MAIN STORYSeptember 2020

How To Fulfill The Mitzvah Of Sukkot While Fighting Anti-Semitism

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By Eliana Rudee, jns.org

Inviting two neighbors of different faiths into one’s socially distanced sukkah this year, says 2 for Seder founder Marnie Fienberg, can help address the isolation felt during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the rising tide of anti-Semitism.

Fienberg, the daughter-in-law of Tree of Life victim Joyce Fienberg, started the 2 for Seder initiative as a part of the nonprofit Pittsburgh Interfaith Evolution (PIE), in the wake of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue shooting to empower Jews to combat anti-Semitism in their own communities by inviting those of a different faith to share their Passover seder.

This coming Sukkot, she is calling upon North American Jews to open their sukkahs in a “COVID-safe” way and share this Jewish experience with two neighbors of different faiths—a way to “rethink the High Holidays for our current world.”

According to Fienberg, inviting guests continues the thousands-year-old Jewish mitzvah of ushpizin (welcoming guests into one’s home), and helping Jews find relevance and spirituality during the High Holidays. “Abraham and the prophet Zechariah set examples that hospitality with others makes the world a better place. Many believe that according to the biblical prophet Zechariah, during the messianic era Sukkot will become a universal festival. All nations will make annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast,” she says.

The tradition that was “inspired by our ancestors” also provides a safe way to connect to others when many have been socially isolated, she says.

“Sukkot is home-based and outside. If you stay socially distanced or virtual, this is exactly the safe protocol that we have been following for months to prevent transmission of the virus,” she notes, following CDC recommendations.

“If you already have a sukkah, are thinking of getting one or plan to get in the spirit of Sukkot on your porch, this is the time for beginning a new family tradition,” says Fienberg. “The sukkah doesn’t have to be perfect this year. Find a space to create a temporary structure so you can see the stars and feel the air, reminding us how fragile the structures we build in our lives are compared to the power of nature.”

For those who are not yet ready to host guests, Fienberg has also designed guidelines for a virtual celebration. It can include a traditional “Four Species” ceremony — incorporating the etrog (citron), lulav (date palm frond), hadass (myrtle bough) and aravah (willow branch) — with a synagogue or other Jewish group, showing off sukkah spaces and playing games with grandparents who may be isolated from their families.

Also accessible online is a guide to planning one’s own holiday family traditions, including basic educational materials from both Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions, a SukkahSAFE fact sheet and a webinar that help identify commonalities between religions and cultures.

Inviting two guests of different faiths not only fulfills the mitzvah in a safe way, claims Fienberg, but helps to fight anti-Semitism at its core.

“Sukkot is home-based and outside. If you stay socially distanced or virtual, this is the safe protocol we have been following to prevent transmission of the virus.”

“Jews are being blamed for COVID and cruel tropes burn across the Internet daily,” she relates. “As we have been pulled apart during COVID, hatred and anti-Semitism has focused on the old trope that Jews cause all plagues. This has given people who are frustrated with our health restrictions a potential outlet for their anger. … We can’t give up fighting anti-Semitism because of COVID-19. At the same time, we also have to be realistic and extremely safe in how we approach our model of sharing a Jewish experience with neighbors of different faiths to build bridges.”

Fienberg says that sharing a meal with a friend or neighbor of another faith gives others a firsthand experience of Judaism, “cutting through the noise of anti-Semitic tropes and news while fostering open communication and conversation. Many people who hate Jews or just feel ambivalent toward us have never really known a Jewish person.”

While she acknowledges that “you can’t fix the whole world,” inroads can be made between people, especially when it’s someone familiar. “Our home-based Jewish holidays lend themselves to this goal,” adds Fienberg, who also expressed gratitude in 2 for Seder: in the sukkah’s partners, which include the JCC Association, Women of Reform Judaism, Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, and Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.

“Sukkot gives us the power to change and repair our corner of the world,” emphasizes Fienberg, “our best hope for true peace.”

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