Temple dedicates sukkah with smores, songs, camp-out

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Last Friday night Fremont's Temple Beth Torah looked less like a synagogue courtyard than an REI showroom with an assortment of tents pitched around the grounds.

No, these were not economy classrooms, nor is the real estate market so far out of control that Fremont residents have abandoned their houses for a tent city. It was a camp-out to consecrate the synagogue's new sukkah.

"We used to have a sukkah that was small. It was built by the janitor and decorated without enthusiasm," says Jamie Hyams, a member of the 300-family congregation. "It never grew into people's soul. This year we decided we wanted to change that."

So the congregation bought a new, large, metal-frame sukkah. After the synagogue brotherhood erected it, palm fronds were laid across the top and the sides covered with bamboo curtains.

When it was time for serious decorating, the children of the congregation came forth, creating artwork out of colored paper, pipe cleaners, crayons, paints and popsicle sticks. It hung from the walls and ceiling, along with strings of lights, including a set of skeleton lights.

The new sukkah clearly bore the signature of Beth Torah. The next step was determining "how to use the sukkah," said synagogue vice president Katie Wong. We came up with several ideas including potlucks, chavurot get-togethers and seniors' events.

Then someone "Šsuggested using it for a camp-out."

The idea got a positive response from the congregation, and what may become an annual tradition was born.

"It's a good family activity," said Arlynn Peavey, who participated in the camp-out along with husband David and sons Adam, 2-1/2, and Aaron, 7. The couple are veteran campers whose "kids love synagogue."

Oct. 17 was a perfect night for a camp-out. The moon was full, the sky clear and the temperature mild. Around 40 adults and children were on hand including the synagogue's president, Gary Schwartzberg, and wife Sue. Unfortunately, knee surgery kept the event's creator from participating.

Following services, everyone gathered in the sukkah for kiddush. As some returned to the social hall for the oneg Shabbat, others added their tents alongside those already clustered on the temple lawn. Before long, the area looked like a campground with mounds of sleeping bags, tarps and ground pads, and children running around in pajamas.

The crowd thinned as the less adventurous headed for home and the campers returned to the sukkah. The obligatory guitar appeared and Hyams, surrounded by children, led the group in song. Explaining the kabbalistic tradition of inviting guests intothe sukkah, she asked the children whom they would like to invite.

"Moses," one child called out.

"God," another suggested.

"I think God is already here," Hyams said.

"Bandit, my dog," another child said.

Great-grandparents, Hercules and Barney were also on the guest list.

Although the night called for a campfire, the group settled with gathering around a hibachi. Graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate bars materialized for the traditional s'mores.

By 11 p.m., all were tucked into their tents except for one camper, Chrisse Smoller, who eschewed a tent to sleep in the sukkah.

The next morning, everyone gathered in the sukkah again for a short service.

By the end of the morning, participants said the sukkah had become truly integrated into the Beth Torah family.

"It's not just some thing out in the courtyard," Hyams said. "You really could look up and see the stars. It gave a whole different sense of the holiday."

Seeing people the last thing at night and first thing in the morning also creates a bond.

"It's nice to get to know people in a different way," Hyams added.