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In Defense of Sukkahfest

Rabbi David Teutsch once said two things about Judaism that stuck with me.  “Judaism is fundamentally counter-cultural and it is also fundamentally communitarian.”   There is no holiday where I find that to be more true than during sukkot.
If you haven’t been to Sukkahfest in the past 5 years at Isabella Freedman chances are you probably know someone who has.   Having just returned a few days ago as one of the organizers, I have heard two interesting bits of feedback about this popular annual retreat.  First, that it is prohibitively expensive.   Second, it is elitist and caters largely to Jewish professionals.  Both are valid critiques.   Sukkahfest is not cheap nor is it widely marketed towards a mass Jewish audience.   In most cases, you have to really want to be there to go.
What is Sukkahfest in a nutshell?   In short, it has become a festival for Jews who are committed to living out a full experience of the holiday in its different manifestations, especially as it relates to its ‘other’ names: Hag Ha’asif and Zman Simchateinu.  Sukkot customs urge us to remember and practice two crucial aspects of our lives not easily quantifiable.  The first being our vital connection to the land and that we depend on the fruits of the earth just as much today as we ever have.  But just as crucial is one of the more bizarre commandments.  As Pesach Stadlin said, “we’re commanded to sit in a shabby hut with our friends and be happy.” We are commanded to be happy.   Counter-culturally happy, one might say, since our joy is directly linked the simplicity and impermanence of the sukkah.    Essentially, we are commanded to be happy and be grateful.    That is, in large part, the purpose for the sukkah and the 4 species.  They are vehicles to help adjust our attitude toward the spirit of the holiday.
These are not simple mandates.  Happiness cannot be bestowed upon us.   True appreciation for things we take for granted cannot be ordered from a menu.  One must insert themselves in an environment conducive to waking us up to these states.   The tradition calls for all this to occur in a communitarian setting.   Joy and appreciation should be a group experience.
With that in mind, here are five examples of how I believe Sukkahfest succeeded in changing my mind-state to bring me closer to what I define as the true intention of the holiday.
1.   Singing and Praying:  Whether during prayer, before, during or after meals, there was an abundance of song outside, but especially under the sukkah.   Whether it was during Hallel, Havdallah, Birkat Hamazon, or someone teaching a 3-part round, the sound of dozens of Jews singing together was a constant.
2.  Being outside:   The Hoshanot section for one of the morning prayer options was done outdoors as an explicit affirmation of our dependence on the earth for sustenance.   Being in a parade of lulavim outdoors makes me wonder if the waving the lulav was ever meant to be an indoor activity.
3. Eating:  Virtually all the vegetables, cheeses and other ingredients used to make the food were grown and harvested by ADAMAH or local farms.
4. Immersing: Everyone was encouraged to eat their meals inside the sukkah and spend as much time there as possible.   There was almost never a moment when the sukkah was empty.
5. Dancing:  Spontaneous hassidic style circle dancing under the sukkah with over 100 people.  This took the communal Sukkahfest experience to a new level.  The simcha dancing in our sukkah paralleled the climax moments of a horah at traditional Jewish wedding.  I was left with this continuous feeling of simply not wanting to leave the sukkah for fear of missing the next great moment.
For those five reasons and many more, Sukkahfest worked.   While the above critique is valid, a counter critique could acknowledge how difficult it is to truly experience the holiday of sukkot in an urban setting without access to a real communal experience.   David Teutsch might be correct to assert that Judaism is fundamentally counter-cultural and communitarian, yet I fear the gap between theory and lived practice is a big one for many Jews today.   Sukkot, if we truly celebrate it, is the perfect holiday to begin to close that gap.
If retreats like Sukkahfest are financially prohibitive or overly elitist for much of today’s Jewish population, let us find alternative ways to celebrate sukkot.  May we renew our commitment to experiencing the radical communal joy this holiday can bring.

19 thoughts on “In Defense of Sukkahfest

  1. nice drash but a bit preachy for my tastes as someone who has experienced what you’re talking about in several different cities.
    and a question – what does ‘communitarian’ mean? is that the same a communal?

  2. Rebez, thanks for ‘defending’ Sukkahfest – we truly do need to advocate for this kind of immersive, values-driven, creative, pluralistic (AllStream), spiritually-and-communally enriching Jewish experience. It is neither inexpensive nor easy to throw a party like Sukkahfest – and critical questioning should be appropriately engaged by our community. As the program coordinator for Elat Chayyim programs at Isabella Freedman, I’d like to join the conversation.
    In the new feudalism that exists in the Jewish nonprofit world, without major funding from philanthropic foundations, the kind of work that Isabella Freedman does is not fiscally sustainable or easily accessed by everyone. Yet amazingly, Isabella Freedman still holds a very strong value that cost is not prohibitive. We offer everyone who asks up to 50% off our room and board costs, as well as hosting two cutting-edge leadership programs for young Jewish folks (Teva and Adamah) which provide opportunities to experience events like Sukkahfest while enriching our community in countless ways – that’s communitarianism, at least a little bit.
    I’m not sure that Sukkahfest is an elite gathering – unless by elite you mean the most creative, engaged, open, loving, conscientious folks around who are willing to spend what many folks would already spend on a weekend of meals and rent in NYC for the chance to join one of the most vibrant and diverse holiday events around. I’d love to develop more ways that our programs at Isabella Freedman are not prohibitive, let’s ask the right questions and work together on this – attack and defense is the paradigm of power – we need a shift to the paradigm of pilgrimage – or something like that.
    And in response to BZ, the answer is yes. We at Isabella Freedman do not police observance, but part of our values as an AllStream Jewish organization is to honor and ensure access for folks to engage their spiritual practices in a complete and harmonious way.
    Thanks again, Rebez – to be continued b’ezrat hashem…

  3. Adam Segulah writes:
    I’m not sure that Sukkahfest is an elite gathering – unless by elite you mean the most creative, engaged, open, loving, conscientious folks around who are willing to spend what many folks would already spend on a weekend of meals and rent in NYC for the chance to join one of the most vibrant and diverse holiday events around.
    I’m a little confused at what you mean — is the expectation that people who are paying rent in NYC would sublet their apartments out for the weekend and use the proceeds to pay for Sukkahfest?
    (BTW, it’s good to “meet” you — your name always comes up when I search for the Segulah page on Facebook.)

  4. BZ – that’s an interesting idea, although not exactly what I had in mind.
    The point I was trying to make is that although Sukkahfest is relatively expensive, when one considers the 3-5 nights of lodging, the 3+ per day glatt kosher farm-to-table organic gourmet all you wish to eat meals, the chance to daven and learn with an diverse and brilliant community – the pricing structure is a more than fair deal – designed to encourage access, not prohibit access.
    With a strong commitment to financial aid options, multiple entry points, and a program this past summer that charged $60 per night including meals to join us at IF – Isabella Freedman is making a good faith effort in very challenging times to increase access to our programs and community. Our fees never actually cover our costs anyway, so we depend on the financial and moral support of folks who know that our mission is worthwhile to ensure that we continue to provide experiences like Sukkahfest to more and more people.

  5. I am someone who has never attended Sukkahfest because it is prohibitively expensive — even with the discounted room/board and an additional discount that would have been provided by a Jewish community I’m a part of. I appreciate the cost that is required to house and feed attendees, but the fact that even the camping option was too expensive for me (there is no cook-your-own-meals option) is frustrating.
    I agree that it can be challenging to celebrate sukkot in an intense way in an urban setting, and would love to attend Sukkahfest at some point. The cost, however, makes that impossible. The argument above just doesn’t work for me — not all of us spend upward of $400 on weekly “rent and meals” (at that rate, I would be spending almost my entire salary on “rent and meals”) nor do we all live in NYC — spending that amount of money for a four day program is simply not an option for me.
    I would encourage Sukkahfest, and Isabella Freedman, to adopt some of the practices I’ve seen in other communities to make these types of events affordable: volunteer or work-study opportunities that are well-publicized (so that not only insiders/elites can access them) and more DIY options (like camping and bring-your-own meals) that reduce costs for both the retreat center and the participants. Radical community that costs $100 a day feels to me like a contradiction in terms.

    1. DM writes:
      The argument above just doesn’t work for me — not all of us spend upward of $400 on weekly “rent and meals” (at that rate, I would be spending almost my entire salary on “rent and meals”) nor do we all live in NYC — spending that amount of money for a four day program is simply not an option for me.
      Right, so my point was that “you’d have to pay for food anyway” has some validity (qualitatively if not quantitatively), but “you’d have to pay rent anyway” does not, since people who go to Sukkahfest are still paying rent in addition to paying for Sukkahfest. In this regard, people with higher rent are worse off, not better off.

  6. I don’t understand why one has to leave one’s home – and work(!) – to celebrate a holiday which is simply (though not neccesarily conveniently) celebrated in an urban setting. You don’t need to live on a farm to celebrate sukkot. If you say you do, you actually mean that without agriculture Judaism has no meaning.

  7. no one’s saying you NEED to be on a farm (and Is. Freed. is WAY more than a “farm”) but being in nature certainly heightens the experience of this particular holiday which was clearly INTENDED (at least originally) to be celebrated in a non-urban setting.

  8. RebEz; so much love and appreciation, I was struck by your mentioning two criticisms of Succahfest without defending it from those criticisms. It’s not really a defense to describe the obvious virtues of a thing without effectively dismissing the criticisms.
    To wit: what’s the good of a fun Jewish thing that cannot become a model for normative Jewish practice? Unless we’re defining Judaism as something from-now-on upwardly mobile and financially secure enough to afford expensive retreats, far away from their urban or suburban frameworks.
    There’s a lot of great, awesome, super-fun retreat judaism going on. Why defend any of it in public as being especially “relevant” if it HAS to be expensive, and inherently geared towards an elite of somewhat decadent pilgrims? Is that really a viable (or sustainable) model for our burgeoning range of cross-denominational communities? Just like Private Day Schools?
    Or, is the hope to give over a framework to the attendees that they can share back with whatever communities they are coming from– kind of like a birthright trip to Israel, but even closer, and, ultimately less expensive. Is that what these kind of retreat holidays can be? Like Yoga-training seminars?
    “A counter critique could acknowledge how difficult it is to truly experience the holiday of sukkot in an urban setting without access to a real communal experience.”
    What prevents access to real communal experience in Urban Settings? Can you imagine a week long open door at a JCC alternative, closer to where We live? Or just a more effective network for sharing where the good Succah parties are already happening?

  9. Justin,
    It was only intended to be celebrated that way because Jews lived an agrarian lifestyle. Moreover the confluence of the harvest festival and the historical reason of remembering the Israelites wandering in the dessert is a late phenomenon in the history of the holiday. I imagine that the necessity to dwell in your sukkah while harvesting was because one needed to be close to the field while harvesting not to develop some closeness with nature.
    Now, there is a connection between harvest festivals and a celebration/closeness with the land. But I would view that as part and parcel of the activity of the festival and not an intention invented or mapped on to the festival.

  10. the origin of the hut is that it was where you’d take your wife to have sex as part of the phallic symbolism of inseminating your fields. You spill your seed on the ground, and the gods spill their seed on the ground. wave your phallic wand (lulav) around with the womb fruit (etrog) and then wave your phallus around.

  11. CoA- a ‘source,’ not so much, just what I learned in my college studies on ancient Near Eastern customs and cultic practices in Mesopotamia and the Eastern Mediterranean. Our whole system of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot is seemingly based in a Babylonian Temple ritual involving moon celebration, priestly rituals and a water libation ritual involving LOTS of date beer being drunk by the masses. The whole festival process took around 15 days. It was used by them to fix their calendar which was missing 14-15 days. I wish I still had my notebooks from college, then I could give more detailed info. Alas, I do not.

  12. Justin, very interesting. Not altogether outside the point of the matter that Sukkahfest is also a convergence in which folks find their basheret and go on to be fruitful in their lives together…

  13. it’s an interesting and thoughtful quote, and your elaboration quite builds on it…counter-culturalism and judaism have often gone hand in hand…but not merely reactive counter-culturalism, rather the purposeful kind…idealistic…transcendent, and somehow sukkot, while rooted in earth-based activity and focus, still manages to do all that. kudos on your article and thanks.

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