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Oct 5 / Jenny

The Aha! Moment of Sukkot: All In the Same Tent Together

Rain spattered meals in the sukkah are commonplace.  Roof collapses, gapes in walls, the rehanging of fallen decorations- these frequent occurences delight children.  For them, there is something reassuringly Lego-like in the sukkah; we build it and then we build it again.

But the paradox of Sukkot mixes a dose of anxiety with this delight.  My kids are old enough (9 and 4 years old) to understand that there are some other New Yorkers (we live in Brooklyn), who “really live like this.”  While the rainy meals and cool evenings of outdoor singing may be entertainment to them, there are current-day wanderers.  Real people, real families live on the streets or in substandard housing in neighborhoods we can walk to from our home.  The sukkah is both a door to a conversation about a narrowly defined Jewish past and much broader contemporary struggles.  In those three walls, using the safety and comfort of this Lego we have built, we have begun to talk with our kids about this difficult topic.

Much of discussion on Tzedakah and children centers around the “what do we give” question.  Direct service?  Money and in what denomination?  Advocacy?  The sukkah’s example gets to a more compelling question.  Why do we give tzedakah?  Why do we care?  I know that obligation and duty bind many Jews to acts of Tzedakah.  And we do talk about obligations with our kids.  But facing issues like poverty and illness, I think that the cultivation of empathy is critical.  And at this time of the year, the problem of homelessness can be something shared and discussed without real threat.   Our sukkot can be the safe space to connect with and personalize vulnerability.

How do you present Tzedakah?  As an obligated act of Jewish tradition?  As an outgrowth of empathy?  Both?  Other ideas?  And how have you used Jewish tradition to connect your children to those needy around them?


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  1. Koby / Oct 11 2012

    My Aha! moment reading your post came towards the end. Our sukkot do let us talk about vulnerability while being vulnerable, which is a change to the setting of many of the conversations about social policy I’ve had. The cool temps, wind creeping through the thin walls, along with the tight corners and sagging plastic chairs substantively add to the discussion. It’s not just what you talk about, but where that matters too.
    Visiting family over the holidays reminded me of how much context matters when thinking about bringing these issues up. My outings with nieces and nephews are usually confined to the suburbs or quieter neighborhoods of the city. Yet, the jumble of people in bustling corners of New York City lend themselves more easily to the task of “cultivating empathy”. For me at least, the stream of people who are different, and many in need of a home more permanent than a sukkah easily leads to talk of tzedakah. So one more goal for the coming year – to work context into the content – both in outings and giving. Thanks Jenny!

  2. Jared / Feb 28 2013

    It’s such an interesting question. My kids are 6 and 4, and thus far, I’ve talked about tzedakah as helping people. I talk about how when their coat gets too small, we buy a new one and how when their toys get to “baby-ish,” we buy new ones. And that not all families have enough money to do that, so we help them. My own sense of “obligation” comes from my sense of having privilege, not an “obligation from God” – so I think that’s more where I tend to come from. Empathy is something I think it makes sense to talk more about…

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