By Stacey Dresner
SPRINGFIELD/LONGMEADOW – A year ago when Michelle Anfang was completing her Wexner Heritage Fellowship, one of her missions was to come up with ways to show leadership in her Springfield-Longmeadow Jewish community.
“When I looked at our community, I thought that what we really needed was a way to integrate all of the different organizations into something that is really collaborative,” Anfang said. “Our demographics are shrinking and we are a smaller community than we used to be and I thought: strength in numbers is what we need to experience.”
Her goal was to “create something that is fun, exciting, engaging…pulling from all the different strains of Jewish involvement in the Jewish community.”
Anfang decided to look no further than one of her favorite Jewish holidays – Sukkot.
Her idea will come to fruition on Oct. 8 and 9 when the community will – in the true spirit of Sukkot — “Shake it Up” at SukkahFest, a “two-day Sukkot extravaganza” held in the fields of the Springfield Jewish Community Center.
The Shake it Up theme of Sukkahfest comes from one of the commandments of the Jewish holiday, which is to gather together four “species” or plants common in biblical times: etrog (citron fruit), lulav (palm frond), hadas (myrtle leaves), and aravah (willow tree branches). Each day during Sukkot, Jews shake the lulav and etrog while reciting a special blessing for the holiday.
A dozen sukkahs will be on display at Sukkahfest, sponsored by 13 different Jewish organizations and all featuring an assortment of Sukkot-inspired activities incorporating music, dance, crafts, and other kinds of family fun into the mix.
Family activities will include a Sukkot puppet show, arts and crafts including make your own tie dye t-shirts, PJ Library story readings, bounce house, zip-line, yoga and of course, lulav and etrog demonstrations.
Nefesh Mountain, a “Jewish Bluegrass” band will headline at a concert on Sunday night at 7 p.m., and on Monday at 5 p.m., a community fireside “kumzitz” or singalong will feature Rabbis James Green and Aharon Skoglund.
Both days will include “Study with the Rabbi” sessions with all of the rabbis from the local synagogue involved. And kosher food will be sold by several vendors.
T-shirts have been printed up with the Sukkahfest logo, designed by Matthew Cooper, a member of Sinai Temple and a graphic design major at the University of Hartford.
“I’ve always loved Sukkot,” Anfang said. “And because of the length of the holiday it afforded us an opportunity to all get together without anybody feeling like they are having to give up their own individual group’s experience. Each synagogue, each school has their own tradition, their own celebration but this allowed everybody to get together on common ground, to not lose their individual celebrations.”
Before Sukkahfest was born, Anfang first met with people in the community to seek their input.
“I met individually with all of the potential co-sponsors to really get a sense of whether they would be in on it if we did this — to say, ‘This is an idea, do you think we can pull it off? Would you be my partner?’”
The resounding reply was, “Yes!”
Two of the first people she spoke to were Michael Paysnick, executive director of the Springfield Jewish Community Center and Rabbi James Greene, its assistant executive director.
“Michelle initially spoke to us about the idea and we were enthusiastic about getting involved and making sure that it was here,” said Rabbi Greene, (who prefers to be addressed as Rabbi James). “We see the JCC as the living room of the Jewish community and this is a place where we welcome people and we build community, and Sukkot is really a holiday that’s centered around those ideals. So for us it made perfect sense to have it here.”
By the time the first “formation” meeting was held last February, everyone attending had heard about Sukkahfest firsthand from Anfang.
That first meeting was spent brainstorming.
“It was a very hands-on meeting,” Anfang explained. “I think very visually. I started out in a room with yellow sticky notes scattered all around – here’s a Temple Beth El sticky note and a LYA and here’s a Sinai…representing how we live our lives, all separate, all in our own little boxes. I really wanted to envision what would it look like if we were all in the same place at the same time — so kind of imagining a community potluck.”
It was agreed that every organization participating would donate $200, their own sukkah and a hands-on volunteer to plan their organization’s sukkah. They were also asked to advertise and promote the event to their own organization, to spread the word about the event.
From then, everyone was in and ready to make Sukkahfest a success.
“Sukkahfest is not just the different agencies coming together in an amazing way, but people are doing what they are really good at. There is is amazing synergy,” said Rochel Leah Kosofsksy of Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy (LYA), who is in charge of public relations and communication for the event.
“There is a great energy in the room when we have our meetings. Everyone is so excited to be involved,” Kosofsky said. “If someone comes up with an idea, it’s not, ‘Who will handle that?’ it is, ‘We will take care of it!’ It’s different from any other collaboration I’ve been involved in and I think it is because Michelle really used her best qualities and made everyone feel good about coming together and contributing. And that is what Sukkahfest is all about.’”
Anfang stressed that there had to be a “spirit of collaboration.”
“We wanted this to be a community event,” she said. “We didn’t want this to be a Beth El sukkah or a Sinai sukkah. These are all going to be multi-purpose sukkahs and we want to be able to focus on the content, not a competition between the sukkahs. This is not ‘come and visit us and read our literature to join us.’ This is a ‘come be part of the Springfield – Longmeadow community event.’”
On those two days, the sukkot will be arranged in a semi-circle on the JCC field, and a stage and large covered tent will also be set up for the event, which will happen rain or shine.
Each sponsoring organization will decorate their sukkah; each sukkah will have its own activities or purpose.
“My hope is that there will be members of the JCC staff hanging out in our sukkah and on the field really pushing this idea of radical hospitality and radical welcoming,” Rabbi James said.
Rabbi James will also be manning the JCC’s zip-line.
“People will be able to fly above the sukkot which will be a lot of fun since you can get a different vision of what the sukkot look like from above in the air while you are zipping,” he said.
PJ Library is creating its own special sukkah.
“We will have a cozy reading area with pillows and bean bag chairs, and of course, lot of PJ Library books,” said Kim Starkman, PJ Library coordinator for Western Mass. “We will have special craft projects throughout the two days and story times with special guest readers.”
Those readers include Sen. Eric Lesser, Rabbi Chaim Kosofsky, and PJ authors Naomi Schulman and Barbara Diamond.
“PJ Library brings people together with our wonderful books and programs. The Sukkahfest is doing the same thing by bringing people together via music, arts and crafts, storytelling, and food,” Starkman said.
And of course, in the end, Sukkot and its inherent themes will be celebrated.
“We wanted to focus on themes of gratitude, themes of community, themes of harvest,” Anfang explained. “Sukkot is a harvest festival. Certainly in Western Massachusetts we know from harvest festivals!”
To that end, SukkahFest will marry Jewish traditions with New England traditions – sharing lessons on Sukkot, the harvest, organic farming, and gleaning with participation from local farmers markets. Lulav and etrog will be available and attendees will be able to make the Sukkot blessings.
“This is an amazing opportunity for the entire community,” said Rochel Leah Kosofsky. “We encourage everyone to come and see what a vibrant Jewish community this is.”
Sponsors of Sukkafest are: Congregation B’nai Torah, Congregation Rodphey Sholom, Congregation Sons of Zion, Harold Grinspoon Foundation, Heritage Academy, Hebrew High School of New England, Independent City of Homes Association, JFS of Western Massachusetts, Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, JGS Lifecare, Lander-Grinspoon Academy, Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy, PJ Library, Rachel’s Table, Sinai Temple, Springfield JCC, Temple Beth El, and Wexner Heritage Foundation-NE14.
Community partners are: Bolduc’s Apparel, Cooper Media Design, Susan & Bill Firestone, The Ida and Harry Gaberman & Anne and Jonas Heit Fund, Harold Grinspoon Foundation, Marcus Printing Company, Ellen & David Ratner, Shmaltz Brewing Company, and Wendy Webber.
Sukkahfest will take place on Sun., Oct.8 from 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. and Mon., Oct. 9 from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. at the Springfield JCC, 1160 Dickinson St. All activities are free and reservations are not necessary. Kosher gourmet food will be available for purchase throughout the Sukkahfest. The event will be held rain or shine. For more information about Sukkahfest, its complete schedule or to get involved please contact Michelle Anfang at (413) 567-7840 or visit www.wmsukkahfest.org.