Next week, Jews across the world will celebrate Sukkot, a week-long holiday that commemorates the miraculous protection G-d provided for the children of Israel when they left Egypt. Observing this major festival on the Jewish calendar involves dwelling in the foliage-topped booths from which the holiday gets its name: We eat meals in the sukkah, learn in the sukkah, and wave the arba minim (four species) that symbolize a coming-together of Jews of all types and stripes.
Celebrating Sukkot in Washington, D.C., however, can be extremely challenging. Many buildings either do not have space or do not allow the construction of sukkahs for both aesthetic and safety reasons, and DC residents (especially those without a car) may not be able to easily obtain the materials used to construct a sukkah.
Aware of the hardships involved in celebrating Sukkot, many Jewish institutions in DC construct communal sukkahs that are available for use with a reservation. Many DC residents have to hold their holiday meals in communal sukkahs in order to fulfill the mitzvah of “dwelling” in a sukkah. There are also a number of sukkahs built by groups of people who collectively contribute to both the costs of building a sukkah as well as the construction and decorating labor, and then schedule meals to allow as many people access to the sukkah as possible. Having lived in DC for a decade, I have assisted in the construction and decoration of many such sukkahs myself.
Some congregations, like DC Minyan, even host “sukkah hops,” which enable community members with sukkahs to open up their homes to small groups of guests who would otherwise not be able to fulfill the mitzvot of “dwelling” in a sukkah. Other synagogues, like Kesher Israel, have a communal sukkah. Kesher also has a hospitality committee to set people up with hosts who have sukkah space to share.
Kesher Israel President and Community Leader Elanit Rothschild Jakabovics agreed that Sukkot can be a hard Jewish holiday to celebrate in the city. “Having a communal sukkah is imperative, and Kesher Israel takes pride in the fact that we have the ability to build a sukkah and open it up to anyone who needs it,” she said. Kesher’s sukkah is open to all, day and night, and can be accessed through the courtyard. All they ask is that people who use it clean up after themselves.
Jakabovics also noted that in addition to accommodating DC residents in need of a sukkah, Sukkot is also a time when the Washington, D.C., community traditionally gets many visitors from New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere, and these guests rely on communal sukkahs (like Kesher Israel’s) in order to fulfill the many mitzvot of the holiday.
“Sukkot is the time that epitomizes the DC Jewish community and Kesher’s commitment to the value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) and being a place where all are welcome,” she said. It can be logistically complicated sometimes, but just like the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), they find a way to make it work and make everyone fit.
Other Jewish institutions, like Moishe House — which has locations throughout the DC area, including in Columbia Heights, Capitol Hill, Arlington, and Bethesda — construct sukkahs and host parties for DC young professionals. According to Moishe House Columbia Heights resident Alyssa Silva, the parties allow unaffiliated young professionals an opportunity to fulfill the mitzvot of Sukkot in a light and fun environment.
Other groups (like the one I run, Sephardic Jews in DC) host small parties in communal sukkahs for young professionals to come together and enjoy the holiday together.
American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in Washington, D.C., also hosts gatherings for Sukkot and builds sukkahs on campus, for both DC residents and college students to use for meals and other special events. They even have “portable sukkahs,” which are on the bed of pickup truck, allowing residents to fulfill the mitzvot of Sukkot no matter where they are.
Some workplaces even get in on the act. The Pentagon, for example, hosts a yearly Sukkot celebration in which a sukkah is constructed in the Pentagon Courtyard and is open to all Pentagon employees to attend and fulfill the mitzvot of Sukkot.
In addition to providing sukkah space, there are many Jewish institutions that sell the arba minim at a subsidized rate to DC residents. Without this service, many community members would have no ability to complete this mitzvah.
Celebrating Sukkot in an urban environment may come with challenges, but it brings together the community in many ways, ultimately makes us stronger.
By Jackie Feldman
Jackie Feldman is a young professional living and working in Washington, D.C. She runs the group Sephardic Jews in DC and has her own food blog https://healthysephardiccooking.wordpress.com/.