Sukkot in April: new opportunities to build community

Some 750 Bay Area Jews will be celebrating Sukkot twice this year — although there won't be any lulavs or sukkahs in sight.

That's because they'll be marking Sukkot in April, a day of volunteer work that could grow into a tradition of Jewish community service.

The springtime Sukkot on Sunday, April 27 is co-led by San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel and the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services. The event is modeled on other successful efforts, such as the JFCS' Project Lend-a-Hand, the Mitzvah Day Sherith Israel sponsored last spring and a nationwide ecumenical day of service called Christmas in April.

"We're telling the world we have a weekend of projects," says Claudette Goldberg, co-chair for the Sukkot in April projects. Other co-chairs include Thomas Fox and Elaine Benoit-Fox.

Volunteers will be busying themselves at about 70 different sites, on projects as varied as habitat restoration in the Presidio, painting and maintenance at schools like Fellowship Academy and in needy individuals' homes, and meal preparation at the San Francisco Food Bank.

The volunteers themselves range from students to seniors. About 20 Jewish agencies, including five of San Francisco's Conservative and Reform congregations and three congregations from the Peninsula, are sponsoring at least one project

"People have been very excited about it," says Rachel Kesselman, the JFCS staffer in charge of Sukkot in April.

"It's a concrete way of helping someone — you're part of the community you're working with, part of the Jewish community, and part of a larger, outside community. There's a real spirit and energy."

The event's ability to attract volunteers "shows that people are ready to roll up their sleeves and work," Kesselman says. "I see a lot of people coming out who volunteer with us every week."

Kenny Altman, who also works at JFCS, is a volunteer captain for San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. His team of 50 volunteers will spend April 27 painting the inside of the Asian/Pacific Islander HIV Wellness Center.

"We'll be working with the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League…This is a special project because we could all work together on it," Altman says.

The cooperation between the three organizations is a continuation of their joint sponsorship of a delegation to rebuild a black church in Alabama destroyed by arson.

In addition to helping individuals and groups in need, and giving volunteers the satisfaction of making a tangible contribution to others, Sukkot in April is strengthening bonds between different Jewish organizations.

"This is creating a wonderful working relationship between the different Jewish agencies," says Janice Weinstein, program director at Sherith Israel and the synagogue's Sukkot in April staffer.

Since Sukkot in April falls during Pesach this year, the project will require some extra coordination; kosher meals will be served to the work teams, and projects are expected to end around 3 p.m. to allow volunteers to return home for seders.

Organizers would like this year's Sukkot in April to start an annual tradition of Jewish community service. For now, though, making sure Sukkot in April gets off the ground is the top concern.

"My only hopes right now," Altman says, laughing, "are that we will be able to recruit 50 volunteers…and that we end up accomplishing that day what we set out to do in the morning."