A Home Away From Home Away From Home: Colleges Prepare for Sukkot

Students enjoy the University of Maryland Hillel sukkah in 2017 (Provided)

Sukkot, in Rabbi Mendy Rivkin’s experience, is his students’ favorite holiday. Rivkin, who co-directs the Towson/Goucher Chabad with his wife, Sheiny, finds that the communal aspects of Sukkot seem to bring something out of students that the High Holidays just can’t seem to do. The meals, the programming, and, of course, the lack of services — it all adds up.

“It’s really an opportunity for community engagement,” he said.

Rivkin, like the Hillel and Chabad leaders that the JT spoke to at Towson, Goucher, Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, is using the holiday as a way to bring in students who may not otherwise be compelled to attend a religious ritual during their busy days.

“It does speak to them. For them, it’s the concept of, ‘We’re in it together,’ as opposed to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, where everybody’s in their own little space,” Rivkin said.

“I think the beauty of having Sukkot on a college campus is that it really creates this sense of community and family for the students while they’re away at college,” said Talia Orencel, director of engagement and social justice at Maryland Hillel. Orencel says that she expects more than 500 students to attend the various programs and meals that the Hillel will host in its sukkah over the course of the holiday, including a potluck hosted by an environmental sustainability-focused student group.

UMd., like the other schools, will have a few different options for students who want to spend time in a sukkah. The Hopkins Hillel will have one set up right by the dining hall for students looking for a quick bite during the day, while their home base, the Smokler Center, hosts a larger sukkah for dinner and other programming. The Towson Chabad has a “mobile sukkah,” built on the back of a truck and ferried around campus to wherever it’s needed. The organization also sets up a sukkah right on the lawn of the College of Liberal Arts.

For Lisa Bodziner, executive director of the Towson Hillel, this year comes with special meaning. Besides the fact that she’ll be hosting students at her home on the first night, it’s also the first year she had the opportunity to solicit the level of student input that she wanted in designing the schedule.

“We created this menu of options. Food is always a draw, and creative programming, and we wanted to add some learning components,” Bodziner said. There will be a sushi night, a shakshuka night and a song night for the expected 150 students who will come to the sukkah during the holiday.

Of all the holidays, Bodziner said, “Sukkot is the most all-embracing, and — I was just sharing with this with a student yesterday who’s going through a conversion process — Sukkot is really about the ingathering of all people.”

What students seem to value most about Sukkot, says Noam Bentov, director of Hopkins Hillel, is the chance to “take a breather.”

“It’s more than just a design for functionality, it also allows them to socialize, meet other students that, eating in a big dining room, they won’t be able to meet, so I do think it’s a great opportunity for our students to … enjoy a holiday setting, enjoy meeting new people and really celebrate,” Bentov said.

Rivkin agreed.

“It’s kind of cool and beautiful, because they can build their own sukkah and then they get to share in the sukkah and everybody eats in the sukkah the same, and everybody participates in the holiday in the same way, and it’s a very unifying holiday for the community.”


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