I am profoundly grateful that my beloved colleague and friend Rabbi Sarah, invited me to spend time with you tonight, people of Temple Beth Hillel, on this feast night of Sukkot.
My best friend growing up was Kitty Lichtman. Our friendship was perhaps an unlikely pairing: she was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Hungary whose paternal family members had been murdered in Auschwitz. I was the daughter of a Christian immigrant and refugee from Germany. Although I would now and again attend Friday night services with her family at her Reform temple, or pick her up for a sleepover from Hebrew class as she prepared for her Bat Mitvah, I didn’t know of the celebration of Sukkot until much later in my life.
I was living in Canada then, a professor of literature at Queen’s University, but living in that beautiful, vibrant, delicious city of Montreal. Many Montreal neighborhoods have the same architectural character: row houses of flats, brick buildings of three stories, one apartment on each level, and each apartment with a good-sized balcony on the front of the building, overlooking the street. I was walking home from the grocery store one fall afternoon when I first noticed the precariously perched bamboo screens and branches and thatch woven into roofs added to the second-story balcony of neighboring building. Had the children of the family built a fort? Were they imagining some Robinson Crusoe type adventure during which they needed to build some temporary protection? As I continued walking I realized it wasn’t just one balcony that had been built out into huts, but nearly all of them on the block—save in my building. And then it dawned on me. This must be some religious practice known not to me but to most of our neighbors. For it happened at that time I was living in Outremont, an area of north central Montreal, which is home to the largest Hassidic population in North America outside of Brooklyn. I was accustomed to seeing the families Friday night and Saturday walking to temple or schul, and in the park on Saturday afternoons, enjoying the sabbath. Now I was learning something new: Sukkot. Or rather: I finally made the connection between the building of Sukkahs and the celebration of Sukkot and the Feast of Booths I had read about Scriptures. In Leviticus of course, but also in the Christian Gospel of John which refers to the Feast of Booths, a harvest festival but also the remembrance, if I recall correctly, of how God led the people Israel out of Egypt providing temporary protection and nourishment on the 40-year-long journey through the Wilderness.
There are several aspects of Sukkot that resonate deeply with me. First and foremost, that Sukkot reminds us that life is a journey, at times an arduous one, a precarious one, a fragile one. Often—as it was for Israel in the wilderness—an unknown journey on which we aren’t lost, but we are just not quite certain of where we are or where we will end up. I take comfort in the emblem of the Sukkah tonight—this temporary shelter that housed God’s people even in the midst of fear and trembling and uneven ground in the wilderness, so much wilderness uncertainty. Even in such times of wilderness God provides. I believe tonight in our nation, as we continue to struggle with the Coronavirus pandemic, its presence now penetrating even into the White House and the body of the president and other political leaders. I believe that tonight in our nation when we continue to experience such dis-ease and even outright fear in the face of political conflict. I believe that tonight in our nation as we continue to wander the thicket of racial inequality, struggling to get free of the thorns of racism that continue to prick and bleed our body politic. I believe that tonight we need the emblem of the Sukkah in the wilderness. We need that temporary shelter created by God’s commitment and steadfast love for God’s people that is everlasting (Psalm 118). We need that temporary shelter tonight to climb into for a moment and rest. To regain our strength, to regain our resolve, to regain our hope and trust in that just and wholesome destination that God is liberating us and leading us into. Tonight, different from other Sukkots perhaps, it feels like God’s shelter, however impermanent, however fragile, is what we need and might even be just enough for the moment. Let us enter spiritually, at least, into that space of divine protection and wholeness and abundance tonight, and give thanks.
If I asked you: what is the gravest challenge our community faces? You would probably answer: homelessness and the lack of sufficient affordable housing. This is why we founded NoHo Home Alliance, a community organization that mobilizes people like you to address homelessness with services and advocacy. Homelessness is akin to that wilderness the people Israel experienced in the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. At NoHo Home Alliance we seek to offer respite and help for the journey.
Rachel is a woman, perhaps 40 now. She grew up in the east San Fernando Valley. She attended East Valley High School. She had her first boyfriend in the East Valley. She found getting high and losing her way in drugs in the East Valley. Got and lost her first job in the East Valley. Got and lost her first apartment and second apartment and maybe third in the East Valley. When Rachel was evicted, she moved onto a friends couch. When the friend got tired of the couch being occupied, she moved to a rug spread out on the cement floor of another friend’s garage. When the neighbors in that condo building complained, she moved into her car. When the car broke down and was towed, she moved onto the sidewalks. If you ask her, Rachel can tell you something about the impermanence of shelter, the fragility of protection and place. She can tell you about the tremendous dangers and traumas that beset women living on the street. If you saw her walking down the street, you wouldn’t necessarily pick her out as: there’s that homeless woman again. She looks mostly like most of the young people in North Hollywood. And she is kind, and a good conversationalist.
She comes every couple of weeks to the pop-up drop-in access center for people experiencing homelessness that my organization, NoHo Home Alliance, runs on the campus of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church—just down the street from you. Rachel comes and asks for help basic things. Food, a new shirt, tampons. A couple of weeks ago she asked for more. She was disheartened. Because while she was away from her sleeping spot near the park, someone came and stole many of her belongings. But most significantly, someone stole her shelter, her tent, her old tent cobbled together from tent parts. Now she had no shelter. She was afraid. Of being attacked at night. Of being robbed. Of catching Covid-19 and getting sick. She had nothing, not even the benefit of a wobbly screen and branches woven together. “Do you maybe have a tent?” She asked. Her voice was low, her eyes fell, as if she knew what I would say: no, I’m sorry. But on that day, on that day I could look her in the face, and try to lift up her chin and her spirits with a smile she couldn’t see behind my double mask. On that day I could say: why yes, I do have a tent I can give you. I still have a couple of tents that were donated to us by a friend. A friend from the Temple down the street. Rachel lifted her head, and started to tear. Beloved people of Temple Beth Hillel, you gave Rachel a sukkah. A sukkah, a booth, a temporary shelter on the wilderness journey that is homelessness.