Rabbi Jonah Zinn held a microphone in his right hand, voice crackling through the speakers as he faced 50 young Jews before him.
Under string lights and paper streamers, University of Florida students on Friday night reclined at spaced tables protected in white plastic. The reclining was important, Zinn emphasized, because they celebrated two holidays in that moment: the weekly Friday Shabbat and the last night of Sukkot.
The harvest festival, Sukkot, is one the three Jewish high holidays. Jews spend seven or eight days congregating, praying and eating in a structure called a sukkah, or “booth.” These temporary dwellings serve as a reminder of how their ancestors wandered the desert for 40 years before arriving in Israel. And because decades make for a long time to wander, Jews now recline and rest with their autumn bounty.
Community is important to Jews, a reflection of a long history of persecution and forced diaspora. So despite the limitations to holding a Sukkot Shabbat service in the middle of a pandemic, the directors at UF Hillel knew they had to make it happen – as safely as possible.
Seventy students registered for the event at 6 p.m. Friday. Only after signing in by QR code and getting their temperatures taken could students sit under the tent at the UF Hillel Center. Tables were spaced out over the lawn, each with limited seating. Plexiglass separated catered food from Gill’s Kitchen and the hungry, masked students. Through a short service, a meal, community news and trivia, local Jews rested and bonded in-person for the first time in months.
“This holiday, in particular, has significant importance to us today,” Rabbi Zinn said to the students.
Every year on Sukkot, Jews read the last section of the Torah before beginning anew on Simchah Torah, the biblical day God gives them the text on Mount Sinai. The story is repetitive and familiar, just like the lulling days of this year, Zinn said. But it opens the opportunity to see familiar things anew.
“We’re in a different place this year than we were last year,” he said. “It’s easy to lose track of time and get sucked into the monotony of life.”
But by marking the moment with a little bit of celebration, Jews can regain their sense of time and comfort – and connect to their identities.
Tamar Abrahami, a 20-year-old member of the Hillel Student Board, started connecting more to her Jewish identity after leaving home. She missed the culture in which she grew up. She loved closing her eyes while lighting the Shabbat candles with her mom, drinking the safe-for-kids wine and stealing nibbles of Challah before the HaMotzi prayer.
Attending events at Hillel provides her with a sense of familiarity that she said she craves when she’s away from her family. At the event, she watched another student do the same prayer over two candles in silver holders, shielded from the wind in a glass box.
“Even though I don’t really know anyone at Hillel, I know I can identify with the people there at least on a religious and cultural basis,” Abrahami said.
Because the Shabbat event was outside, she said she felt completely safe while attending. She got her temperature taken upon entering, and once inside, everyone wore masks. The servers wore gloves while passing out grape juice for the Kiddush prayer, and she said the tables were far enough apart to feel protected. While Abrahami enjoyed attending a few of the Zoom events Hillel held during quarantine, it’s just a different experience actually shaking the lulav in the sukkah with friends.
Ashley Jones, Hillel’s Israel engagement associate, said their goal was to provide a safe opportunity for people to come and socialize. With outdoor events for the airflow, a mask requirement, temperature checks and contract tracing at the door, they worked to ensure both student enjoyment and following CDC guidelines.
It’s a mitzvah, or good deed, in the Torah to eat a meal in the sukkah. And while it’s been difficult to plan around a pandemic, she said she thinks the most important thing is how you celebrate holidays and what it means to you: “You’ll do whatever resonates with you as a Jew.”
The community aspect of Jewish life, Jones said, resonates with more people these days than the actual prayer part of it. Even over Zoom, people still attended.
“People love the Jewish community because they feel like they’re part of something,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to provide.”
As Rabbi Zinn raised a piece of challah in his right hand, he thanked God for the earth’s bounty, for the food he holds held that meal they were about to eat. Fifty voices joined in. Then, they took a bite of the sweet egg bread and say “Amen.”
In the week ahead, the reading of the Torah will begin from the top. And they’ll still have to be distanced while singing their prayers. But in this moment, Jews recline, rest and remember – together.