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Sukkahfest Reflections

By Toby Shulruff

My family and I live in Portland, Oregon – which is both geographically and symbolically out on the edges of American Jewish life. My husband and I work outside of Jewish community. Our neighborhood is a little oasis of diversity in the very white northwest –our neighbors are from all over the world, often recent immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. I love raising my kids to know all our neighbors, and at the same time, it makes our connection to Jewish life all the more precious.

Finding a Jewish community for our family took a long time. Though Portland might sound like the frontier, it actually has more than eight shuls, a Jewish museum, and even an Unshul! But for my family, we want the Torah learning of the Chasidim, with the social justice of Heschel, with a heavy dose of Earth-based mysticism, gender equality and pluralism, interfaith connection, and lots of kids, all in an atmosphere of profound joy and ecstatic music.

We have a hard time finding a home even when we are at home. Coming to Sukkahfest at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut is a return to center, because all of the things we long for in Jewish life are in one place.

Under the sukkah, farm-to-table meals serve up the best of the harvest. The combined song and praise from the three minyans (Orthodox, Traditional Egalitarian, and Renewal) blend and rise up over Lake Miriam, up through the turning leaves of the hills beyond. And in the time in between, there is deep learning offered by rabbis and teachers across the spectra of Jewish text and experience – and pickle making!

Our kids can get joyfully muddy as they explore the farm, meet the goats, hike the hills, and play in the excellent Camp Teva program. We dive into sessions on Jewish ecology, anti-racism, the Divine feminine, the history of the Aleph Bet and Torah scribing, Jewish yoga, sweet Chasidic teaching, or take a meditative walk in the deep woods.

My favorite place is Sukkat Chalom – the Sukkah of Dreams. Gathering here at night for a tisch, my daughter cuddles up in my lap under a blanket. The smell of hay bales, schach, and recent rain fills the air. The moonlight and the sukkah’s twinkling decorative lights shine on the gathered faces. We sing, dance, and pound the tables in joyful celebration of the season, and being together.

“All Streams, One Source,” is the resounding call of the gathering, and the echo that follows me through the rest of my year. It is a well I draw from when I return home: in my work, in my shul, and in my connection to Judaism.

We’re often asked why we travel all the way across the country to go to Sukkahfast. Why? Because until Jerusalem, the City of Peace, is spread all across the Earth, may it be speedily and in our days, Sukkahfest is like no other place on Earth.


Toby Shulruff learns and plays with her family in the Pacific Northwest.