a middle-aged man and two kids hang paper chains under a wooden sukkah
Cantor Jaime Shpall's husband, Marcel Bergmann, and their children, Ella and Sam, decorate the family sukkah. (Photo/Courtesy Shpall)

Bay Area Jews weigh pandemic risks: To gather under the sukkah or not?

For some, Sukkot is the first Jewish holiday during the pandemic that can be observed in a relatively normal way. After all, one of the holiday’s main traditions is to gather with friends and family outdoors in a sukkah, the ritual temporary shelter that is partially open to the sky.

To others, no gathering is safe enough right now, outside or otherwise.

With those diverging approaches, Bay Area Jews are preparing to plunge into yet another socially distanced holiday, the weeklong festival of Sukkot, beginning the evening of Oct. 2 and ending Oct. 9.

Joe Gindi
Joe Gindi

Back in March, Joe Gindi was really looking forward to Sukkot. He had moved to Oakland from Brooklyn, New York, where he had nowhere to build a sukkah.

“One of the reasons I took this apartment was that there’s a place to build a sukkah. But I decided not to have one because I can’t have people over,” he said. “So it’s disappointing to not be able to do that.”

Gindi might be willing to go in someone else’s sukkah, if invited, though it would depend on how much space there was and how many others would be there. But he doesn’t know many people in the area yet. “If not for the pandemic I would’ve been going to shul here since March and I would have met people,” he said.

Cantor Jaime Shpall
Cantor Jaime Shpall

For Cantor Jaime Shpall of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos and her family, Sukkot without a sukkah in the backyard was simply not an option.

“I love Sukkot. It’s our favorite holiday,” she said.

Shpall’s husband brews beer at home, so they mash up Sukkot and Octoberfest for their annual “Sukktoberfest” party.

“We make pretzels, we have a kegger, it’s a big party with like 100 people. It’s super festive and wonderful,” she said.

But that’s off the table this year.

“So instead, since Sukkot is such a Covid-friendly holiday, we’re going to invite a family over each night and have a nice socially distant backyard meal,” Shpall said.

At Beth Am, a mobile sukkah has been constructed on the back of a pickup truck. It will make stops in Menlo Park, Redwood City, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos and Palo Alto Oct. 3-4 so that members around the area can visit and sit inside the sukkah.

At Chabad at Stanford, there are two Sukkots — “Sukkot in a Box,” a kit that students can pick up from the Chabad center, or Sukkot under the actual sukkah.

Executive director Rabbi Dov Greenberg said a “massive” sukkah is going to be set up. “The whole property will be covered in a sukkah and we’ll be able to have 6 feet between each person, with 40 or so people at a time.”

The sukkah at Chabad at Stanford. (Photo/Dov Greenberg)
The sukkah at Chabad at Stanford. (Photo/Dov Greenberg)

He finds the themes of Sukkot especially resonant this year, especially themes of impermanence and fragility, engendered by the temporary nature of the sukkah itself.

“It’s very apropos, because Sukkot is a holiday that reminds us of instability. We don’t have the comforts of home outside in a shack,” Greenberg said.

“But it’s also called the holiday of simcha [joy], which reminds us that a person has to stop and celebrate what we have. It’s a pandemic, it’s a very difficult time, but our tradition says, ‘Figure out how to introduce joy even in those moments of insecurity.’”

In recent years, Sukkot in Northern California hasn’t necessarily been a great time to enjoy the outdoors. Right now, tens of thousands of people in Sonoma and Napa counties have fled the Glass Fire, which as of Sept. 30 had consumed over 48,000 acres.

“The Tubbs Fire happened during Sukkot three years ago. The Kincade Fire started on Yom Kippur last year,” said Rabbi George Gittleman of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa. Dozens of member families lost their homes to fire in 2017 and most congregants have had to evacuate at some point.

“[People] feel like, in some ways, the life that we love and take for granted up here is kind of slipping away,” Gittleman said.

“Which, of course, is a theme for Sukkot — impermanence, everything changes except for the Eternal. And whether we want to face impermanence or not, it’s in our face. It’s true for everyone. The pandemic has really forced the world to understand that everything changes and nothing can be taken for granted … Impermanence is omnipresent for all of us, especially those of us living with the climate crisis. People don’t realize, but the climate crisis has arrived — in Sonoma County people are beginning to understand because of the fires.”

Though it might be difficult for fire-affected families to gear up for Sukkot, many Bay Area families lucky enough to live outside the danger zone are building a sukkah this year, including some for the first time.

Donald C. Cutler
Donald C. Cutler

“I’ve got a 5-year-old with a lot of energy over here,” said Donald C. Cutler of San Francisco. “So we’re doing it as an activity — religion, science, engineering.”

But they will not be inviting any guests over, Cutler said. “We’ll eat out there and hit up PJ Library for some of its best Sukkot stories, and that’s it.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the digital editor of J. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.