The lulav and the etrog joined the flora and the fauna at Yosemite last week, as more than 800 members of the Brandeis Hillel Day School community made a pilgrimage to the national park to celebrate Sukkot.
Students and their families built a communal sukkah on the valley floor, eating some meals not only underneath a thatched roof but also in the shadow of Half Dome and El Capitan.
The event began in 2001 and occurs once every three years — so the visit from Sept. 23 through Sept. 25 was the school’s fourth. Tabbed “Sukkat Shalom: A Canopy of Peace,” it was attended by more than half of the 520 families that send their kids to Brandeis Hillel Day School, which has campuses in San Francisco and Marin.
“Coming here to Yosemite just feels like Sukkot for us,” said Jan Reicher, the immediate past president of BHDS. She joined the festivities in Yosemite with her husband, Yossie Alouf, and their daughters, Adi and Alex. “What could be more Sukkot-like than feeling grateful in nature? And there’s also nothing better for building community.”
Adi Alouf attended the event even though she is no longer a BHDS student; she’s now a sophomore at Jewish Community High School of the Bay.
“It’s so fun. I have so many wonderful memories of Sukkot in Yosemite,” said Adi, who helped lead one of three Shabbat prayer services on Friday night. “Every time, I explore something new and make connections with new people.”
Organizing an event for more than 800 people — students, parents and 25 staff members — almost 200 miles away from San Francisco is no simple matter. A planning committee of 17 volunteers worked for an entire year to ensure that things ran smoothly. According to planning committee member Todd Strauss, the biggest challenge was ensuring the success of such a highly decentralized program.
Some participants stayed for the whole event, and others attended a portion of it. With so many people altogether, it was impossible for everyone to be in the same place at the same time.
Families were given a wide variety of options in terms of both accommodation and activities. Some families stayed at one of the hotels or lodges in the park, while others camped in cabins, tents or RVs. Vanessa Friedman, who made the trek in an RV with her husband, Marty, and daughters, Sofia and Sara, reported that some families even built their own sukkahs at their camping spots.
Communal prayer services for Sukkot, Shabbat and Havdallah were led by students, parents and faculty. Hikes, art classes, Torah study and bicycle rides were also offered. Some hikes were lead by naturalists and professional photographers, but others were led by volunteers from the school community and focused on Jewish content.
Fourth-grader Chloe Tickten, who attends BHDS in San Francisco, enjoyed the hike on which faculty members dressed as ushpizin (guests) showed up along the route. “We had to guess who they were,” she recalled excitedly. “There was Moses, Abraham, Jacob and some other ones.”
There were grade-level dinners and campfires — some planned ahead of time and others put together spontaneously.
Friedman, whose daughters attend BHDS in Marin, said she really enjoyed the opportunity to get to know families from the San Francisco campus. “Being in such a beautiful setting with our community is so spectacular, so spiritual,” she added.
Stephen Tickten, whose three children attend the San Francisco campus, said that his family is now friendly with other families they met at the same event three years ago.
Chaim Heller, the BHDS head of school, was pleased to see the event get off to such a rousing start, as some 200 people gathered the morning of Sept. 23 for Shacharit services.
“This program is a real passion of mine,” said Heller. “We even have students’ grandparents flying in from around the country to be with us.”
The kids had a wide range of favorite experiences — from seeing animals (two male bucks, a baby bear and a coyote) on a bike ride to going on a hike with dad next to a waterfall to doing art projects in the middle of a meadow.
It was “part summer camp, part Israel — and all at the base of the Yosemite Valley floor,” said one dad, Marc Dollinger.
Sam Lauter, a dad with two children on the San Francisco campus, hopes that even more families do the trip in 2013. “It’s too beautiful a place and too great a community to miss it,” he said.
Strauss echoed the sentiment.
“Torah in the morning, a bike ride in the afternoon, and then seeing the moonlight reflected off El Capitan and Half Dome at night,” he said. “What Sukkot experience could be better?”