The Conspiracy

Reflecting on Sukkot as a Model For Pluralism

This year, I realized something new about the holiday of Sukkot. Sukkot challenges us to envision and construct a new kind of Jewish community, one that lies outside of our everyday institutions. We are commanded to dwell in a new reality, where we welcome in all those on the margins of our community, as well as our friends and neighbors, immediately following Yom Kippur. Sukkot is not merely to remind us of the fragility of our lives and what we have to be grateful for. It is to remind us to live a better more inclusive communal vision that goes beyond organized Jewish life, olam ha’ba.

“A sukkah could be a powerful model for a better Jewish community.” |[Public Domain], via Pixabay

A sukkah could be a powerful model for a better Jewish community. It’s a democratic space unbound by solid walls – or the social, political, or financial barriers that sometimes accompany Jewish communal life. A sukkah is a DIY-style construction, simple enough in design for most people to improvise their own. This allows for the creation of many different kinds of decentralized, communal gatherings held outside the limits that divide us: ticket costs for high holiday services, political redlines, or synagogue dues. A hastily created sukkah with a few people dividing up the shared labor provides people with the means to build collective, meaningful Jewish community without imposed limits, something that can feel out of reach.

On Sukkot, we are reminded of who lies on the outskirts of our communities, and we have the opportunity to  think about how we can bring them in.

At my synagogue, Kol Tzedek, we invited our Muslim and refugee neighbors into our sukkah to dine and celebrate with us. Sukkot provided us with an opportunity to break down the traditional walls of our religious community to really hear people’s stories and be in relationship with them across divides. Kol Tzedek in itself is a kind of sukkah, as it is a lay-led synagogue where a majority of the congregation identifies as queer or trans. It is a DIY community of sorts, a Jewish space created by and for queer and trans Jews.

Unfortunately, Queer and trans Jews tend to find themselves pushed to the margins. In pursuit of Jewish continuity, our communities often create an extreme focus on heterosexual couples, marriage, and reproduction, thus assuming heterosexuality and binary gender. So, I see echoes of Sukkot in the many pop-up queer and trans Jewish communities I’ve spent time in over the years

Our communities also often exclude groups who do not fit the narrative that has been culturally constructed about Israel. Organizations like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace find themselves on the outskirts of the Jewish mainstream and build community for themselves. While they center on political action, they have also become Jewish spiritual and political homes for those of us who would otherwise find ourselves wandering without a Jewish community of our own. We find ourselves in a kind of exodus from our communities of origin because of political redlines around Israel, because of what you can and can’t say. We create these spiritual, activist groups out of a desire to live freely and authentically as ourselves, without compromising our values or our convictions regarding Israel.

This year, both queer and non-Zionist students found themselves outside of a campus Jewish community. At Ohio State University, Hillel expelled its LGBTQ group, B’nai Keshet, after B’nai Keshet co-sponsored a drag show fundraiser for refugees in an event organized by JVP. B’nai Keshet was expelled for committing to their Jewish values and their queerness –  because partnering with JVP violated Hillel’s standards of partnership. B’nai Keshet is now left without the financial or pastoral support of Hillel, having to build a space of its own. Last week, Ohio State Hillel sponsored an event focusing on LGBTQ youth homelessness and Sukkot’s themes of temporary shelter, without involving B’nai Keshet at all. Sukkot should have been – and can be – a reminder that the walls of our institutions should be flexible, that the conversations we have about shelter must recognize who is left out and needs our shelter.

The phrase “in the tent” is often used to explain who is accepted –  and who isn’t – in our spaces. Sukkot compels us to ask ourselves how big we make our tent, and who will be left to build their own makeshift shelter outside of the mainstream community. Halachically, there is no restriction on the width of a sukkah, so that it can be large enough to include everybody in our communities. During Sukkot, we ask ourselves what makeshift shelter is, who dwells in it, and why.

Now that Sukkot is over, Jewish institutions, including Hillel, must think about who remains outside in metaphorical sukkahs all year round because of heteronormativity, political redlines, or other barriers. Sukkot is a powerful reminder of our religion’s commitment to pluralism. More than once a year, we should work to create a wide, open tent where we can all fit inside.

Emily Strauss is a senior at Pennsylvania State University. She is a frequent New Voices contributor and an occasional contributor to The Forward and Jewish Currents. She can be reached at els5343@gmail.com.

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