Keeping the Faith

Ask students across campus what a sukkah is and odds are you will receive many perplexed looks. But ask members of the Jewish Students Association (JSA) and they can provide the meaningful story behind it.

Sukkot, or booths, is known as the “Festival of Booths.” It is one of the most important Jewish holidays and occurs directly after Yom Kippur, a day of atonement. Sukkot is considered a joyous holiday commemorating the 40-year period the Israelites experienced during their pilgrimage from Egypt to Jerusalem. In order to survive the treacherous conditions in the desert, they would live in a sukkah. A sukkah is a temporary six sided booth that has plastic walls and a roof made out of organic material that has been “harvested,” usually branches from trees, mats of sliced bamboo or reed, or bamboo poles.

The sukkah located on the Great Lawn near the St. Thomas Moore church has drawn many curious spectators who wonder about its purpose.

“We want to make it aware that we are on campus and want to apply to all fascets of the St. John’s community,” JSA president Mark Kandhorov said. “Just like other organizations, we want to leave our mark as well.”

To celebrate the blessing of the sukkah, the JSA had a Rabbi assist them. Rabbi Akiva Ruthenberg described the special meaning behind the purpose of the sukkah.

“When the Jews left Egypt and had to survive in the desert, they built sukkot for shelter and believed that they were protected by God from danger, famine, lack of water and lack of shelter,” he explained.

Traditionally, Jews have to reenact the way their ancestors lived by dining, sleeping and praying in the sukkah for seven days.
The sukkah may be a temporary home, but the most significant feature is its roof.

“The roof is temporary because we believe that our true protection came from God, and it has to be made in a way that allows us to be able to look up and see the stars at night,” Ruthenberg said. He also commented on how people tend to turn to God in times of need, but the meaning of the holiday is to emphasize God’s importance in all circumstances.

“Sukkot reminds us that we should acknowledge [God] during positive and negative times and give thanks for all new opportunities he has made possible,” he said.

An important symbol of the holiday is a long palm-like branch called the lulav. Attached to the lulav are three other symbolic items, known as the etrog, the myrtle and the willow branch.The most important parts are the lulav and the etrog, which is known as the “fruit that is beautiful” and is similar to a lemon.

The Sukkot blessing first requires each person in the sukkah to shake the lulav by aiming it up to the sky, which represents the seventh dimension, and then in a clockwise motion. The direction the lulav is shaken symbolizes that God is all around and is a representation of God and man as one.

The sukkah last year was not given much exposure, but the JSA hopes to transform their organization and publicize it more around campus.

“College is the last place of true fundamentalization, because this is where you encounter the last boundary between your idealistic and realistic ideas,” Kandhorov said. “That’s why my target audience are my peers, who I hope will face tomorrow with pride, dignity and respect for other cultures.”

The JSA has acted on their goal to appeal to others on campus by incorporating events with other organizations such as the Muslim Students Association into their activities.

“We think it is important to promote a mutual idea of tolerance, understanding and support of one another,” Kandhorov said.
Although the sukkah may be a temporary staple on campus, he is thrilled that it has received positive feedback from the St. John’s community.

“Professors and students have approached us and share our enthusiasm and support of the sukkah on campus,” he said, “so this tells us that we must be doing something right.”