This year I anticipate the High Holidays with trepidation. I wistfully think about years past, celebrating together with family and friends in Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha’s synagogue in Squirrel Hill and the undeniable power of hundreds of voices raised as one praying for forgiveness and a better world. It makes me feel more separated and alone than ever in our new normal.
But we aren’t alone. Judaism supports us in these difficult times and our ancestors went through pandemics and situations that make the horror of COVID-19 look tame. They have provided us with key tools that are adaptable to this moment. We just need to look at the High Holiday season – and Sukkot specifically – a little differently.
Sukkot is tailor-made for helping us through COVID. Sukkot is a home-based outdoor holiday. It’s one that the less observant among us forget or just observe in synagogue. Although all our other Jewish holidays look different this year, Sukkot can be celebrated the way it was designed. This year, we can encourage participating in Sukkot as a way to “normalize” part of the High Holiday season.
Sukkot seals up the High Holiday season. Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, is known as the last of the Days of Judgment. Since this is usually celebrated at shul, how can we reimagine it together virtually this year in the sukkah? Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers from Tree of Life suggested having a “drive through sukkah” to celebrate this special Sukkot day. The power of our creativity will take us new places and keep us focused.
Sukkot doesn’t have to be perfect to be perfect for this year. Sukkot is not celebrated universally across all denominations of Judaism like the Passover Seder. While there are restrictions on a kosher sukkah, the spirit of being outside, only partially shielded from the elements, reminds us that our walls, and medicine, are flimsy when compared to the power of nature. We truly depend on G-d to get us through this crisis. If someone only has a small outdoor porch with no room for a sukkah, encourage them to decorate it and eat meals there. Let’s lower barriers to fellow Jews who do not celebrate according to tradition. Let’s encourage participation by all, sending a message of hope, comfort and joy in being Jewish.
Sukkot allows us freedom to create new at-home traditions. This year is an opportunity for creating new family traditions or reviving old ones to make Sukkot special. Like Shabbat and the Passover Seder, there is ample room for putting a unique family stamp on this holiday. New traditions might include decorations, food and activities in whatever counts as your sukkah. Bring Zoom outside for the four species ceremony and then play new games with grandparents who are five states away and isolated from their family. Make it yours.
This past Passover, we worked with many folks in Pittsburgh and beyond to reimagine the Seder virtually – not only how to do it, but how to make it engaging. This Sukkot, our program, 2 for Seder: In the Sukkah contains an information kit that includes both Ashkenazi and Sephardi approaches to help those new to the home Sukkot practice get started.
Sukkot can bring our diverse neighborhoods together – safely. Jews are being blamed for COVID-19 and cruel tropes burn across the internet daily. Abraham and the prophet Zechariah set examples of how hospitality with others makes the world a better place. Our program, 2 for Seder: in the Sukkah asks you to be inspired by their example and invite two friends of another faith to join you for a pandemic-safe meal in the sukkah, either socially distanced or virtually. Offering our neighbors of different faiths authentic, joyous Jewish experiences provides key knowledge to counter anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes that are the seeds of hate.
Sukkot gives us the power to change and repair our corner of the world.
Open the flaps of the sukkah, let the air in, spread out a bit, turn on the virtual tools and share Sukkot with those around you. Let’s celebrate our joy, appreciate what we do have, and especially pray for us all to be sealed in the Book of Life. PJC
Marnie Fienberg is the co-founder of 2 for Seder, which she created in the spring of 2019 after losing her mother-in-law in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. 2 for Seder: In the Sukkah is a new program encouraging a joyous Jewish holiday while fighting against hate with a Kit and a SafeSukkah Fact Sheet.