Due to COVID-19, Metro Detroit congregations and individuals are improvising this year for Sukkot.
COVID-19 has led to creativity and innovation in Jewish observance, and the trend continues with Sukkot.
Normally, Sukkot, the Festival of Huts, where temporary structures are built in yards to commemorate the temporary dwellings of Israelites during their 40 years in the desert, is a very social holiday. Celebrants welcome ushpizin — honored guests — into their sukkot and children enjoy “sukkah hopping” from one home to another, collecting treats at each. Congregations build large sukkot and hold communal meals.
Social distancing protocol makes these practices difficult, if not impossible, so this year congregations and individuals are improvising.
The leaders of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township thought about just not building their sukkah this year, but realized there are ways to use it safely.
“The very nature of being an outdoor holiday makes Sukkot a perfect opportunity for us to celebrate in a safe way,” said Rabbi Mark Miller.
Students who opt for Beth El’s in-person program (others are learning virtually) are meeting outdoors while the weather is still nice, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing; they will help decorate the temple’s sukkah, said Miller, as will preschoolers in the temple’s early childhood center.
Congregants will be invited into the sukkah in small groups during the weeklong festival. Blessings over the lulav — the bundle of four types of tree branches — and etrog, a citron, will be posted on the wall where no one has to touch it. Congregants will wear gloves to handle them.
Keter Torah in West Bloomfield normally erects a sukkah that seats 85. This year, Rabbi Sasson Natan is building one that will hold a table and four chairs for families that don’t have a sukkah at home.
“They will do kiddush on wine and have a small piece of bread or cake — enough to fulfill the mitzvah of eating in the sukkah — and continue the festive meal at home,” he said. No more than four people will be in the sukkah together, and all must wear masks.
Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield is planning a masked, physically distanced Lulav and Etrog Open House for those who want to experience the mitzvah and don’t have their own set. Registration is required. The congregation is also planning two virtual Sukkot seders at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 5, and Thursday, Oct. 8.
“We’re going to honor the Feast of Booths with a special Sukkot Haggadah recalling some of our favorite Passover traditions, including the four cups, the four questions, a text study, some beautiful songs and lots of thoughtful conversation,” said Rabbi Aaron Starr.
Temple Israel in West Bloomfield is having a two-track sukkah-building contest. “The first is for the best decorated traditional sukkah, with walls made of wood, tarps, etc.,” said Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny.
“Then we are going to have a second track: best creative sukkah. Make your sukkah from cardboard, Legos, skis, whatever. It just has to be open at the top so that the stars can be seen. We want everyone to send us their sukkah pics so we can share this holiday together in the most creative ways.”
Congregation B’nai Israel in West Bloomfield is planning several outdoor activities, including a recitation of the Hallel prayers with lulavs and etrogs on the afternoon of Oct. 4, a Hoshana Rabba ceremony the morning of Oct. 9, and hakafot (processions) for Simchat Torah on the afternoon of Oct. 11.
To observe the tradition of honored guests, Congregation B’nai Moshe is doing a virtual tour of congregants’ sukkot. Each night after evening minyan, the congregants will remotely visit the sukkah of one family, and the hosts will be invited to talk about the ushpizin they have hosted in the past.
Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit has become well known for its sukkah-in-a-shipping-container, where up to 80 guests would gather for dinner each night. This year, Rabbi Yisrael Pinson and his wife, Devorah, are putting up a smaller sukkah with latticed sides that allow air to flow through easily, making it “almost outdoors.” They plan to host about 20 people each night with social distancing. They will also drive their “mobile sukkah” to the Detroit homes of people unable to visit the Chabad center.
Individuals are also modifying their traditional Sukkot practices. Nancy and Mike Kaplan of West Bloomfield are planning to build a smaller sukkah with only two-and-and-half walls instead of the usual three-and-a-half. “We will have only one or two guests at a time, with a schedule of specific times for guests to visit. No open houses this year!” Nancy said.
Mandy Garver and her husband, Allen Wolf, of Bloomfield Township, thought about erecting their sukkah and inviting small numbers of guests. But the sukkah is a complicated design, and they are both committed election volunteers. With the holiday so close to the election, they decided to use the time and energy they would normally put into building the sukkah and hosting guests into working on the Biden campaign.
Franki and Jeff Bagdade of West Bloomfield are building their first-ever sukkah, despite the pandemic. It will be a simple structure — a pop-up canopy with the roof and one wall removed — just big enough for them and their three children. “I feel like today more than usual I need concrete ways for our family to feel connected,” she said.