SWAMPSCOTT — What if you were standing in the middle of the desert and wanted to build a hut for Sukkot, and there were no trees around with which to build its walls? Could you summon a sukkah on wheels to help you celebrate?
According to Rabbi Sruli Baron of Tobin Bridge Chabad in Everett, if you chant: “Sukkah, Sukkah, Sukkah Mobile!” one will magically appear.
“And maybe, just maybe, you’ll hear grumbling in the distance,” Baron told about a dozen preschoolers and kindergartners of Aleph Academy of Chabad of the North Shore in Swampscott on the morning of Oct. 7. “And a big red pickup truck with a sukkah on the back will come roaring through the sand and bring the sukkah to you so you can celebrate Sukkot.”
The Sukkah Mobile that Baron was talking about consisted of a rented Dodge Ram pickup with a Hemi engine and a sukkah strapped on the top of the cargo bed.
A sign on the side of the 5-foot-wide, 6-foot-long and 6-foot-tall sukkah invited people to “Hop on board and do a mitzvah!”
The truck was there so the young children could do the “sukkah dance” inside with the etrog and lulav.
The idea of a mobile sukkah and having a way “to take your mitzvah to go” is an ancient one and was discussed by the scholars of the Talmud, Baron said.
“The idea is an old one,” Baron said. “The idea is to bring the sukkah to those who don’t have one.”
The Sukkah Mobile harkens to Mitzvah Mobiles or Mitzvah Tanks made up of converted buses, campers or trucks that served as mobile synagogues and formed a way to reach out to assimilated Jewish people in New York City starting in the 1960s and 1970s by the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch practitioners, according to a 2017 article on Chabad.org’s website titled “Mobilizing the Mitzvah Tanks: The Untold Story of the ‘Are You Jewish’ Guys.”
Mobile sukkahs have appeared on the North Shore in the past, said Rabbi Yossi Lipsker of Chabad of the North Shore.
It was Baron’s idea “to bring it back this year specially to reach people in the age of COVID,” he said.
Baron built it with help from Chabad’s Young Professional Community.
“The Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory was always at the forefront of meeting people where they were religiously with a deeply compassionate understanding of where they stood existentially,” Lipsker said in a text message. “Conceptually, the ‘sukkah mobile’ was simply the literal byproduct of that philosophy.”
Added Lipsker: “It goes without saying that this unique approach feels custom-made for the tumultuous challenges we are currently experiencing globally. The notion of a mitzvah coming to you when you aren’t able to get to the mitzvah resonates in our COVID world with particular poignancy.”
Last week, the Sukkah Mobile visited Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead, the Jewish Community Center in Marblehead and, later in the day, Chabad of Peabody, where it made home visits.
When the Sukkah Mobile drove up to the preschool, Baron was greeted by his wife, Chaya Baron, who serves as the Judaic educator at the school and who co-directs with Baron Tobin Bridge Chabad. Aleph Academy’s director, Pam Kelley, was also on hand.
Baron then set up a folding table in the sukkah and spread bamboo mats over the roof. He set up a gallon jug of hand sanitizer and a step stool so the mask-wearing kids could climb up and down, though most had to be handed up and down to and from the truck.
The sukkah was framed with two-by-fours, with walls of wooden lattice panels screwed into the frame. The sukkah was then strapped onto the cargo bed. It was just big enough for Baron to stand up in without bumping his head.
“How do you make a Sukkah Mobile?” Baron asked the kids. “You have to make a sukkah and put the sukkah on top of the truck and then the truck and the sukkah together become a magical combination called a Sukkah Mobile.”
Sukkot is held on the 15th day of the seventh month of Tishrei. It’s a seven-day festival that both commemorates the harvest and symbolizes the huts in the desert the Israelites lived in while fleeing Egypt on their way to the promised land. Those who observe the holiday typically take all their meals in the huts during the week.
Made of natural materials, the sukkah also symbolizes the “clouds of glory” that protected the Jewish people from the elements, Baron said.
This has special meaning during the pandemic, Baron said, because even though we live in homes and are not technically exposed to the elements, “we are still exposed.”
The temporary huts speak to the fragility of human life at a time of COVID-19.
This year, due to safety precautions regarding large indoor gatherings, many synagogues were not putting up large community sukkahs, Baron said. Those who typically gathered at large family sukkahs were also unable to do so. So that’s why a Sukkah Mobile came in handy this year.
“It has an added meaning this year,” Baron said. “A lot of people are requesting visits this year because it’s a way to do a social-distanced yontif.”