Jeffrey and Gloria Lippert started their 46th annual Sukkot celebration on Oct. 1 with a group photo of the dozens of friends and community members gathered on the lawn at their Flossmoor home.
The celebration always starts with a snapshot to document who was present. Photos from the first 25 gatherings line the walls of the Sukkah, which means “booth” in Hebrew, a small three-sided structure.
Because the group was multicultural, including a number of non-Jews, the Lipperts invited three local rabbis — Rabbi emeritus Ellen Dreyfus of Shir Tikvah in Homewood, Rabbi Jenny Steinberg-Martinez of the Joliet Jewish Congregation and Rabbi Gidon Isaacs of Temple Beit Shalom in Munster — to provide historical and spiritual context for the holiday and translations of the Hebrew terms in the ceremony.
Steinberg-Martinez began with the traditional roots of the holiday.
“Sukkot comes from when we traveled from slavery to freedom,” she said. The word is the plural of Sukkah. The book of Exodus in the Torah refers to the Isaelites using the portable booths for shelter during the 40 years they spent in the desert following their escape from slavery in Egypt. The holiday is sometimes referred to as “the festival of booths.”
She said the three-sided construction was significant because it meant “the front door is always open because everybody’s always welcome in the Sukkah.”
The walls and ceiling are covered loosely with plant fronds, making it easy to see the stars, which is also significant, Steinberg-Martinez said.
“You can look at the stars in the sky and feel small, or you can look at the stars in the sky and feel some part of something really, really big,” she said. “I think both of those feelings are important to our humanity.”
She cited 16th century Jewish sage Isaac Luria as describing sitting in the Sukkah to being embraced by God.
“He said that sitting in the sukkah was like getting a hug from God,” she said.
Isaac spoke next, explaining the significance of The Four Kinds, a combination of palm branch, myrtle, willow frond and citron that is used to bless the Sukkah.
He talked about the historical meaning of each element but also noted their metaphorical meanings, representing the parts humans need to do good in the world.
Dreyfus connected the holiday’s importance to the Jewish people’s agricultural roots. In addition to remembering the journey to freedom, the holiday also marks the annual harvest.
“So if you look at the story in the Bible, you will find that Sukkot is the most important festival,” she said. She characterized the Jewish high holidays that precede Sukkot as preparation for the big event.
“Why is Sukkot so important? Well, if you are in an agricultural economy … if you don’t have a harvest, you don’t last the winter,” she said. “So it’s an opportunity for us to rejoice in the festival, to enjoy the harvest, to connect with nature, but also to remember those who may not be as fortunate.”
Gloria Lippert also shared the story of how she started the Sukkot gathering tradition back in 1978. She was a working single mother of three girls then and had never had a sukkah at her own home, so she decided to build one herself.
She was dating Jeffrey at the time and invited him to come over for a Sukkot celebration with her family, and the tradition was born. She said in the early years, the gathering was for her Jewish friends and family, but that changed over time.
“The more I saw antisemitism around me — and I had a lot of close friends that didn’t understand much about my faith — I thought what a perfect opportunity to introduce people to a warm and welcoming harvest festival,” she said. “This holiday … fills my heart in a way that most others do not.”
She said the diversity of the gathering in friendship promotes understanding “as we learn more about each other. I want to thank each and every one of you for coming, for being a part of my life.”
Jeffrey concurred. He said the gathering is something the family looks forward to every year.
“It’s our sacred events for friends and family and new acquaintances and old acquaintances,” he said. Pointing to the photos from past events lining the walls of the sukkah, he added, “All of these people who no longer are with us — they’re also present.”