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Rabbi Joshua Boettiger with the Sukkah frame made by a timber framing workshop he helped lead at the Bennington Museum. (Photo by Mark E. Rondeau)

Congregation Beth El observes holiday of Sukkot with special ritual structure

From the Bennington Banner, Oct. 3, 2009
"You will dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths."
                                                                                — Leviticus 23:42 
Staff Writer
BENNINGTON — Congregation Beth El is celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in part with a special community dinner, an outdoor kosher barbecue on Monday in the upper meadow of the Bennington Museum from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.

Sukkot, also known as the festival of booths, began on Friday at sunset, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. The holiday, which will continue until Thursday, has both a historical and agricultural
significance. It commemorates the 40-year period during which the children of Israel wandered in the desert after fleeing Egypt and lived in temporary shelters. Sukkot also celebrates the time of harvest.

“The commandment on Sukkot is to live in a structure,” said Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, of Congregation Beth El. “Not a lot of people live in it anymore, but hopefully people will spend the night.”

The festival is traditionally observed by making a structure called a Sukkah. This structure usually isn’t particularly sturdy, as it is meant to be temporary. However, this particular structure is very sturdy, as its frame is the product of a timber-framing workshop Boettiger helped conduct at the museum last month. “It’s not going anywhere anytime soon,” Boettiger said with a laugh, as he showed a reporter the frame on Thursday.

When the frame was raised, a number of members of the Beth El community came out to  help. “You can’t see it, but it’s a timber frame tradition that when you drive the pegs you write a prayer on the peg and then you knock it in so that your prayers are literally holding the structure together,” Boettiger said. “So all of these pegs have someone’s name or a prayer on them.”
Boettiger worked as a carpenter for a few years between finishing college and entering seminary. He learned about timber framing then.

He’s interested in combining this training with the building of Jewish ritual structures, and found it moving to do physical things together as a community. “It’s embodied religion, it’s practice to make these kind of sacred structures.”

“You can obviously build a synagogue or a church but also we have these holidays like Sukkot,” Boettiger said. “It’s such a wonderful holiday, because it gives you a chance to be outside and work with your hands, so I like the rabbinic and carpentry worlds coming together this time of year.”

Because it is a harvest holiday, the Sukkah has walls made of cornstalks with small trees or banches across the top for a roof. Congregation members were going to place these on the frame on Friday, he said.

“And you build it so if it rains, you still get wet, you’re supposed to be vulnerable and kind of exposed to the elements. And then there’s gourds hanging down and pumpkins,” Boettiger said, noting its similarity to temporary huts farmers would use near the fields during the harvest. “And the other thing is...when the Israelites were going out of Egypt and each night slept...under God’s sheltering presence and exposed to the elements.”

Jewish holidays have components of social justice tied into them. With the themes of harvest, nomadism and vulnerability, part of Sukkot is that “you realize there’s a lot of people who live and don’t have a home...who live with this kind of vulnerability — not by their choice — year round. So it kind of calls that to attention,” Boettiger said.

The congregation has been sponsoring community dinners for those in need on the last Monday of each month. However, this month’s dinner will be held this Monday — the first Monday of October — at the Sukkah as part of the observance of the holiday. Throughout the week people will be in the meadow having picnics in and around it.

Boettiger expressed gratitude to the Bennington Museum for its support, not only in the timber framing workshop and in making a place for the Sukkah, but also for an exhibit that helped mark this, the congregation’s centennial year. The frame of the Sukkot will remain in place after the holiday is over.

“For one week a year it’s going to be a Sukkah, because we’ll  have the branches, the cornstalks but then it transforms into something the community can use the rest of the time.”