When the bellowing ram’s horns, known as Shofars, reduce to silence and as the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, draws to a close, another celebration is only five days away: Sukkot, which took place from Oct. 2 to Oct. 9 this year.
The weeklong celebration is marked by the symbolic “four kinds” — citrons, palm fronds, myrtle twigs and willow twigs — special prayers and, most visibly, the Sukkah, a wooden structure under which Jewish observers sleep, pray and eat for seven days and seven nights to commemorate the temporary dwellings used during the Jewish Exodus.
Though Sukkot is a time of gathering, specifically within the confines of the Sukkah, social distancing restrictions and the coronavirus pandemic have largely upended these practices.
That made Chabad at UC Santa Barbara, an organization that serves the Jewish populations of UCSB and Isla Vista, think creatively around the COVID-19 conundrum to allow students and community members to celebrate safely, according to Gershon Klein, a Rabbi for Chabad at UCSB.
For them, the solution was simple: put the Sukkah on wheels.
In vagabond style, a U-Haul truck with a Sukkah affixed on its bed wandered about I.V. — ice cream music blaring — parking occasionally to give community members a chance to pray safely under a Sukkah, observe the holiday, eat a free cupcake and walk away with blessings. And it was popular, too: On some days, the truck drew as many as 30 people.
“Instead of inviting people to our center, we want to be where the people are and give them an opportunity to connect to the Jewish heritage,” Klein said. “Especially during COVID, where people can’t gather together.”
But the idea of a mobile Sukkah is not unique to Chabad at UCSB, according to Ben Hariri, a fourth-year history major and board member for the organization. Since Chabad at UCSB is one of 3,500 Chabad organizations worldwide, other chapters have already laid the groundwork for successfully creating such structures in the past, he added.
With blueprints in hand, a handful of Chabad at UCSB volunteers ventured to Home Depot ahead of the holiday to gather materials, mainly wood and nails, Hariri said. Then, they got to work building the structure.
Though this is not Chabad’s first experience with mobile Sukkahs, “this is the first time we did it really solid,” Klein said, adding that he sent Facebook posts ahead of time to let people know where he would be parked.
In past Sukkots, Chabad’s main focus was on its two other Sukkahs, one of which has been a large, 800-square-foot dwelling at its center in I.V., and the other has been on campus, Klein said. This year, however, the mobile Sukkah was the center of attention.
Though this year’s Sukkot was somewhat stifled by the pandemic, Hariri said working around the challenges presented by social distancing was uniquely gratifying. His favorite part about the holiday this year was building the Sukkah itself.
“It’s the most fulfilling thing,” he said.
Klein, on the other hand, sees Sukkot as a time to recalibrate and remember that “there’s always purpose in everything we do,” even in the midst of a global pandemic.
“I think that’s a powerful thing for everyone, especially because it’s an anxious time and we don’t know exactly how things are going to pan out,” he said. “And to know that in every situation, there’s purpose and there’s meaning — that’s very powerful for me.”
With another Sukkot in the books, Hariri said he is looking forward to devising new ways for Chabad at UCSB to connect with the community during the pandemic. His main focus is accessibility; Chabad is currently doing challah bakes on Zoom and socially distant Shabbat dinners once a week.
“This year has been challenging for us. But we’re thankful that we have a strong community here and that everyone’s been supportive of us through the entire year,” Klein said.
Klein also noted this year’s Sukkot has given him a newfound appreciation for the power of community. But regardless of the pandemic, he said, Sukkot to him will always serve as a reminder that “every single person is important.”
“You’re responsible for special things. You have opportunities. You meet specific people, have a sphere of influence and you have to do your part to make the world a place of goodness and kindness,” he added.