Extreme Sukkot

They won’t tell you this on Animal Planet, but apparently some bears are Jewish. How else to explain the nosy black bear that burgled the sukkah last week in Yosemite Valley?

The sukkah was built by some of the 450 Brandeis Hillel students who descended on Yosemite National Park to celebrate Sukkot. During a three-day school-sponsored event, the kids studied, prayed, hiked and communed together in one of the most beautiful spots on earth.

“It was breathtaking,” said Rabbi Henry Shreibman, Brandeis Hillel head of school. “Sukkot asks us to come out and be vulnerable in nature. In Yosemite you are truly vulnerable.”

Still, what would a camping trip to Yosemite be without a good bear story?

“To meet the needs of the rangers,” noted Brandeis Hillel head of campus Chaim Heller, “the etrog and lulav were kept in bear box No. 35.”

Apparently that wasn’t precaution enough for that one curious black bear. One night, the critter ambled into the sukkah (while someone was sleeping in it) in search of food or, perhaps, spiritual sustenance.

The startled woman shooed the bear away. No harm. No foul.

“We had to pack up everything at night because of the bears,” recalled Shreibman. “We worked with park guards who gave us a ‘Bear 101’ lecture that went on for an hour.”

That was just one aspect of the micro-planning required to shepherd so many children, who ranged from kindergartners to eighth-graders. Students from both the Marin and San Francisco campuses of Brandeis Hillel made the trip.

“People stayed in everything from tents to the Ahwahnee Hotel,” said Shreibman. “We reserved the amphitheater in the Lower Pine campground where we built a sukkah and did our major programming and teflillot (prayers).”

That included a full-fledged Torah service in the amphitheater. Said Shreibman: “It was magnificent for me as a rabbi to draw on the image of tsur Israel (rock of Israel) surrounded by 2000-foot granite spires.”

Brandeis Hillel’s head of campus, Chaim Heller, was also there that morning. “We celebrated Sukkot in nature,” he said, “and had over 500 people for tefillah. Afterwards we talked about harvest celebrations and met with people from the Miwok Indian nation. We compared our harvest celebrations. It gave Sukkot a whole new twist.”

Another highlight was a Shabbat morning hike to one of the caves that dot the hills above Yosemite Valley.

“Henry invited the kids to perch at different levels,” remembered Fay Ginzburg, who attended the event with her husband and two children. “He engaged everyone with stories of mysticism and Shabbat. It was totally captivating to be in nature.”

Added Walker Black, 8, a Brandeis third-grader, “It was dark and low in the cave. We sat down, listened to stories about Shabbat and learned legends. It felt strange in a good way.”

For faculty, students and parents, the long Sukkot weekend was one to remember. Said Ginzburg, “To be a congregation of 500 people, to be together as one school and to walk around proudly as Jews in this gorgeous setting was wonderful. Everyone walked away feeling this was a beautiful way to start the new year.”

Added Heller, “There’s something about Yosemite that makes you appreciate who you are and everything around you. When we came back to school Monday, everyone smiled. You could still smell the campfire smoke. The kids brought it back with them.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.