Leviticus 23:34 commands, “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, there shall be the Feast of Booths to God” The Feast of Booths (Chag haSukkot) follows Yom Kippur each year, ushering the autumn harvest and instilling in the Jewish people gratitude and humility. Traditionally, communities convene to build a sukkah, a loose structure open enough to see the stars and full moon in which the community shares meals and dwells for seven days. This experience represents a spiritual connection to our ancestors who built temporary shelters in the wilderness, and at the festival’s end, we return to our homes more aware of the privilege of permanent shelter that we enjoy. However, as we feast in our pretend, dilapidated huts, we fail to meet this holiday’s calling in our modern era. At a time when immense housing disparities exist, Sukkot extends beyond appreciation and humility; it must teach us to empathize, connect, and act with our neighbors and fellow citizens.
The new Sukkot experience recognizes the limits of Jewish privilege. Jews, on the whole, have been granted access to opportunities to create wealth in the US. Prior to the 1950’s, restrictive housing deeds and redlining of cities and suburbs limited where Jewish American families settled, the extent of home ownership, and the quality of Jewish homes. In two generations, though, much of the Jewish population migrated from crowded, economically diverse urban centers to beacons of privilege. This disconnect undermines Jewish compassion around the modern day sukkah. In Washington, DC, those who live in Bethesda, Rockville, or northwest DC may understand the city’s issues regarding affordable housing, but until we go beyond our traditional neighborhoods, we perpetuate an “us-them” paradigm, unable to comprehend how the quality of home environments impacts our daily lives.
Two summers ago, I organized with tenants at Brookland Manor, a Section 8 housing complex in northeast DC. On its face, Brookland Manor appears in disrepair, and developers would lead one to believe that crime and drugs permeate every segment of this community. Until I broke bread with one of the tenants in her apartment, I did not understand the full scope of the living experience at the site. With her grandson by her side, she described the process of displacement and astounding resiliency of her and her neighbors. Amidst false eviction notices, disproportionate security enforcement, and negligent property management, the landlords of this site were attempting in any way they could to prompt tenants to cede their rights to remain in a building as long as they pay rent and abide by a lease. Once all the tenants move, the property can easily be converted into more profitable real estate. On the contrary, this woman described the property’s value in terms of the communal support among neighbors who raised families aside one another. I shared life with this woman; we were no longer “us-them”, just us. Touting the importance of intersectional dialogue is important, but this holiday calls upon us to seize the new year into our hands, leaping toward action.
Like most anyone, I enjoy meals under the stars and amidst the autumn breeze during Sukkot. My experience at Brookland Manor, though, taught me that to genuinely establish humility, appreciation, and empathy around the abundance of our harvest, we must connect to our neighbors with fewer resources and less power. The holiday teaches us about the fragility of our privileges; this year’s harvest, we have enough food and shelter, but in years past, we overcame obstacles to survive. Now, with our collective social and economic power, we must construct a sukkah between our hearts.
The sukkah of the heart is much like the sukkah in the synagogue courtyard. It is delicate, but through a process of self-education, listening, relationship building, and cultural awareness, we establish a stable foundation. It requires more than one person to build; we cannot fulfill this holiday’s modern calling without leaving our zones of comfort, joining an organization that works on these issues and building power that crosses lines of neighborhood and class. In order to make the sukkah of hearts withstanding to rain and wind, we must understand how each part intersects, for as we understand the fragility of someone else’s housing situation, we develop a broader sense of how this ties to the amalgamation of race, class, policing, and access to education, wealth, and childcare. Yet, the sukkah between hearts, when adequately established, allows us to peer at bright stars among the night - blossoming friendships, fruitful alliances, or the shining bursts of hope.