One of the several names assigned to Sukkot in our sacred texts is Chag Ha’Asif, the holiday of gathering. As Rabbi Jessy Gross, senior director of Jewish life at the JCC of Greater Baltimore, describes in this blog post, it’s a time for Jews of all backgrounds to come together as a community and welcome those outside of our four walls into our celebration where our whole is greater than the sum of our parts.
In her work as a community rabbi in Baltimore, Jessy founded Charm City Tribe and built community for the 20s and 30s community in downtown Baltimore. Through innovative, immersive programs like Hanukah Brew-Ha-Ha, Shabbat Luck Dinners and Mobile Sukkah Tour, young adults have found a space to explore Jewish identity and culture. In addition, volunteer community connectors meet with newcomers one on one to get to know them better and to personally invite folks to these great events. Reach Rabbi Jessy Gross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the time Sukkot arrives, most rabbis are well-weathered from the spiritual marathon of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Having delivered sermons and gathered hundreds and sometimes thousands of people together for prayer and feasting and fasting and contemplation, the work of forgiveness and renewal is as exhausting as it is rejuvenating.
And then comes Sukkot—zman simchateinu—our season of joy.
For me, I have the pleasure of being a congregant on the High Holy Days.
But on Sukkot, I become the grand master of ceremonies calling out to the masses, inviting them into the Sukkah for celebration and ongoing meaning making through this first month of the Jewish new year, Tishrei.
Most of us do not celebrate Sukkot today the way it was originally intended. Most of us do not celebrate the farming part unless we are lucky enough to have access to a Jewish farm, to a Pearlstone Retreat Center, Eden Village or Urban Adamah. But the themes we are invited to elevate during Sukkot remain some of the most important for what motivates our work to engage Jews in Jewish community. As we sleep in insecure shelters, it is a time to raise questions about our vulnerabilities and uncertainties and to become more attuned to the demographics of people who do not have the luxury to return to their secure places after the week is over. It is a time to raise our compassion to those in our midst for whom lack of permanent and safe housing is a year round reality and the question of where the next meal will come from is a daily question and not just something we hypothetically imagine as an idea.
For me, Sukkot is THE holiday of the Jewish professional. There is no better holiday that demonstrates the necessity of being in community and coming together to accomplish what would be impossible to do on one's own.
In the age of supermarkets and home delivery groceries, it is difficult to imagine the uncertainty of the transition that Sukkot comes to mark each year, the process by which summer fades to fall and abundance gives way to a huge and continual question: Will we have enough to last until next season?
When our farmers were esteemed and our refrigeration possibilities less available, the only way to ensure that the produce in the fields could be collected and properly stored enough to last through the winter was by everyone coming together to help do the work. And so we built temporary huts in the middle of the fields and people of all trades and backgrounds would come together to work in the fields by day and join in rousing celebrations of music, food and ritual under the full moon by night. I cannot help but imagine the modern-day music festival is the closest we can get to that feeling, but even that lacks the juxtaposition of the hard work and toil of the day with the release that comes in celebrating by night. And so for a week we lived in community, reconnecting with the land and with each other.
Sukkot demands that we examine our role within the community at large. It is a time to invite people into our spaces that we might not otherwise and consider them ushpizin—esteemed guests. It is a time to invoke all our senses; it is a great example of Jewish tradition and practice being not simply heady but a full body experience. It is a time when our ritual invokes the bringing together of the diversity of nature and people into one unified whole and to understand the power of that coming together as a source of healing to our otherwise broken world.
For professionals, most of us do not take leave from work and head to fields (though between the holy days many of us have off some of us do take vacation to exotic places). Still, for those of us who work during these days, we have an amazing opportunity to animate the tremendous power of community by creating experiences for our people to come together. It is an opportunity to counter the skeptic's impulse that Judaism is outdated and no longer relevant. After all, it is my belief that the need for community and connection is a timeless human craving. And if our fields become the circles of our JCCs, Federations, congregational schools, day schools, synagogues, early childhood programs, minyanim, start-up communities, and all else that composes our community infrastructure, the sukkah can still be the same...and the power of what can happen inside of it can be something that transcends the normative and leave a lasting impact on our expel while reaffirming the transformative power of being in community.
For reflection and discussion
- How has the desire for community and connection manifested itself in our communities? How do we meet these needs through our current organizational structures?
- What are our vulnerabilities and uncertainties that we need to address as a community? And how can community comfort us as individuals, given our personal vulnerabilities?
- How do we create an open and inviting community? Can we facilitate partnerships within and between different agencies? Where outside of the “four walls” of our community agencies will we engage those not yet exploring the Jewish community to the fullest?
For further exploration
- Jewish Cincinnati: Creating Community 6,000 Miles Away from Home
- Stanford Social Innovation Review: Collective Impact
- Really Interesting Jews Podcast: Rabbi Jessy Gross-Gathering the Tribe in the Charm City
- BimBam Digital: Shaboom! Hachnasat Orchim How to Make People Feel Welcome
- FedCentral: Engagement Resource Library