Amid the temporary dwellings in St. James Park is a Sukkah, a ritualistic hut that is built each year to commemorate the Jewish people’s migration during the Exodus, but which has come to symbolize the Occupy Toronto cause.
Jo Sorrentino isn’t Jewish. But when, in mid-October, friends asked if she wanted to help build a Sukkah—a ritualistic hut erected during the week-long Jewish harvest holiday Sukkot—in St. James Park, she happily agreed… and then asked, “What is that?”
Sorrentino—who regularly attends Occupy Toronto facilitation meetings—was one of roughly 12 people who met in St. James Park to discuss the relevance and logistics of implementing a Sukkah, which is traditionally built by observant Jews outside their homes to commemorate the temporary dwellings inhabited by the Biblical Israelites during their 40-year wandering in the desert.
Mika Gang is alumni coordinator for the Canadian chapter of the Socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair; Gang organized the St. James Sukkah initiative with friend Leora Smith, whom she credits with the idea. Much of their inspiration came from the “tent village” protests over high housing prices and low salaries in Israel this past summer.
“We’re using the founding idea that we should be taking responsibility for our societies, and we have a vision for what we want to be creating,” Gang says. “The idea of Sukkot is to humble our living arrangement and build a temporal structure that connects us to nature.”
Hashomer’s aim was to create a space for Jewish learning during the seven-day holiday of Sukkot, while aligning with Occupy Toronto’s anti-corporate, democratic and social-justice values, which she maintains are “very relevant to our ideology.”
In addition to a number of Hashomer alumni, Gang says the construction group—who returned a day after the initial planning session to put up the structure using pipes, tarps, cardboard and twine—included a woman studying to be a rabbi and a Palestinian.
“It was a very open forum,” she recalls.
The Sukkah was inaugurated on the evening of the following Sabbath with an inclusive vegan potluck and, in the subsequent days, Hashomer Hatzair members offered written explanations about the Sukkah’s purpose and invited other protesters to attend meals inside.
While they had planned to invite Jewish educators to facilitate learning events throughout the holiday, their plans were waylaid by forces beyond their control.
About a week after she had helped build it, Sorrentino found out via Facebook that the Sukkah had blown down during a bad windstorm. Although she had intended to help reconstruct it, Sorrentino returned to the park the following day to find that the Sukkah had already been rebuilt.
“That’s the really nice part of the story,” Gang says. “After it blew down, a few of the original builders came to work on it, and what they found was people from the [general] protest rebuilding it themselves.”
Once word had spread that the structure was meant to be a Sukkah and that the holiday was associated with the harvest, they decorated the newly built structure with pumpkins and corn.
“It was a very cute initiative,” says Gang. “It reflected a lot of the collective responsibility people are feeling at the protest.”
Sukkot has been over for two weeks now, but the new-model Sukkah remains intact, if smaller than its original. While some of the original builders use it as their home base, for many protesters that now sleep in it, it is simply another makeshift structures in the park that offers shelter from the elements.
“They view it as just a friendly shelter, which is really nice, because they’re [helping to] add to its collective maintenance,” says Gang.
Although Hashomer’s initial vision for the Sukkah didn’t take shape as initially envisioned, Gang says that a lot of their goals surrounding facilitation and learning are being fulfilled in different spaces around the park. Beside the Sukkah, a Free School holds daily lectures and hands-on workshops.
Hashomer will continue to find ways to engage with the Occupy Toronto movement; as an example, Gang cites the positive turnout several weeks ago for a rabbi-led Sabbath prayer service.
“It clarified that there is something very symbolic about practising our Judaism in this space. [Occupy Toronto] wants to be taking back and envisioning society, and we’re doing the same for our religion—there’s a kind of reevaluation of the [Biblical] stories and their relevance, seeing what is applicable to our struggles and challenges now.”