Rachel Alexander, an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, is Director of Development at Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County and High School of Long Island. Although she works in Long Island, she proudly resides in New York City in her temporary shelter. She can be reached at ralexand@aol.com

In 1999 I moved to New York after spending the year at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I had spent the entire month of Elul learning the Mishnayot pertaining to Sukkot, and I was very excited to implement my new knowledge on building a sukkah. My favorite trip was to Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve, which constructs sample sukkot from various scenarios in the mishnah. 

Sukkot has always been my favorite holiday. Not only is my birthday on Sukkot, but I love all things related to this season – the food, the weather, and the warm clothing. I understand why the Rabbis called Sukkot, HaHag. In Providence, I had built a huge sukkah for my family from scratch. I vividly remember my high school years, going to Home Depot and talking with the various departments about the size of wood they recommended for my project. During college I found Sukkot where it was safe to sleep, and in Jerusalem, I convinced my roommate to let me build a sukkah on our mirpeset (balcony) even though she was fairly certain that women would grow hair on their bodies if they participated in these types of activities.

Therefore, my quandary of how to spend Sukkot led me to flee New York City and join my friends in Madison, Wisconsin. For several years I participated with them in collecting the bounty of the season from their women-run local, organic farm. With the rich array of vegetation, we not only decorated the sukkah, but we also cooked meals for the community. A favorite part of the festivities was convincing a local corn farmer to let us pull up some corn stalks for s’chach. Together with my hosts, both Reconstructionist Rabbis, we became quite accustomed to teaching the neighbors the purpose of this construction project. We explained that Leviticus teaches “…that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43) and therefore we were building a booth to remember the temporary structures that our ancestors slept in during their 40 years in the desert.

Another key component of the holiday is the celebration of the harvest, as Exodus says: “You shall keep the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor.” (Exodus 23:16) As someone who worked on a farm throughout high school, I understand the celebration of collecting the fruit that the land has provided. The earth is so fragile that each fruit that

comes forth is truly a blessing. This year I participated in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), the Garden of Eve in Riverhead, NY which provided me with weekly produce.

Every week was a surprise of fruits from the season. Some weeks were filled with an abundance of berries, but other weeks reflected the lack of rain or sunshine and provided a mere handful of bite-size plums. As I pulled up to Temple Sinai in Roslyn, NY this week, I thought about all the raspberries, blueberries and peaches of the summer that are now long gone. Sukkot in New York represents the end of the abundant harvest, and the parsnips, radishes and beets are a tangible sign that it is time to start planning for Hag HaSukkot.

This year I am not able to celebrate Sukkot in Madison, so I am left with the question: How should I celebrate Sukkot in the City? I could try to find a friend with a balcony or perhaps share the sukkah with a synagogue. However, these past few weeks my primary interactions have not been about celebration but rather about the tough times of job losses and economic misfortunes. The Sukkah is a temporary dwelling that I build each year to remind me of the fragility of life and my need to rely on G-d for protection. This year I feel that my own home is a temporary shelter. As the Director of Development at Schechter, I am hearing dozens of stories from my major donors about losing jobs in the financial district and struggling with how to pay their mortgages. Even the rich are learning the lesson of the season that our homes are only temporary shelters provided by G-d.

Besides the economic crisis, my friend Dalia in Galveston, Texas is wrestling with her home that seemed so strong and now has been flooded by the Hurricane season. She spent Rosh Hashanah celebrating that she finally had electricity in her home. Now she is spending Sukkot cleaning the first floor that was filled with water and has started growing fungus and mold along with other debris. She is hoping that she can leave the temporary dwelling of the second floor of her home and return to the first floor. She is not interested in building a sukkah this year. She feels fortunate to still have her home.

For the past two years, I have been volunteering at the B’nai Jeshurun Homeless Shelter on 86th and West End. Once a month, I brush my teeth, put on my sweats and walk down to the shelter for my 9 pm-6 am shift. The city organizes a van that brings ten women to the shelter for dinner, shelter and a shower. Together we make our beds with the same scratchy sheets and wool blankets and line up our cots side by side. It is a very humbling experience to look around the room and see that we are all the same – you cannot tell the difference between the homeless women and the volunteers. 

There are currently 34,662 homeless in NYC today according to the NYC Department of Homeless Services. Many of these homeless people tell stories that could be anyone’s future story – “I attended Yale undergraduate, and now I am trying to put my daughter through college. She does not know that I am sleeping at the shelter.” Another woman explains “Business was not going well, and then one day I could not pay the rent.” I met a woman my age who explained to me that she had relocated from New Orleans because the government promised assistance. Unfortunately she could not access the assistance, and she was sleeping in the NYC shelter system.

Looking from cot to cot, the women are listening to their ipods and reading the newspaper – habits from their old lives. I think about how much money I have in the bank and how many months I could pay rent if I lost my job – not a happy thought. I should make myself comfortable on this cot.

Therefore, I have decided to celebrate Sukkot by enjoying my own temporary structure – my apartment on West 96th Street – because I see that my shelter could easily disappear as the homes of the hurricane victims, the homes of the Wall Street workers and the homes of the BJ Shelter Guests, if I am not blessed with a good harvest this season.