The Jewish holiday Sukkot takes to the road

September 25, 1994|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

Passers-by stopped to stare at the Ford pickup truck pulling into the parking lot of the Oakland Mills Meeting House in Columbia early Friday morning.

Within minutes, several bearded young men pulled out a five-step staircase that would give visitors a better look at the tiny wooden hut sitting in the back.

At that moment, the wobbly, 8-by-4-foot structure gained the distinction of being Howard County's first and only sukkah mobile.

Observant Jews erect sukkahs in observance of the holiday of Sukkot, also called the Feast of Tabernacles. The seven-day holiday began Monday at sundown.

The Torah commands Jews to build a temporary dwelling where all meals are eaten and guests are greeted.

Rabbi Hillel Baron of Columbia's Orthodox Congregation Ahavas Israel and five yeshiva students, two Israelis living in Columbia and three from New York, devoted the day to taking the sukkah to those who otherwise might not have the opportunity to see or step inside one -- preschool students, nursing home residents and professionals at a busy law practice.

"The idea is to make it accessible to people who otherwise wouldn't have it, to share the joy of the holiday and have a sukkah," said Rabbi Baron, who is also director of the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education in Howard County.

The sukkah reminds Jews of the way God "protected us when we left Egypt and were in the desert for 40 years."

Variations of the sukkah mobile have appeared around the world, including New York, Israel and Australia.

"It's been around at least 30 years, when the first Lubavitch outreach programs began on campuses, to reach out to other Jews to make their heritage accessible," Rabbi Baron said.

The sukkah traveled Friday to all three Columbia locations of Bet Yeladim, a 20-year-old community preschool and day care center that offers a Jewish curriculum with no particular affiliation.

In the afternoon, the sukkah was taken outside a law office in downtown Washington and to the Harmony Hall Retirement Center and Lorien Nursing Home in Columbia.

"The Lubavitch group is strongly interested in all Jewish groups," said Robin Adelman, the associate director of Bet Yeladim's day care program.

"Rabbi Baron asked us if we were interested, and we said sure. We're always interested in something Jewish brought to us. Unless the children have a sukkah at home or attend a synagogue, they have not seen one."

Residents of Lorien Nursing Home eagerly anticipated the sukkah's arrival.

"Rabbi Baron is our designated rabbi," said Karen Strawderman, Lorien's recreation coordinator. "He comes out for all the Jewish holidays to celebrate with our Jewish residents.

"They were all excited to see it. Probably many of them haven't seen it, unless they had it in their own home. Now they had it coming to ours."

Care must be taken with the details of constructing a sukkah, even one in the back of a pickup. The roof must be made of natural, raw material and left partly open so that the stars can be seen.

"It's not a real roof," Rabbi Baron said. "The idea is that it should be raw materials, not finished lumber. The branches are whatever type of vegetation as it grows.

"It's open to the elements. It symbolizes our trust" in God's protection.

The sukkah walls may be constructed of cloth, such as canvas, or wood.

The walls need to be able to withstand a wind, Rabbi Baron said, "but, overall, it's a temporary structure, not a year-round dwelling."

"Also, Sukkot is the Jewish equivalent of Thanksgiving, the festival of ingathering in Israel, when crops are brought in" and God is thanked for the harvest.

In recognition of the harvest, Jews also make a blessing over and shake a lulav, or palm branch, and etrog, or citron.

"The lulav and etrog represent unity among all kinds of Jews: the righteous, the learned, the unlearned," Rabbi Baron explained.

The lulav and etrog are held together as one and shaken in four directions to represent God's watchful eye, he said, "how he looks over the four corners of earth."

"Also, we take rare and precious and unique species of growth, the lulav and etrog, and we bless God and praise God for the beautiful creations."

The clergyman and his companions carefully set a lace-covered table within the sukkah with two silver candlesticks, a silver wine cup, tin charity box and loaves of round challah bread.

They also adjusted the greenery on the roof and tinsel decorations on the walls before 90 preschool students stepped outside the Meeting House.

In the chilly morning air, Rabbi Baron briefly explained what he was doing with a sukkah on a truck.

"You heard of the Batmobile. This is the sukkah mobile," he said.

After the rabbi led the children in reciting the prayer over the lulav and etrog, two of his assistants placed the branch and yellow fruit in the children's hands so that each could gently shake them.

The other yeshiva students helped the toddlers ascend the staircase onto the truck for a quick look at the walls, roof and table.

Joshua Greilich of Columbia stepped out grinning. "My mom and dad never built me a sukkah," the 5-year-old said.

As the last child stepped out, Rabbi Baron and company loaded the steps onto the truck, planning to return next year with the temporary structure that they hope will become a permanent fixture in Howard County.

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