By Rabbi Renée Bauer
Sukkot is a holiday that reminds us of the impermanence of the structures in which we live and, most profoundly, of our very lives. Most of us who are reading this article live in a house or an apartment with a sturdy foundation and strong walls to keep out the weather. Even though we see pictures of houses destroyed by natural disasters or are approached by unhoused folks asking for money on the streets in our city, we live as if those will never be our experiences, that our shelter is permanent. But each year, Judaism asks us to un-lift the veil of our certainty. It calls on us to build a temporary shelter, a sukkah, that has a roof of branches that allows us to see the stars and a flimsy structure that can easily be blown down. We face the truth that nothing in life is permanent.
Working at Jewish Social Services, I see this truth on a regular basis. We serve clients who are living in their cars. We work with community members with mental illness that makes it hard for them to maintain their housing. We welcome refugees to this country who have fled violent situations in their home country, have lived in temporary housing in a second country, and arrive here hoping to find a safe place to be rooted. We work with senior citizens who no longer are able to safely live independently in the homes in which they raised their families and have lived for decades. We help all of these people find new housing and accompany them as they make it home.
This work is challenging in the Madison area, which has a very tight market that lacks sufficient affordable housing options. However, it can also be incredibly rewarding. Setting up a welcoming apartment for a newly arriving refugee family, securing affordable housing for a homeless client, or being present as seniors make the difficult transition to assisted living is holy work. It is Jewish work. We have a history as a people who wandered in the desert, who have been expelled from our homes by persecution, and who have yearned for a place to call home. We know the sanctity of home each time we walk through the doorpost with a mezuzah on it.
The sukkah reminds us of the universality of human vulnerability to the elements of nature and to the fragility of life. The sukkah is open on one side, and tradition instructs us to invite guests into our sukkah. We welcome others into our sukkah because community, more than any structure, provides us the strength to face life challenges. Together we not only survive but bring joy into our lives and make this holiday truly z’man simchateinu, the season of our joy.
Rabbi Renée Bauer is Director of Chaplaincy and Outreach at Jewish Social Services of Madison.