Israel Hurtles Headlong into Sukkot

Jews are working overtime to build sukkot and buy their lulav - and a whole tribe of “sukkot helpers” are there to assist, including Bnei Akiva.

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David Lev, | updated: 08:51

Bnei Akiva Detroit
Bnei Akiva Detroit
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With Yom Kippur behind us, the Jewish world is hurtling headfirst into the joyous holiday of Sukkot – and this week, Jews in Israel and the diaspora are working overtime to build their sukkot and purchase their “arba minim” (four species) set - the etrog (citron), lulav (palm branch) hadas (myrtle), and arava (willow) that are used throughout the holiday.

Fortunately, they aren't alone; there's a whole tribe of “Sukkot support staff” out there, working hard to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to celebrate the holiday properly. Arba minim sets are available in every community, either home-delivered or at special arba minim markets around the country, the biggest being outside the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem.

The sukkot themselves, the thatch-roofed structures made out of wood or special cloth wrapped around a metal frame, are available in hardware stores, shopping centers and outside nearly every supermarket in the country. And, of course, decorations to hang on the walls or from the roof of your sukkah – pictures of famous rabbis or holy places, strings of light in every color of the rainbow, or even objets d'art – are available nearly everywhere.

Noam Kampler, who has been in the arba minim business for six years, said that this year, as opposed to most others, most Israelis will be using better-quality Israeli-grown lulavim in the synagogue – instead of the lower-quality palm branches usually imported from Egypt.

"For whatever reason, lulavim from Egypt are expensive this year, and the Israeli growers were prepared, making sure they cut the palm branches early this year," according to Kempler. As a result, he says, some 80-90 percent of lulavim available are “made in Israel,” as opposed to the 20 percent or so that constituted the market's home-grown palm branches in previous years.

In another piece of good news, Kampler says that this summer's hot weather did not affect supplies of sensitive hadassim or etrogim. “There were rumors of shortages among the wholesalers, like there are every year, but they turned out to be false,” he says, adding that there is plenty of stock available, with prices remaining the same as they were last year – NIS 60 to 100 ($16-$$27), depending on quality.

Far from being restricted to religiously observant Israelis, Sukkot is enthusiastically celebrated by secular Jews as well. Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen, who heads the Chabad House in the Samaria community of Karnei Shomron, says that about half his customers are “definitely not what you would call religious. But that doesn't stop them from celebrating Sukkot, which is a beautiful holiday here. The kids learn about it in school and ask the parents to put one up, and the parents are happy to comply.”

And putting a sukkah up is easier than ever, Rabbi Cohen says. “Over the past few years, sukkah structures sold in Israel have been completely retooled, and today anyone can put one up with a minimum of fuss.” Light, easily assembled poles, art-deco fabrics, easy to attach schach (the sukkah's bamboo roof) and attractive, lightweight decorations put an ultra-modern twist on an ancient commandment, Rabbi Cohen says.

And many organizations make sure those on the road and in city centers are covered, too. “We have roving sukkot that we bring to IDF soldiers stationed at posts around the country, giving them the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah as well,” says Rabbi Cohen And Chabad isn't alone – a multitude of organizations in Israel put up sukkot for the public in city centers. The Municipality of Jerusalem puts up what is probably the largest sukkah in the world outside City Hall, and even shopping malls make sure to set up a sukkah for patrons – on the roof, of course.

And this year, Bnei Akiva is doing its best to export the joyous Sukkot spirit from Israel to 30 countries around the world. Almost every Bnei Akiva branch in the world will sponsor a sukkah for use by anyone in the community, and will sponsor activities throughout the week of the holiday. Among the places where Bnei Akiva will set up sukkot are Brookline, Massachusetts, where students at the Maimonides Jewish day school will have the opportunity to visit with the traditional “Ushpizin,” the Biblical Sukkot guests – with the addition of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. The children will learn about Gilad, pray for him and write letters to the Shalit family.

Bnei Akiva has set up a “mega-Sukkah” in San Francisco that will host hundreds, and in Oslo, Norway, a kosher cafe with sukkah attached will be set up in the Jewish community center, hosting residents and Jewish students in the area.

All the Bnei Akiva activities and events “will emphasize the importance of the State if Israel,” said Ze'ev Schwartz, World Bnei Akiva emissary. “I have asked Bnei Akiva's 150 branches around the world to remember Gilat Shalit, who is still a captive in Gaza and to add him as one of the traditional 'Ushpizin',” he added.