For the first time in its long, storied history, Rome’s Jewish community is taking the fall holiday of Sukkot to the streets by erecting a temporary dwelling known as a sukkah at a public piazza in the heart of the Italian capital.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hazan, who moved to Rome some 30 years ago to open the city’s first Chabad-Lubavitch center, is constructing the dwelling – a biblically-commanded remembrance of the huts used by the Jewish people thousands of years ago during their trek through the desert – in the heart of the Piazza Farnese, just meters from the French Embassy and a stone’s throw from the Coliseum. Municipal officials and Israeli diplomats will help inaugurate the structure during a ceremony on Monday.

According to Hazan, small community sukkahs have for years been built in the courtyards of Rome’s synagogues, but the construction represents the first time that a large public gathering will be able to take place in one. Many people follow the custom of doing all of their eating and drinking in a sukkah during the week-long holiday of Sukkot, which this year begins Friday night.

When the rabbi applied for permission to erect the structure, he was pleasantly surprised when the city not only approved of the plans, but offered to pay for its costs as a show of support to Rome’s Jewish community. Hazan contrasted the warm reception to reactions 22 years ago when he presided over the city’s first public Chanukah menorah lighting.

“Back then, people were scared. There was simply no such thing as being that Jewish, that publicly,” explained Hazan. “But now, people have courage. This is one of the ways the community has grown. Everyone is simply excited and looking forward to Sukkot.”

Students and Soldiers

Among the public Jewish awareness campaigns that the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, launched over the years, the one dealing with Sukkot was the first. Beginning in 1953, just a couple years after assuming the leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch, the Rebbe asked his followers to meet fellow Jews wherever they may be and offer them the chance to bless the Four Species, one of the Sukkot commandments. Today, such expressions of Jewish pride have become almost ubiquitous, and in Rome, Hazan and his staff will likewise encourage the city’s Jews to bless the combination of date palm branch, myrtle twigs, willow branches and citron.

He is counting on a delegation of VIPs at Monday’s reception to draw attention to the holiday. When the Farnese sukkah opens just blocks from the one-time Jewish ghetto, appearances by Reuven Rivlin, speaker of the Israeli parliament, and Israeli Ambassador Gideon Meir will lead into a music festival later that night.

Students at the University of Maryland enjoy a Sukkot moment.
Students at the University of Maryland enjoy a Sukkot moment.

Events coordinated by all of the city’s Chabad Houses will take place in the sukkah throughout the week. In addition, Jewish youth groups representing between 400 and 500 children have shown interest in attending a program at the structure. One local non-Jewish school is also looking to take a class trip there so that students can learn about Jewish history and traditions.

Elsewhere in the world, Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidim, emissaries and rabbinical students will fan out on foot and in “sukkah-mobiles,” vehicles outfitted with sukkahs, to offer Jews far and wide the same opportunity. (To find holiday events at locations around the globe, click here.)

At Cambridge University in England, Rabbi Reuven Leigh will be greeting students at the Fresher’s Fair welcoming them back to campus, and introducing them to his sukkah and the Four Species.

“In my experience, of all the campaigns that the Rebbe launched,” stated Leigh, “this is the one that people seem to be warmest to.”

Several commentators throughout Jewish history have asserted that among other things, the Four Species symbolize the unity of the Jewish people.

“It’s intriguing to take something that looks like a simple bundle of greenery,” said Leigh, “and with it, do a mitzvah.”

Among the thousands of events scheduled for next week, several community-based Chabad House in North America, such as Chabad of the East Bay in Berkeley, Calif., will be hosting mini-reunions for participants in their Camp Gan Israel summer camps. All told, hundreds of thousands of Jews will be celebrating the holiday at programs ranging from late-night pizza dinners in sukkahs to ice cream parties and live concerts.

As in years past, institutions are also working to ensure that Jewish prisoners and military personnel are able to celebrate Sukkot. Rabbi Menachem Katz of the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization that serves the interests of Jewish soldiers and inmates, said that his staff has been working round the clock to meet the needs of servicemen and women in Afghanistan, Iraq, and bases around the world. This year, Aleph has been arranging gatherings at several bases for personnel granted leaves of a day or two from more-forward operating areas. It has also shipped sets of the Four Species to military installations throughout the Middle East and Africa.

At hundreds of college campuses, meanwhile, Chabad Houses will also be helping busy Jewish students celebrate Sukkot.

Rabbi Eli and Nechama Backman, who for 14 years have served the Jewish community at the University of Maryland at College Park, will be hosting thousands of students over the course of the holiday. They will make special visits to the university’s 15 fraternity and sorority houses, as well as the campus dorms with their mobile sukkah, ending each day by parking the sukkah on the campus’ main street. And this year, they’re coordinating a Jewish cultural event at the university’s Language House – a dormitory for students majoring in foreign languages – with the house’s Hebrew cluster. The Backmans’ Chabad House is providing a sukkah for the students’ use, and Eli Backman will speak about the deeper meaning of Sukkot.

“The sacrifices offered during Sukkot at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem were offered on behalf of all nations in the world, and this dorm attracts students who have an interest in learning about, and in the well-being of, other nations,” remarked Backman. “It’s interesting to have an event there during this holiday. I’m looking forward to the discussions we’ll have.”

As on many other campuses, part of Sukkot will coincide with College Park’s Parents Weekend, and the Backmans will be welcoming students and their families to meals in their sukkah. For the holiday of Simchat Torah, which immediately follows Sukkot, an estimated 200 people will join the Chabad House in late-night celebrations at a closed-off traffic circle near the freshman dorms.

“It’s amazing what pure joy can do,” said Nechama Backman. “What students love most about this time of year is the pure joy: not connected to something external, just real happiness.”