Sukkot: Project-Based LIVING

We are deep into the holidays!

We have come out of Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur and headed straight into Sukkot.  I have just finished my frame and look forward to this Sunday and when we will finish the decorations and usher in the holiday as a family.

2012-09-30 18.02.28 copyThis is absolutely my favorite holiday of the entire year. There is nothing else like it on the Jewish Calendar – sitting outside in a sukkah you built yourself (which is pretty much the one and only thing I actually can and do build), with handmade decorations from your children, enjoying good food with friends and family in the night air, the citrusy smell of etrog lingering and mixing with verdant lulav – this is project-based Judaism at its finest.

But here is a complicated truth: Even though our Jewish day schools will be closed on Monday and Tuesday for Sukkot, it is reasonable to assume that a sizable number of our Jewish day school students will not be found in neither synagogue nor sukkot enjoying what is known as “The Season of our Rejoicing”.  But I’d wager that many, if not most, were in synagogue this week for Yom Kippur.

So when it comes to “atoning” we have a full house, but for “rejoicing” we have empty seats?

If our children – if we – only experience the Judaism of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and not the Judaism of Sukkot, the simple truth is that we are not exposing them to the full range of beauty and joy our tradition has to offer.

So why, in fact, is this what typically happens?

I’m not entirely sure, but I think it has to do with the exotic nature of the holiday.  As lulavsomeone who did not grow up celebrating this holiday, upon coming to synagogue as an adult and watching a congregation march in circles waving fruits and branches – well this was not the Judaism I knew!

No one likes to feel uncomfortable and adults especially are wary of feeling uneducated or unprepared.  I know how I felt encountering Jewish ritual for the first time as an adult – it was scary.  I, however, was lucky. I was pursuing a degree in Jewish education and, therefore, had all the support and resources I needed to learn and grow.  I realize that most adults coming at Jewish practice for the first time (or the first time in a while) are not so lucky.  The amount of “stuff” Judaism asks of us to do – building the sukkah with precise specifications, shaking the lulav and etrog in the proscribed way, chanting less-familiar prayers, coming to synagogue on unfamiliar days – can be overwhelming.

But that’s also why it can be project-based Jewish living at its finest!

Don’t lose the forest through the trees…I’d simply ask you to consider this: When building your child’s library of Jewish memories, which memory feels more compelling and likely to resonate over time – sitting in starched clothes in sanctuary seats or relaxing with friends and family in an outdoor sukkah built with love and care?

You don’t have to choose just one, of course, that is the beauty of crafting a project-based life of sacred time.   Come to synagogue for the High Holidays, to be sure.  But don’t miss out on Sukkot (or Simchat Torah or Shavuot or “Add Jewish Holiday Here”).  You can’t build a palace of time with only two beams (however “High” and “Holy” they may be)…

Let this Sukkot be your and your family’s experiment with project-based living.  Build a sukkah or visit one.  March with lulav and etrog.  Eat outside.  Experience the fragility of God’s world.  Be glad.  Make a memory.

Let this Sukkot truly be the season of our great rejoicing.

Chag sameach.

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Jon has recently begun his rabbinical school journey at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is thrilled to have joined the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) as a mentor for Cohort 12. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.