Joanne Greenaway
Joanne Greenaway
Chief Executive of London School of Jewish Studies(LSJS)

Sukkot – the perfect antidote to social isolation and the messages of Pew

Sukkot celebrations, balconies in Hasidic section of Brooklyn, New York City

After the long months of the Covid pandemic, I am not alone in having enjoyed a slightly less frantic schedule.  Previously, for many observant Jews, entertaining guests with large shabbat and yom tov meals added pressure to busy working lives.  Many, in the interests of self-care, have concluded that they intend to return to a more low-key version of hospitality or forgo it altogether in favour or quality family time.

Alongside this, earlier this summer, the Pew Research Center in Washington DC released its latest report following a wide-ranging national survey of American Jews, including some statistics that give pause for thought.  Much of the focus of similar previous research was on intermarriage which famously tipped over 50% in 1990.  As Jon Boyd of the UK’s Jewish Policy Research points out, “the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) prompted a huge re-think of Jewish priorities both in the US and UK, resulting in a dramatic increase in funding for Jewish educational initiatives to try to engage and inspire the young generation”.  He explains that ten years later, despite the fact that intermarriage (in the US) has now increased from 52% in 1990 to 61% today (albeit much lower in the UK – 26% in 2016), people are less keen to discuss it and many American scholars argue that the emphasis on preventing intermarriage is misplaced.

Whilst this is an important discussion, I think it elides something else that should concern us greatly – the proportion of people who find meaning in their Jewish religion.  According to the latest study, “Religious faith is by far the least common source of meaning of all the options presented by the survey; just one-in-five U.S. Jews say they get a great deal of meaning and fulfilment from their religion.” (PEW, 68).

This finding, which would no doubt be replicated to a large extent in the UK and elsewhere, raises critical questions.  How should this determine our priorities for Jewish education?  What can be done to address this and provide that sense of meaning across our educational establishments, communities and homes? These are complex questions that are incumbent, particularly upon those of us delivering Jewish education, to address.  There is, however, one immediate opportunity that can provide us with some perspective: Succot.

Succot gives us the framework and commands us to invite others in.  Known as zman simchateinu, it is the only festival in the Torah in which rejoicing is explicitly commanded and that involves inclusiveness.  Devarim 16:11 says “You shall rejoice before the Lord, you, your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, the widow in your community,” teaching us that hospitality is a key aspect of the festival.  Reinforcing this message, we also have the kabbala based minhag of the ushpizin, to metaphorically welcome the avot into the succah each night.

The Rambam’s advice here is both blunt and pertinent– eating and drinking without hospitality is not a religious celebration: “While eating and drinking, one must feed the stranger….. anyone, however, who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks along with his wife and children, without giving anything to eat and drink to the poor and the desperate, does not observe a religious celebration but indulges in the celebration of his stomach.” (Mishneh Torah, Halacha Shevitat Yom Tov, 6)

Whilst Corona has, for many, changed the way we think about hospitality, it should not detract us from its essence and what it can achieve in terms of creating some of the most important points of meaningful engagement for others.

According to Pew, 77% attest to participating in Jewish cultural activities, including Jewish food.  One cannot underestimate the value of food and the sharing of quality mealtimes together to provide meaningful Jewish experiences.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with their solemnity and long prayer services are not best designed for the less regular shulgoer. We know that many have stayed away this year and may not return. Only 12% of Jewish Americans now say they attend religious services weekly or more often, versus 27% of the general public. (PEW, 22.)   Providing meaning that is lacking to so many will involve honest soul-searching, creativity and innovation rather than relying on business as usual.  And the responses may not be primarily shul related. Personal experiences may prove more powerful. I remember fondly many positive Jewish experiences, including a year spent in Chile far from home where I was warmly welcomed into many a home and a succah with good food and words of Torah.

As we gradually reopen our homes, where safe to do so, let us prioritise the inclusion of others and focus on Succot as a pathway to positive, joyful points of Jewish engagement.  And good ventilation is a bonus!

About the Author
Jo leads LSJS, a world-class centre of Jewish learning and teaching, delivering innovative education programmes and training and developing teachers for the Jewish community. Jo has a languages degree from Cambridge University and had a legal career in international arbitration. She has worked with communities and schools across Europe and teaches and lectures widely in the community.
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