GLOUCESTER – The venue is on the shady side. The walls shake in the wind and the décor in some cases might be described as seedy.
But, no, this is not some Prohibition Era backstreet speakeasy. It’s a sukkah, or hut, to mark the holiday of Sukkot which began last night and runs until Oct. 11. The holiday, which marks the gathering of the harvest, is mentioned in the Torah and commands Jews to dwell in a sukkah or a booth. These days, people celebrate the holiday by serving meals to friends and family in the sukkah. Traditional Jews also say blessings, and shake a lulav and etrog inside the sukkah every day during the holiday.
On Oct. 10, Phoebe Potts, director of family learning at Gloucester’s Temple Ahavat Achim, will be leading the temple’s inaugural Sukkah Crawl, a family-friendly moveable feast that will visit four Gloucester-area sukkot in one afternoon.
The idea originated with the temple’s Rabbi Steven Lewis, who realized that, for many of the students in the Sylvia Cohen Religious School, their only experience with a sukkah was decorating the over-sized green canvas construction that volunteers erect each year on the synagogue’s Middle Street front lawn.
The Cape Ann event marks the latest celebration of a holiday that has found a new popularity with younger families on the North Shore over the last two decades.
The Lappin Foundation helped jumpstart the interest in 2000, when it started handing out free sukkahs, lulavs and etrogs. To date, 422 sukkahs have been given away to Jewish families.
“Sukkat Shalom was created to fulfill our mission of enhancing Jewish identity across generations by providing an exciting, authentic and positive Jewish experience for families,” said Robert Lappin, who founded the Lappin Foundation. “Sukkat Shalom helps parents to create warm and lasting Jewish memories for their children. Celebrating Sukkot in a sukkah and shaking a lulav and etrog engage families in the festival in a multi-sensory way. Celebrating Sukkot is about getting back to our Jewish roots and experiencing and appreciating the role and power of nature through a Jewish lens.”
The Sukkah Crawl is part of the “Judaism by Doing” philosophy at the religious school. Potts, in her fourth year heading the school, wants students to see a variety of sukkah styles and to experience Sukkot as part of home and family life, not just as a brief encounter in front of the synagogue.
For the Sukkah Crawl, at each of four homes in Gloucester, students and their families will have something to eat and drink, join in song, shake the lulav and etrog, and recite traditional Sukkot blessings. The itinerary includes the homes of both Rabbi Lewis and the temple’s Rabbi Emeritus, Myron Geller.
Potts says each sukkah is quite distinct in design and construction, and one was built from a kit provided by the Lappin Foundation. In preparation, students have been learning the blessings associated with Sukkot and have decorated wooden panels declaring the guests, the ushpizin, they would invite into the sukkah.
The temple is once again chartering a bus to transport participants in the upcoming Sukkah Crawl. Assembly is at Temple Ahavat Achim at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 10. For more information, call 978-281-0739.
Larry Constantine is a freelance journalist and photographer.