Sukkot celebrates the fall harvest, but its meanings and traditions carry a message of spirituality that can be carried throughout the year.
The tradition of eating meals outside in a fragile booth — the sukka — presents an opportunity to practice a tenet of hospitality central to Jewish community and an individual’s personal growth.
“We can be the person who not only invites the person who needs a place to go on Sukkot, but we can be the person who pushes themselves every day to perform mitzvot and take care of whoever needs help,” said spiritual educator Mindy Shapiro. “It’s all about pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones. This is what I also teach in my classes — what it means to open up our hearts.”
Shapiro will share her teachings at Sukkot Under the Stars, a program sponsored by Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at Congress Hill Farm in Monroe. Sukkot is celebrated this year from the evening of Sept. 27 to sundown Oct. 4.
The program will be held on the farm where federation board member Laurie Landy operates Special Strides, using horses to provide therapy to children with special needs.
“We are celebrating Sukkot and the mitzvot associated with the holiday, one of which is tzedaka,” said Women’s Philanthropy director Iris Altschuler.
Program chair Robin Wander of Bradley Beach said the event will offer women who have never been in a sukka the opportunity to share in the experience with their peers. For others, it will broaden their connection to the festival.
“We just want people to unite on this beautiful holiday, bringing in nature and fall and connecting to the holiday and each other,” said Wander.
Shapiro is a longtime Jewish communal professional who has worked at several campus Hillels, including the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. She is founding director of Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!, a program that aims to develop strong Jewish identity and leadership skills in girls.
The program “is going to be experiential,” said Shapiro in a phone conversation with NJJN from her Philadelphia home. “I don’t just talk at people, but involve meditation and discussion. I hope the women who come will have an experience where they learn to bring the lessons of Sukkot into their everyday lives.”
Shapiro is a proponent of Mussar, a tradition of teachings that focus on introspection and self-improvement. Since 2003, she has studied Mussar with Rabbi Ira Stone, an author and teacher at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, and helped found Mussar Pathways, which promotes the practice.
Shapiro also owns a beach house in Ocean Grove. During the last two Shavuot holidays, she taught at the tikun leil Shavuot, the traditional all-night study session, at the Orthodox Congregation Agudath Achim in Bradley Beach.
“Mussar is a Jewish spiritual discipline,” she said. “Some people think of it as ‘ethics’ and ‘morality,’ which is how it’s translated, but it’s more ‘mindfulness.’
“The holiday of Sukkot itself really embodies the principles and spiritual practice of Mussar, which tells us to get out of the way of ourselves so we can see others in front of us. It is really the Golden Rule — love thy neighbor as thyself.”
She said she would use several kabalistic teachings at the program, connecting them to midot, virtuous traits for developing good character.
“We will look at what virtues help us stay in the present in an age when we’re often very distracted,” said Shapiro. “In a sukka, the biggest commandment is to invite the stranger, guests, into our sukka, and we’re going to explore what that really means.”