A Different Sukkot Program- General Description

  • by: Larry Engelhart

Reclaiming Sukkot: Planning an experiential program,shifting a paradigm, and a different twist on kiruv

Zig Ziglar, the famous sales-trainer, warns his students: “Don ‘t even try to change somebody else ‘s mind; you can ‘t do it. The best you can do is offer new information and hope they will re-examine the evidence.”

Isn’t that the essence of wholesome education? The truly nurturing educator will make a corpus of information available to their students, and then enable them to make wise and informed decisions. Chidush is the experience of seeing something – perhaps something familiar – in a different light and hence advancing or recreating a new level of understanding.

Consider the holiday of Sukkot. It is certainly the most agrarian of the Jewish holidays. It is a physical manifestation of the vulnerability experienced by the ancient Jewish community and its dependence on divine providence.

Now consider the urban expression of the holiday as we experience it today. Pre-fab Sukkot, foldingtables, fine dinnerware, walking to Shul in dress-clothing carrying the arba-minim in their plastic holders. Sukkot commemoration has become an exercise in symbolism, but not necessarily in experience.

In an effort to recapture the essenceand inner experience of Sukkot, we have taken groups of students camping during the first Yom Tov days of Sukkot.

The experience begins the day before Yom Tov when we bring the students to the camp site and they find a stack of lumber, tarps, screws and nails, some hand tools, and directions to the woods where they can cut some schach.

Without instruction, they soon understand that their challenge is to build a Sukkah capable of housing the entire group (usually 30-40 people). Group process number one is working out the logistics of teamwork and mechanical structure. Who will take the lead? How will various opinions develop a consensus? We’ve never really built anything before; how do we know it will work?

Guess what? They work it out. And in the process they develop a mutual relationship with each other and a team-based ownership of the Sukkah and what it represents. They then have a greater willingness to fully participate in the rest of the program, which always involves further give-and-take.

By the way, the students come from the local Orthodox co-ed high school and Yeshiva. In the last two years, we have invited groups of students from the Reform NFTY organization to join with us. Even though we tried to find ways that we could come together for t’fillot the differences in style and structure seemed too massive to allow us to daven together, so we davenned separately, each in our own way. As strident as the Reform kids were in their insistence on egalitarianism and on using guitars – the immutable fact was that these kids were observing Sukkot, many for the first time in their lives. And they had to stay out of school to do it.

Aside from t’fillot, most programs, meals, discussions were held as a large group and the sharing, doubting, teaching, questioning, etc that went on was wonderful. Nobody was trying to sell anything to anyone. Rather, the kids were trying to understandeach other – and themselves.

Imagine an Orthodox kid who has always celebrated Sukkot, albeit as an extension of his family. In this setting, nothing was provided automatically.

  • The Sukkah had to be designed and built
  • Food had to be prepared and served
  • Services needed to be led
  • Sermons and classes needed to be prepared
  • And, some years, an eruv had to be constructed. (Interesting story: Last year, we also needed an eruv – the volunteer who led the construction was the regional president of NFTY! What a juxtaposition!)

Even though we provide heated cabins, on the first evening of Sukkot, nearly every inch of floor space was occupied as 18 students decided to sleep in the Sukkah. Probably half of them had never been in a Sukkah before!

Services were held outside in chapels constructed under willow trees and facing a lake. Can you imaging the experience of singing Hallel and waving the lulav in that environment? We sang every part of the davenning that supported it and made lulavim available so that even the girls could fully participate, again many for the first time.

So, we shifted the paradigm of Sukkot from being Urban-Symbolic to being Rural-Experiential. Kids who have participated in Sukkot from infancy now were able to “own” the experience in a whole new way. And, of course, those for whom this was their first Sukkot experience – what do we need to say?

Regarding kiruv, I would like to make two points. First, kiruv is usually thought of as trying to make others just like us. There was none of this at the program. Ironically, it was the lack of that thrust that enabled everyone to share freely and without suspicion. The Reform students were able to learn a lot from the Orthodox students. And the reverse is equally true. And doors were opened between teens which are still open years later.

The other point is that kiruv should not only involve “informing” it should also involve “renewing.” We can ‘t smugly believe that our Orthodox-from-birth kids really understand what they are doing or own the traditions which they follow. Building a Sukkah from scratch, preparing their own meals, handling the issues of Shabbat in a self-developed community, teaching, learning, sharing – all of these test and strengthen our kids sense of themselves, who they are, and what they believe. This “internal kiruv” is as important as the other-directed type we often speak about.

In this long essay, I haven ‘t even spoken about the incredible classes, discussions, and guest speakers we have had.

If anyone is interested in planning a truly remarkable Sukkot celebration in their home community, I will be happy to help brain-storm the ideas with you and share our own experiences.

You can reach me via email or at 312-399-3974.

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