Each year since 2017, Bat Yam Temple of the Islands has held a lovely service in the Sukkah outside the building we share with Sanibel Congregational UCC.
About a month ago, one of our officers asked me in a Zoom meeting. What are we doing for Sukkot? In truth I had no idea.
Then I began to think, what can we do to make Sukkot meaningful at a time when building a sukkah and huddling together under it are impossible?
After a few days an idea began to take shape. Since the death of George Floyd, Bat Yam Temple of the Islands has made a conscious effort to feel the pain of the African American community over issues of equality and racial justice. Sukkot is the festival that celebrates the harvest. Then it dawned on me what our harvest should be.
Over the summer our inspiring series of racial justice webinars featured informative and inspiring African American speakers. First was Rabbi Capers Funnye, of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of Chicago (who also happens to be a cousin of Michelle Obama) on the realities of Black Judaism. Gwynetta Gittens of the Fort Myers Board of Education spoke to us about racial justice and injustice in education. Our final speaker was Chantel Rhodes, a young activist, who has organized local protests against police brutality and racial injustice.
On the Eve of Sukkot, during our service at 7:00 PM this Friday evening, we will be blessed to hear an inspiring message from Rev. Dr. Alvan N. Johnson Jr., on the topic, “A Harvest of Justice.”
Dr. Johnson and I are friends from my days in Connecticut when he headed Bethel AME Church, and we regularly exchanged pulpits and engaged in other activities.
Back when most people were involved in agriculture, Sukkot was without question the most important festival of the Jewish year.
But relatively few of us are farmers today, and while we understand the significance of the Harvest in an abstract way, it does not inform our very being as it once did.
Finding new themes to connect to the harvest festival is not a new idea. In his best selling 1964 novel, The Rabbi, Noah Gordon wrote of a young boy, Michael, his assimilated Jewish mother, Dorothy and his religious grandfather:
“The bond between Michael and his zaydeh grew stronger during the early fall, when the days began to shorten and the autumn feast of Sukkos drew near. Each autumn Zaydeh built in their postage-stamp back yard a sukkah, or ceremonial hut.
‘Why do you bother,’ Dorothy asked him once when she brought a glass of tea to where he strained and perspired to raise the hut?
‘To celebrate the harvest.’ “What harvest, for God’s sake? We’re not farmers. You sell canned goods. Your son makes corsets for ladies with big behinds. Who has a harvest?’
He looked pityingly at this female his son had made his daughter. ‘For thousands of years, since the Jews emerged from the Wilderness, in ghettos and in palaces they have observed Sukkos. You don’t have to raise cabbages to have a harvest.’ His big hand grasped Michael behind the neck and pushed him toward his mother. ‘Here is your harvest.’ She didn’t understand, and by then Zaydeh had been living with them long enough not to expect understanding from her.”
No, Dorothy did not understand, but hopefully we do. Our children are our harvest! And I pray our actions will enable them to reap a world of equality and justice for all.