Mid-October brings the ancient Jewish festival of Sukkot, a joyful, week-long harvest holiday that some people believe was the original inspiration for Thanksgiving. Held on the fifth day after Yom Kippur, it can be a small and private affair or a large and convivial one – but if it’s going to follow tradition it involves singing, dancing and lots of delicious food, all taking place in a temporary outdoor hut.
The hut, called the sukkah, is often beautifully decorated in a harvest theme, with homemade ornaments, paintings, and streamers. The roof should be made out of thatch or branches, which provides some shade and protection from the sun, but also allows the stars to be seen at night. Traditionally, the sukkah (plural is sukkot) becomes a festive place to invite friends and family to eat, pray, sing and relax, and sometimes even sleep, throughout the week. The holiday is simultaneously a harvest festival, a remembrance of the huts that Israelites lived in during their years in the wilderness, and an ode to impermanence.
And this year, two local Jewish groups are celebrating in a big way.
The Germantown Jewish Centre at Ellet Street and Lincoln Drive in West Mt. Airy is Launching “SukkahFest,” a week-long series of outdoor events from Oct. 9-15 with a firm focus on the environment. The festival, which will include musical prayer services and teachings, is open to the public.
Rabbi Adam Zeff will be presenting on Friday evening, and Saturday morning, Oct. 15, Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, founder of Shomrei Adamah (“Keepers of the Earth”), the first national Jewish environmental organization, will lead services.
And in Fort Washington, Folkshul, a Jewish secular humanistic community and Sunday school is holding a two-day festival. This includes a dinner and overnight camping at Fort Washington State Park for the oldest students and their families, complete with music, games and stargazing. Then on Sunday, the community is partnering with jkidphilly, an organization that serves families who are raising Jewish children, to invite anyone interested in Jewish history, culture and traditions to come and experience this convivial holiday. Registration is required.
“Sukkot is one of the most joyful holidays on the Jewish calendar,” said Beth Margolis Rupp, a co-founder of Philadelphia's Folkshul. “Not only do we celebrate the bounty of the autumn by eating delicious foods outdoors in the sukkah, we will share stories, learn about mediation in nature, we sing and dance, design edible sukkot, blow the shofar and continue to acknowledge the deep relationship to the earth with gratitude. We acknowledge the bittersweetness of our ancestors and any people who suffer from homelessness, hunger and peril.”
Rabbi Bernstein, of GJC, who also emphasized the holiday’s focus on nature, said she’s particularly proud of how many people from the Jewish community in Northwest Philadelphia are leaders in the field.
“I think what’s special about this story is how awesome the Northwest Philadelphia Jewish community is,” Rabbi Bernstein said, adding that many of the young Jewish leaders now living here are relatively recent transplants from Brooklyn. “There are many national leaders of new Jewish organizations living here, and they are all contributing to make this a really special event for the community.”
In addition to Rabbi Bernstein, members of the Centre’s “Green Team” who have organized the SukkahFest events include Eve Bratman, associate professor of environmental studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster; Mark Fallon, director of Briar Bush Nature Center in Abington; Anna Herman, long-time urban gardener, cook, writer and environmental educator; Steve Jones, organizer of ecological restoration projects with Wissahickon Restoration Volunteers; Nami Lieberman, a participant in Einayich Yonim, a Jewish spirituality fellowship program for high school youth.
Also Rabbi Nathan Martin, associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel of Media; Ari Miller, landscape architect and project manager for projects with environmental and social missions; Mindy Shapiro, longtime Jewish communal professional and artist; Vivian and Yoni Stadlin; founders of Eden Village Camp, a Jewish farm-to-table sleepaway camp; and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center, advocate for eco-justice and author/editor of more than 20 books.
Public programs, most of which will be held outdoors in a sukkah will include a talk about Philadelphia’s first-ever urban forest strategic plan with Ari Miller, of Hinge Collective, a public interest design firm, a discussion on urban agriculture with Herman, an exploration of solar opportunities with Martin, a conversation about greening opportunities in Mt. Airy with Jones, a nature appreciation bike ride with Shapiro, an eco-Zoom event with Waskow, a music café hosted by the Stadlins, stories of efforts to save bees with Bratman, as well as opportunities to just hang out and meet neighbors.
Rabbi Bernstein, who has spent much of her career studying and writing about the ecological dimensions of Judaism and the Hebrew Bible, said Judaism is a land-based tradition, and many of its holidays are celebrations of the agricultural season.
“The eco-philosopher Aldo Leopold understood land to be a community of earth, water, air, plants, insects, animals and us,” she said. “When you start to understand land in ecological terms as an ecosystem, as earth, then you can see that Judaism is an ecologically-sensitive tradition.”
For a schedule of events, addresses and more information about the SukkahFest programs, please visit germantownjewishcentre.org/sukkahfest. For more information and to register for the Folkshul celebration, email email@example.com.