When Kathryn Macias joined the Boston Jewish community in the Keshet Sukkah this past week, she shared her thoughts on what it means to be welcoming. Earlier this month Kat shared her coming out story, reflecting on what it means to be a queer Jew-by-choice finding a space where she felt welcomed in the Jewish community.
Welcoming is something I think a lot about as I work as the Boston Community Organizer for Keshet, where my goal is to make the Jewish world a more welcoming place for queer folks. I think Sukkot has two special things to teach us about what it means to be welcoming.
1. The first is that we need to be visibly welcoming. Sukkot is different from other holidays because nearly all the barriers to entry are eliminated. There are no tickets and really no need for invitation—instead we construct a sukkah outside of our home that any passerby can see and enter.
How often does this barrier-free welcome actually occur in our community? Even before my time at Keshet I would talk with leaders at organizations that would say their organization were completely welcoming, but when I asked how they let people know about their welcoming policies, they wouldn’t have much of an answer. In the same way folks avoid inviting themselves over for dinner, welcome isn’t assumed. Instead an invitation needs to be extended and standing welcomes need to be made continually visible.
2. The second piece Sukkot teaches us about welcoming is based in the tradition that we are supposed to live in our huts. Sukkahs are cute and festive but I’ve never really heard them described as cozy and comfortable. Being truly welcoming involves a little discomfort. I have yet to meet someone who is turning their sukkah into their new tiny house and that’s with good reason.
Last week, I caught Rich, Keshet’s Director of Finance and Administration, peering out one of the windows in our office to check how heavy the wind was, getting worried that his sukkah at home might blow over. Sukkahs have patchy roofs and flimsy walls that won’t do much to protect you from the elements. They make for uncomfortable living. Like living the discomfort of a sukkah, outsiders bring difference and the unfamiliar can be uncomfortable. But I’ve always found that places of agitation and discomfort are often the most fertile ground for growth.
Sukkot teaches us that to be truly welcoming we need to make ourselves visible and we need to push ourselves to be a little uncomfortable to make room for a wider welcome.
So the questions I’ll leave you with are these: In what way are you pushing yourself to be little uncomfortable in order to make room for others? And…in what ways are you making your welcome visible?
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There are more spiritually resonant symbols associated with the Festival of Sukkot than with any other major Jewish holiday. On Yom Kippur, the only visual marker is the special clothing many wear as symbols of teshuvah. On Passover, the redemptive symbol of matzah is joined by the visual and performative symbolism of the Seder. Shavuot has almost no visible reminders of the holiday other than the special liturgy. But Sukkot offers the 4 species (lulav, etrog, willows, and myrtle), each with their own multi-layered significance, as well as the sukkah itself, a symbolically powerful stage that encourages those celebrating the holiday to open their hearts, their minds and their homes to a transformative experience of the divine. During the 7 days of Sukkot, observant Jews live – or at least eat their meals – surrounded by the walls of a fragile hut with a roof covered in branches sparse enough to allow glimpses of the heavens and an expanded field of vision.
As the weather begins to cool, and as – at least in Israel – the rainy season draws near, Jews go outside to a structure far from the comfort and reassurance of the bricks, mortar, steel, and concrete that normally shelter them, literally and figuratively, from directly engaging with the outside world. During the rest of the year, even when Jews leave their homes to join together as a community, they usually gather in synagogues for prayer and study, in schools for learning and training, and in Jewish community centers for fun, leisure and public programs. In all of these communal institutions, as in our own homes, solid walls provide structure and safety, boundaries and reassurance. Those inside are protected from the outside elements and from those not like themselves, able to feel safe with their own kind. Seeking community and shelter within, these communal structures keep out those who, the people inside feel, may pose a danger – those with whom they feel less comfortable. Continue reading
During the holiday of Sukkot, it’s customary to invite honored guests into our homes and sukkot, the festival huts we build at this time of year. It’s a holiday that’s all about inclusion and bringing our friends, neighbors, and distinguished visitors in to our homes, and into these temporary shelters with us. These honored guests are known as ushpizin. You might even remember a cute Israeli movie about the trials and tribulations of a religious couple who think that their troublesome ushpizin are a test from heaven.
This year, we have a suggestion for some very special holiday guests for your sukkah. Invite politician Harvey Milk, activist and author Kate Bornstein, and writer Lesléa Newman into your sukkah — whether it’s at your home, your synagogue, your Jewish community center, or somewhere else.
We invite you to hang a poster of one of these Jewish heroes in your sukkah and let those who enter know that LGBT Jews have a home in your community.
Looking for more ideas about whom to invite into your sukkah this holiday?
- The website NeoHasid.org offers a different (and egalitarian!) take on the traditional text used to invite ushpizin into the sukkah.
- Lilith Magazine offers seven “Eco-Ushpizin” to join you.
- Plus, it’s traditional to invite one’s ancestors into the Sukkah, so consider making and hanging a family tree! InterfaithFamily.com has some great suggestions.
Plus, tell us who else you’re bringing into your sukkah with you. Who are the LGBT heroes in your life?