October 9, 2003
I’m Dreaming of My School’s Sukkah
The sound of metal folding chairs scraping against rocky parking lot asphalt always gives me the chills -- but only in a good way.
To me it's the sound of Sukkot in the Shaarei Tefila sukkah, where I ate soggy tuna sandwiches and carrot sticks out of rumpled paper bags for most of my childhood Sukkots.
Days before Sukkot, my friends and I would leave our classrooms at Yavneh Hebrew Academy and parade down Beverly Boulevard to Shaarei Tefila, where we would sit in the palm-dappled sunlight gluing bright construction paper strips into garlands. We would wrap those chains through the schach and all around the plywood walls, where scraps of faded decorations clung to staples from years past. Sometimes we would attach all the stretches of garland together, seeing just how far we could make that chain snake along the sukkah walls.
In my early childhood, before my family started building our own sukkah, this was Sukkot for me.
These are memories that most Orthodox day school children of today won't have, since day schools started closing for Sukkot in the last 10 or 15 years.
As a working mother, I find the eight-day vacation to be an inconvenience at best, a disaster at worst -- it comes a few weeks into school, just when kids have finally transitioned into their new environment.
But as a day school graduate, I am hit much harder by the loss of Sukkot at school and the lifelong memories and positive associations that will slip away because of it.
During Sukkot we could always count on a special field trip and at least a couple hours worth of sukkah hopping. My Yavneh classmates and I would chatter along Martel Street, up Fuller and down Alta Vista, pulling carob pods off trees and visiting sukkahs of classmates and even teachers (they had houses and families and life out of school?). At each stop we got a treat -- dates, ice cream, candy -- and usually a bit of Torah and a song or two. We benched lulav, saying the blessing and shaking the flittering palm and twisting the fragrant etrog.
Sukkot is a holiday whose physicality can't be denied. It's all about where you are sitting, what you are smelling, touching and tasting. It's about guests and community and inviting people in.
All of that sensory input has the inevitable effect of penetrating through to your soul, making the rituals deep and memorable. It's why Sukkot, to this day, is my favorite holiday of the year, why I still sit down with my kids to cut the construction paper into strips and tape them into interlocking rings.
Rabbi Baruch Sufrin, the new dean at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, said he too laments the loss of Sukkot in school.
"When you experience sitting in the sukkah, decorating the sukkah, not only with family, but also with your friends, and visiting each other, and sukkah parties -- what happens is you actually feel it and you actually internalize the message of Sukkot," Sufrin said.
Rabbi Zalman Uri, head of the Orthodox day schools division for the Bureau of Jewish Education, said the change came about to rectify a situation that was considered a halachic compromise. While most of the halachic prohibitions in effect on Yom Tov don't apply during Chol Hamo'ed, the intermediate days of Sukkot, the rabbis wanted to be sure that the days were still recognized as mo'ed -- festive. They prohibited certain actions -- writing, commerce -- unless there was a significant loss that would be incurred.
When the Yeshiva Principals Council originally considered the matter under Rabbi Uri's direction decades ago, they came to the conclusion that what would be lost was the opportunity for children who did not have sukkahs at home to celebrate Sukkot. They decided to keep the doors open.
"Now times have changed -- thank God for that," said Uri. "We have a good number of parents -- the majority -- who have a sukkah and lulav and etrog at home, so the rationale is no longer relevant."
Add to that the fact that the staggered days between Yom Tov were usually taken up with things like a longer davening and special activities for the holiday, leaving less time for real academics, and there is enough there to close the school doors.
But that also closed the doors on a joyous, hands-on experience that surely had more impact than sitting in a classroom learning about which greens go where on the lulav, and in what order it gets shaken.
The Conservative and Reform schools still meet on Sukkot, knowing, perhaps, that many of their students don't have sukkahs at home, but also recognizing that Sukkot is one of the few chances in the year to have a living holiday workshop.
"Rather than teaching about Sukkot, we do it," said Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, Judaic director of the elementary school at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Aside from eating in and decorating the sukkah, students have music, storytime and reading groups in one of the school's two sukkahs.
"If you think of it and treat it as a natural extension of the classroom, it becomes just that," Ben-Naim said.
Back in the Shaarei Tefila sukkah, by the end of the week the construction paper red had faded to pink, the green to a queasy yellow. We never tried to save those decorations from year to year, knowing we would be back the next year to make fresh ones.
Then, one year, the students didn't come back to continue the tradition and the chain was broken. And that's too bad, because there's a whole pile of construction paper waiting from some good, strong glue to keep it together.