Sukkot begins Friday night, and despite the pandemic, Phil Blue of Lynnfield plans to host guests during the holiday to enjoy spiced cider and a sweet potato lentil curry stew his wife only prepares for the festival.
“I don’t think we are going to have a party with, like 20 people, like we’ve had opening night before, but, you know, of the 30 people we usually have for Rosh Hashanah, we can instead invite them over for different nights on Sukkot,” said Blue.
While some, like Blue, are determined to social distance in sukkahs, area synagogues now face a new challenge when it comes to the COVID-19 response.
Experts with backgrounds in public health or urban planning have been contemplating best practices for the harvest holiday. Their prevailing opinion seems to be that large-scale celebrations in a sukkah are better left for a time when COVID-19 is no longer around.
“We felt that the restrictions that would have to be in place would make it very cumbersome to set up the sukkah, decorate it, and to participate,” said Dr. Jeffrey Newton, a physician specializing in lung diseases who is part of a group advising Peabody’s Temple Ner Tamid of the North Shore, where he is a member of the board of directors.
Ner Tamid has been virtual for the past six months, including the recent High Holidays. Newton, who said that he is mostly retired, has been discussing policies with his fellow board members, Rabbi Richard Perlman, Associate Rabbi Bernie Horowitz, and temple president Adele Lubarsky. According to Newton, Sukkot at the temple would have included a small number of people inside the sukkah, based on a reservation system. The holiday has a tradition of entering the sukkah, making a blessing, and having food and drink inside – which would involve participants removing their masks.
The holiday represents an unusual situation. From restaurants to schools to synagogues, policymakers have discussed how to hold indoor events and outdoor options safely during the COVID-19 response. Yet a sukkah is something of a hybrid: an outdoor space enclosed with walls and a roof, a holiday evocation of the huts the biblical Israelites built in the wilderness.
“It is an outside-type activity,” Newton said. “However, it’s not totally outside … It has to have some walls.”
Sharon Cameron, the city of Peabody’s director of health and human services, said she would look at a sukkah as an indoor space under the state guidelines. She likened the situation to that of restaurants with outdoor dining environments. Two-walled spaces are classified as outdoor, while three-walled ones are indoor.
“My understanding of the constructs [of a sukkah is] usually at least three sides and a vegetative roof,” Cameron said.
The state guidelines for houses of worship holding indoor services require no more than 10 people per 1,000 square feet, with everyone socially distancing at least six feet apart unless they are in the same family. Masks are mandatory. If food and beverages are involved, a sukkah gathering might be placed into the category of an event, with a cap of 25 people added to the preexisting limit of 10 or fewer people per 1,000 square feet.
“There would have been “only a very small number of people at a time,” Newton said of a sukkah at the temple.
“We encourage people to have an individual sukkah. A family can utilize them. Since people are living together, the same restrictions do not apply to a cohesive group of people.”
Marc Draisen, a reopening advisory committee member at Temple Israel in Boston, sees things similarly.
“I think if you’re at home with your family, or very close friends or neighbors, I think it’s probably a good idea,” Draisen said. “I think it’s fine if you wish to do that … I think the idea of going into a sukkah at a temple, a synagogue, another location, [with a] large gathering of unrelated individuals is probably not a good idea.”
Draisen has been helping with coronavirus awareness efforts through his role as executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning agency that advocates for communities across Eastern Massachusetts, including on the North Shore.
He’s also helping advise Temple Israel on its ongoing COVID-19 response.
“I think I don’t have space that’s particularly good for a sukkah at my house,” Draisen said. “I do expect I will be participating in some sort of Temple Israel virtual service. I’ll pray for hopefully an early end to the pandemic. I’ll pray for us to be over this by next fall.”
As for this fall, he noted that some people are planning a new twist on their sukkah decorations. Interspersed with the traditional fruits and squash, they will hang bottles of hand sanitizer and face masks.
“I think it’s in the spirit of having a little humor we could all use,” Draisen said. “It’s probably not a bad idea.”
Journal Associate Editor Ethan M. Forman contributed to this article.