Learning about Sukkot in the wilderness

Sacred Environments: Teens Learn About Sukkot in the Wilderness.  By Nathaniel Eisen

You shall dwell in booths seven days; all citizens of Israel shall dwell in booths; so that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. –Leviticus 23:42-43

For many of us, building a sukkah is just a commemorative act. We may pick up our schach from a local Hillel or Chabad, rather than gathering it in the woods. We have a warm house to retreat into should the fall weather turn nasty. But when you are huddled beneath a millimeters-thick tarp during a hailstorm, you begin to appreciate how wonderful and frail shelter can be.

That is the motivating concept behind the Sukkot curriculum we developed for our Bogrim (literally “alumni,” our second oldest unit at camp, consisting of 14-15 year olds) here at Ramah Outdoor Adventure (ROA). While the chalutzim (campers) attend camp several months before Sukkot, the originator of the curriculum, Megan Goldman, saw the unique potential for making Sukkot relevant at camp. “The notion that we build temporary fragile shelters to protect us (or at least attempt to protect us) from the elements is perhaps one of the centerpieces of many masaot [our back-country excursions] – building sukkot allows us to connect this masa experience to our tradition,” Goldman said.

Goldman, a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School, drew her inspiration for this curriculum in large part from a course she took at The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in 2008. In that course, they studied several Jewish holidays by reading and interpreting the texts dealing with that holiday, beginning with the Tanakh and moving to modern texts. “I loved this approach and I was particularly moved by the study of Sukkot- it totally changed how I experienced the holiday in the years that followed,” Goldman said.

Goldman taught the curriculum she developed around sukkot at camp in 2011. In the summer of 2013, Sara Shulman, a third year rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, taught the curriculum, adapting and expanding portions of it.

The goal of the curriculum, which incorporates the sort of chronological text study Goldman sought to emulate with discussions about sacred space and the construction of sukkot, is to use the texts about Sukkot as a lens on how to read Jewish texts and to show campers how Jewish traditions can hold personal meaning for them. We do this by beginning with broad discussions of shelter and sacred space and then moving towards the specifics of building a sukkah.

In the first limmud (learning) session, campers discuss what makes a shelter, and what makes shelter important. Then they view a gallery of photographs taken from two works, Houses and Homes and Material World, displaying shelters around the world, and write a response. In the next session, they delve deeper into what makes a space sacred, create sacred space using miscellaneous objects (a rope, a map, etc.) and discuss the connection between creating external sacred spaces and creating internal ones.

In the third session, they break into small groups who study texts about sukkot coming from one of four periods: Torah, Talmudic, Medieval or Modern day. The Talmudic and medieval texts are mainly concerned with the nitty-gritty of what makes a sukkah valid. The modern texts range from Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Sukkot to Rabbi Ellen Lippmann’s prayer for the Occupy Sukkah.

After the second or third limmud session, the campers typically leave on their first masaot—five day backpacking, biking, rock-climbing, kayaking, or other outdoor adventures. On these masaot, many build debris shelters, and have the option to sleep in them. They discuss how it felt to shelter under these structures made of branches, twigs, leaves and moss, or under the lightweight tents and tarps they carry with them.

In the fourth limmud session, campers who studied texts from different time periods come together and teach each other about what they learned. Then, as a team, they come up with a blueprint for their sukkah, which they will have to build using only materials they find in the woods. Using the model of Bezalel, they discuss how every person can bring something to the project, and plan how group members can best use their individual talents. Finally there’s the actual building of sukkot, and presenting to the other groups.

While one could get lost in all the debates over the precise measurements and allowable materials for building a sukkah, the ROA staff aim to make the curriculum relevant to campers’ everyday lives. “They talk about other kinds of sacred space that you can create through relationships and community and also personal boundaries,” Shulman said.

Goldman believes that this sort of program will impact campers for many years. “I think one goal of Ramah should be to give our campers the tools and vocabulary to exist in a variety of Jewish communities, and that was one of the goals of this curriculum—exposure to various types of ideas and texts in an engaging, experiential and meaningful way,” she said.

Miriam G, 14, a 2013 camper said that the idea of diversity within a set of structures really resonated with her. “I learned that everyone has a different sense of what sacred space is. For me, it’s more about the people there than it is about where it is, or the environment,” she said. Thinking about how this was true in her own life, she reflected on visiting a minyan her grandmother had recently joined. While the energy of the 30-person community, and the cramped quarters, did not especially impress Miriam, she now reflected, “to [my grandmother], it’s perfect.”

Goldman said that she hoped that campers would share the lessons they learned with other people. “Ideally this [experience] won’t just impact them, but their families and communities as well,” Goldman said.

For at least one camper, Goldman’s wish has come true. Jonah M, a 2013 camper, said that after building a sukkah here at camp, he has resolved to build his family’s sukkah from scratch this Sukkot. “I think it’s going to be fun to build something, then step back and see what you built,” said Jonah.

Be it community or a temporary shelter, our chalutzim who have gone through this curriculum have learned about the joys of constructing something sacred, and have made the mitzvah of Sukkot their own.

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