Signs of fall have already begun to show themselves: leaves in all shades of reds and oranges scattered on the ground, people leaving a Starbucks toting a pumpkin spice latte, sukkahs springing up across the Delaware Valley.
Sukkot is a telltale sign of the change of the season and comes with its own traditions. Many synagogues are engaging their congregations with unique programs and events for the holiday, as well as the holidays that come after: Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret.
Forget a typical sit-down dinner in the sukkah. Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen is adding an alliterative flavor to complement the lulav and etrog with its annual “Sushi, Sake, Sukkah” event on Oct. 3.
The wordplay is a key component, said Rabbi David Gerber. Plus, “everyone likes sushi,” so it was a way to engage all ages and members of the congregation.
“Sukkot is a great holiday for many reasons,” he said, “but one is that really just getting people in the sukkah is a mitzvah. With that premise, we just kind of thought, ‘What might be fun to bring into the sukkah? What would attract our young families?’”
It’s a great community event, he added. And if the weather holds up, it’s a night to enjoy being outside and looking at the stars, which may bring a special spiritual connection as well.
“Sukkot is always my favorite,” Gerber said. “I like being outside and teaching outside. I’m a believer that the more time you can spend outside, the closer you can get to the why our ancestors found these holidays so sacred. You connect with nature and understand the beauty of creation.”
Temple Sholom in Broomall had its own dinner — of the brown bag variety — in their sukkah on Sept. 27.
The event brought in about 75 people, said Marissa Kuperschmidt, communications associate at the synagogue.
“There’s not many times throughout the year that you can do something outside that it’s nice out and especially with the sukkah,” she said. “We want to get our community involved and feel welcome and gather in a place we normally couldn’t because it’s not up throughout the year.”
Meanwhile, another synagogue is shaking things up with an evening paying homage to the way a certain MI6 agent orders his martini.
The name’s Am. Old York Road Temple-Beth Am.
The synagogue on Old York Road held its first “Shaken, Not Stirred” Sukkot event for congregants in their 20s and 30s on Sept. 27.
“It’s an age group we’ve been wanting to do more for in our synagogue and a lot of people have been coming up to us asking to do more with them,” said Rabbi Jake Singer-Beilin.
Light snacks such as pita and hummus, as well as cocktails, wine and beer were on tap, but the key was to simply enjoy spending the time schmoozing outside in the sukkah.
“Sukkot is a lovely holiday,” he said, “and any way we can help people celebrate it and spend time in the sukkah is a good thing.”
But after Sukkot is over, the celebrations don’t stop. Following hot on its heels are Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret. Both bring their own celebratory traditions — although one has more flair than the other.
Both Temple Sholom and Congregation Beth Or hold their consecration services during Simchat Torah to introduce the new religious school students to the congregation, Gerber and Kuperschmidt said.
Temple Sholom holds another brown bag dinner in the sukkah as Sukkot hasn’t ended yet. But the Simchat Torah service and consecration service, which they do every year, is a way to introduce kindergartners to the greater congregation.
“It’s a special service just for them: They get to come up on the bimah and it welcomes them into the religious school,” Kuperschmidt said.
For erev Simchat Torah, they unroll the Torah and congregants can hold onto it, and B’nai Mitzvahs from the previous year can read from their Torah portions.
As far as Shemini Atzeret, they don’t do much — a not-so-unusual phenomenon, according to Singer-Beilin, who credited a disconnect among most Jews as far as knowing what the holiday means.
This isn’t unusual, it seems. That may be due to a disconnect as far as knowing what the holiday means.
A simple Google search about the meaning of Shemini Atzeret shows results that combine the holiday with Simchat Torah and Sukkot, though they are all separate holidays.
“I think a lot of people don’t really know what the holiday is or why it exists,” Singer-Beilin said. “It’s easy to explain why we might want to celebrate Sukkot or Simchat Torah, but it’s much more difficult to make Shemini Atzeret relevant.”
Even in the Jewish tradition, he added, “there’s a lot spoken about Sukkot and even Simchat Torah, but there isn’t a whole lot of discussion about Shemini Atzeret and the greater meaning” of its celebration of the eighth day of assembly and spiritual aspects of Sukkot — the literal translation is “the eighth of assembly” — as well as prayers for rain.
For him, he sees the greater meaning of the holiday as a way to keep the celebrations going for just a little while longer.
“I see it as a desire to celebrate a little bit longer, as a desire to extend the joy and holiday as long as we possibly can,” he said.
For this reason, he feels perhaps it may be taking away from other holidays that could be observed or gain more attention.
Regardless of the holiday, though, it does provide one thing, according to Singer-Beilin: “To really spend time in community as much as we possibly can.”
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