During Sukkot, families of Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., will gather together for a special celebration. Socializing in the synagogue's sukkah, they will be treated to a tantalizing array of chocolate cakes and candies, accompanied by delicious cups of ... tap water.
"Which are you enjoying more, the sweets or the water?" congregant Evonne Marzouk will ask, knowing full well that the cups of water will remain largely untouched.
This activity is a set up. It's modeled on Simchat Beit Hashoeva, the festive water-drawing ceremony that took place during Sukkot while the Temple was standing but that is rarely commemorated today. Reconfigured, however, as part of True Joy Through Water, a new outreach program created by Canfei Nesharim ("the wings of eagles"), an Orthodox environmental organization, it's designed to educate the primarily Orthodox community about the importance of water, its imperiled state and ways to conserve it.
"At the time of the Temple, people lived on the land and understood that if there wasn't rain, there wasn't food. That absolute dependence is still true today, but we don't think about it because we live so far from the land," said Marzouk, who serves as executive director of Canfei Nesharim, which was founded in January 2003.
The True Joy Through Water activities, text studies and instructive sukkah decorations have been requested by more than 30 Orthodox congregations across the United States.
In Los Angeles, at Congregation B'nai David-Judea, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky hopes to perform several of the True Joy Through Water activities with synagogue members, especially those in the youth group, in the sukkah. No formal program is planned for Young Israel of Century City, but Rabbi Elazar Muskin has distributed the materials to his congregants and is hoping that "people will take an interest in this important endeavor."
True Joy Through Water is one of several programs that Jewish environmentalists are promoting this Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Friday, Oct. 6, to encourage people to take stock not only of the earth's bounty but also of the earth itself -- and to take action to repair it.
At the Shalom Institute in the Malibu Mountains, about 80 teenagers will be working directly with the earth on Sunday, Oct. 8, preparing the soil and planting in the Marla Bennet Israel Garden. The ninth- through 12th-graders, participants in Camp JCA Shalom's Teen Camp weekend, will learn about Sukkot as well as their responsibility to nature, according to Einat Gomel, an environmental educator from Israel now serving as the year-round director of the Shalom Nature Center.
In the afternoon, the Shalom Institute is hosting a family Sukkot celebration. "We will talk about how we can help kids build a better world and make it eco-related," Gomel said. Families will also participate in a ceremony and service in the sukkah.
"The fragility of the sukkah and its shelter is eloquent testimony to both our dependence on the environment and the environment's dependence on us," said Everett Gendler, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., who is considered by many to be the father of Jewish environmentalism.
Gendler, who admits to a fondness for pumpkins stemming from an overflowing pumpkin patch he visited yearly as a Midwestern youth, invented the "Yaakov Lantern." It's a bright orange pumpkin, home-grown by Gendler every year, on which he carves a typical jack-o'-lantern face on one side and a Star of David on the other. Inside, he places a candle.
At night, the Yaakov Lantern invokes the "ushpizim," the biblical forefathers and foremothers whom Gendler refers to as the "ancestral spirits" and also illumines the sukkah in an environmentally friendly manner.
"It's hard to imagine the sukkah with wires attached," said Gendler, who invented the first solar powered "ner tamid" (everlasting light), and espouses alternative energy sources.
Another long-time environmentalist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, is hosting an expected crowd of 250 to 350 Jews, Christians and Muslims to address the question, "What can our religious traditions do to help heal the planet from the climate crisis of global 'scorching?'"
Leaders from all three Abrahamic faiths will speak to the participants, who will also engage in prayer and song and build a sukkah together. In addition, they will have the opportunity to sign petitions asking for reductions in global warming and increased use of alternative energy sources, which will be delivered to national, state and local legislators.
"I'm hoping to have some direct impact right there on the spot, both in terms of public policy and in terms of congregations' and congregants' energy use," Waskow said.
The event takes place on Oct. 8 and jointly celebrates Sukkot and the month of Ramadan, as well as the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4). It is co-sponsored locally by The Shalom Center and is part of a nationwide effort initiated by "The Tent of Abraham, Hagar & Sarah," a network of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
For Barbara Lerman-Golomb, executive director of Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), Sukkot, as a harvest holiday, is a perfect time to talk about healthy foods for a healthy planet.
"Many individuals who have joined community supported farms and co-ops are bringing their organically grown fruits and vegetables into the sukkah," she said.
On the first day of Sukkot, Lerman-Golomb herself is slated to speak at the Conservative Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn during the morning service.
"I coined the phrase 'energy observant,'" said Lerman-Golomb, who will present the Jewish response to environmental issues and encourage people to lead more sustainable lives.
In particular she will stress the problem of global warming, part of a nationwide campaign the coalition launched in August -- billed as "How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?" -- which will culminate at Chanukah.
Kane Street Synagogue's Rabbi Sam Weintraub is hoping the talk will further demonstrate how the Jewish holiday cycle is intimately tied to the natural world.
"I want congregants to understand that the Jewish and humanitarian and the Jewish and the Jewish and environmental commitments are the same," he said.
Richard Schwartz, president of the nonprofit Jewish Vegetarians of North America, views Sukkot as a time, as Jews decorate their sukkahs with pictures and replicas of fruits and vegetables, to reflect on how future harvests are endangered by global warming, water shortages and soil erosion and depletion.
"As our Israelite ancestors were sustained with manna, a vegetarian food 'like coriander seed,' while they dwelt in sukkahs for 40 years in the wilderness, we should sustain ourselves with tofu, the modern-day manna, and other plant foods, for the sake of our health and that of our precious, but imperiled, planet," he said.
Canfei Nesharim - www.canfeinesharim.org
Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life - www.coejl.org
Jewish Vegetarians of North America - www.jewishveg.com
Shalom Institute - www.shalominstitute.com
The Shalom Center - www.shalomctr.org