How good and how pleasant it is that brothers and sisters dwell together” (Psalms 133:1)
הנה מה טוב ומה נעים, שבת אחים ואחיות גם יחד" לפי תהילים קל (ג א)
Ushpizin is an Aramaic word that means “guests.” One Sukkot custom is to symbolically host our ancestors as ushpizin in our sukkah, one each night of the holiday. In light of our egalitarian values, progressive Jews have traditionally extended this invitation to include our foremothers, as well as significant figures from modern history and the present time.
This beautiful tradition portrays a valuable message. Firstly, it transcends time and geography, real and mythical context, encouraging us to enrich our lives with the wisdom of our tradition and add meaning to it with our own ideas and interpretations of the roles these guests play in our lives. It also creates a palpable connection between generations. Most importantly, it educates us that even as we are commanded to leave the comfort and security of our homes and move into transitory and fragile shelters, our hearts should always remain open and our tables should have room to welcome our neighbors. Once again, we are reminded of the importance of belonging to a community and supporting it.
A few years ago, Reform Jewish communities around North America engaged in a yearlong “Modern Ushpizin” initiative, led by the Jewish Agency for Israel in partnership with Reform Jewish summer camps and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). One model of this initiative was built around Israeli teens, who took a gap year before serving in the Israel Defense Forces and came to serve as shlichim, or emissaries, as educators in day schools, congregations, and camps. They brought with them personal stories and experiences from Israel to their North American institutions and the families that hosted them. Last year, the URJ enhanced this transformative initiative and launched, in partnership with camps and congregations, a new model whereby young Israelis who completed their army service came to serve as Jewish educators and Israeli emissaries, building bridges between campers, congregations, and camps and with Israel.
The beauty of these peoplehood initiatives is that rather quickly, it became clear to all parties involved that the roles were reciprocal. For the Israeli emissaries (I was one of them), this was an adventure and a journey with Judaism in general and with Progressive Judaism in particular. For the hosting communities and institutions, the journey with Israel was deeply enriched, becoming more nuanced and personal after forming a connecting with shlichim. The shlichut experience created strong personal connections between Israelis and North Americans.
When we host the ushpizin in our sukkot, we know that they are our guests, and as metaphorical figures, we invite them to teach us or represent ideas and values which serve as inspiration to us. But as they leave, they are more likely to change us than to be changed by us. For me, after two transformative shlichuyot – first serving as an emissary for the Reform Movement in the UK and for the last four years for the URJ – and working closely with many other shlichim, I can say with confidence and gratitude that I have been enriched and educated, as a person and as a professional, by the experience, and by the communities and individuals I worked with. The wonder and power of the encounter lays in the ability to co construct the experience, to see the familiar with fresh eyes, whether it be Israel, Judaism or our personal story. To connect and build lasting friendships, to be inspired by the generosity of the hosting community and the opportunity to host them when they visit Israel, and by the opportunity to engage in a reciprocal learning process that will generate new meaning to the self, Israel, Judaism and the community itself. I believe that this is the idea behind the mitzvah, or good deed, of hosting usphizin, and that we are fortunate to have enhanced it into a lifelong journey with each other.
Rabbi Yehudit Werchow is the Director of Israel Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism. She was born in Argentina and grew up in Israel.
The URJ hopes to extend the Shlichut experience in the near future. Please contact Rabbi Werchow if your community would like to participate in this important endeavor.
Image from Temple Emeth, Teaneck, NJ