not be gathering students in the sukkah communally this year,” said Danielle Kranjec, senior Jewish educator at Hillel JUC. “While this breaks our hearts, we know that keeping everyone safe takes precedence over everything else.”

Balancing safety and Sukkot on a college campus requires creativity, so as a solution, the Oakland-based Jewish university center ordered five individual pop-up sukkahs, available for borrowing, so students can fulfil the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah without the risks of larger gatherings, said Kranjec.

Zoom programs, such as edible sukkah making, also will be offered to enhance the students’ holiday, according to Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director.

Don’t expect to see this during the holiday – Young Judaea Sukkah hop from years past. Photo courtesy of Chaim Steinberg

At Kesher Pittsburgh, co-leaders Kohenet Keshira haLev Fife and Sara Stock Mayo are committed to hosting regular services.

If weather cooperates, there’s a possibility of an in-person but distanced Kabbalat Shabbat on Oct. 9, but, if it's rainy or too cold, Kesher Pittsburgh will meet online, said Fife.

Dealing with the weather is nothing new for this time of year, as rain and Sukkot are intricately bound.

The Mishna notes that during Sukkot, the world is judged on how much rain it will receive in the coming year. Other rabbinic literature indicates that because Jews venture outdoors to connect with God during the holiday, if it happens to rain on Sukkot it can be interpreted as a divine rebuke. At the end of the holiday, on Shemini Atzeret, Israel’s rainy season begins and a special prayer for rain is offered. Also, one suggestion for the lulav and etrog’s symbolism is that the species demonstrate an agricultural reliance on rain.

Rain or shine, the holiday is about connecting with God, explained Rabbi Levi Langer, of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center.

The idea is that no matter where people are, even in the Diaspora, they can commune with the divine and find a religious experience, said Langer, an idea that’s particularly relevant today.

“We weren't able to attend shul for many months,” he said. “And we had to kind of create the religious experience, and find some relationship with the Almighty and with prayer in surroundings that were not the usual ones.”

Whether it was having seders that barely resembled past gatherings, saying yizkor alone, or going virtual for the High Holidays, COVID-19 has required Jews to adapt while making the days meaningful.

“I think there's a certain sense that Sukkos represents that,” said Langer. “Wherever the Jew goes, even if we're not in the old comfortable familiar surroundings, we can always create a connection with the divine and be able to experience it in a palpable way.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at Additional reporting by JTA.

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