Jewish Pittsburghers ready to welcome guests to their sukkahs
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Jewish Pittsburghers ready to welcome guests to their sukkahs

Celebrations continue despite delta variant and lingering COVID

The view from Andy Reibach’s sukkah where he will be welcoming guests this year. Photo by Andy Reibach.
The view from Andy Reibach’s sukkah where he will be welcoming guests this year. Photo by Andy Reibach.

Margaret Angel said she isn’t nervous about the pandemic when it comes to celebrating Sukkot, which she calls a “simcha of joy.”

Angel, a member of Congregation Poale Zedeck, along with her husband, Shmuel, helps connect community members who build sukkahs with those who don’t — such as college students or apartment dwellers — allowing them to observe the mitzvah of eating in the temporary structure.

Sukkot is a “beautiful holiday to be enjoyed outside,” she said — and people can always opt not to host guests if they are uncomfortable doing so because of COVID.

Last year, as the pandemic raged and vaccines had not yet been introduced, those observing Sukkot were generally wary to invite guests for festive meals.

“Sukkahs are enclosed much more than a typical outdoor setting,” cautioned Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, chief of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau on Long Island, in a message to his Orthodox community last year.

At the time — October 2020 — doctors urged celebrants to follow the same precautions they were taking indoors: Wear a mask and maintain 6 feet of distance from others.

This year, COVID restrictions have loosened — with masks optional in many stores, and restaurants open again for indoor dining — so many community members are more inclined to host guests in their sukkahs.

Andrew Reibach, a member of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, built a sukkah in 2020, as he does most years, but celebrated only with his family. This year he plans to invite friends again.

“I’m fortunate,” he said. “I’m at the age where all my friends’ kids are grown — there not a 6-year-old who isn’t immunized, so there’s no risk. I hang out with people that are immunized so it’s not a risk for us.”

Reibach is confident in the COVID vaccine and its ability to keep people safe, and his sense of security isn’t simply conjecture. He is an emergency room physician at St. Clair Hospital.

“I’ve admitted a ton of people with COVID,” Reibach said. “Only two of them were immunized and of those, one was 86 and one was 94. The vaccine may not be perfect, but it is good enough to prevent you from ending up in the hospital if you’re young and healthy.”

The South Hills resident said the vaccine has allowed him to get back to normal life — including celebrating Sukkot in a sukkah.

Andrew Neft regularly attends services at Chabad of the South Hills. He and his wife contracted the virus in March 2020. He’s since been vaccinated.

“I don’t really trust the government for much, but in this instance, when it comes to approving drugs and medicine, they are usually on track,” he said.

Last year, Neft built a sukkah and will do so again this year.

“I do not see a need for people to run their lives around the minority that are at risk,” Neft said. “The CDC has said the survival rate is pretty good if you’re under 70 years old.”

Like Reibach, Neft said most of his friends are in the low-risk category, and, regardless, he doesn’t allow fear to influence his decisions when it comes to performing mitzvot.

Having a sukkah “is a necessary part of the holiday,” he said. “We need to have our meals in a sukkah. In Judaism there’s always a work-around, a fence around the Torah. You can always find ways to meet your obligation. But it doesn’t faze me, this is part of the holiday.”

Angel, of Poale Zedeck, said it would be unfortunate if families didn’t observe the holiday because of the virus.

“It would be a pity if people didn’t celebrate,” she said. “The kids are all in school together and they all know each other and we’re already sharing each other’s germs.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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