Remembering my Father on Sukkot
By Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow
Everyone warned me that the High Holidays would be hard this year after the recent passing of my father, but in truth, it was just not the case – until now.
As a Jewish camp alum and professional, I typically associate the Sukkah with camp. Camp – like a Sukkah – is temporary, but the brevity of our time there endows it with a special sense of holiness. Camp is an intentional community we create with our own hands, yet it is a mystical and meaningful place that transcends the physical space in which it’s located.
My father did not especially connect with the High Holidays. He was not a religious Jew in any conventional way, but he was a deeply spiritual person. And while he was a genius and spent an extraordinary amount of his time and energy in his formidable mind, he loved to build things with his hands.
Some of my favorite memories of my father are of his building things. For him, building a Sukkah made more sense than the more abstract Jewish rituals. This Sukkot, I pause to contemplate anew the nature of the Sukkah, in memory of my father.
When we think of a Sukkah, we often think of a hut covered in branches. While a Sukkah is a tangible physical structure formed by human hands, it is also connects us to experiences we can’t see or touch in a traditional sense: the history of our people, and our metaphysical relationship with God. It’s a lovely paradox that by entering the enclosed space of the Sukkah, we connect to something outside of ourselves. We’re supposed to cover the Sukkah with branches so we can still see the stars, which can be viewed as a reminder that we can always find light in the world, so long as we don’t close ourselves off from it.
While the Sukkah allows us to enter our historical and religious memories, it is also a place we build to spend time with our families. My father found deep spiritual fulfillment in creating a space for his family to meet and be together. He was not just building a physical structure; he was building family connections and cherished memories. When I enter a Sukkah, I not only bring the historical memories of the Jewish people with me, but my personal memories of my family as well. When I enter a Sukkah, I can’t help but think of my father and all the joyful times we shared within its walls. He is there with me.
My mourning has intensified this Sukkot. I find comfort, however, in the nature of the Sukkah itself. A Sukkah is made up of tangible materials that come from the earth, but it also connects us with the mysteries of heaven and the treasured memories of our communal and personal past. And even in the absence of the earthly structure, the light shines on.
May the Memory of James Joseph Orlow z’l
Rabbi Avi Orlow is the Vice President of Innovation and Education at Foundation for Jewish Camp. Before joining FJC in 2008, Avi was the Campus Rabbi and Assistant Director of the St. Louis Hillel at Washington University and has held numerous positions as rabbi, educator, and youth leader. He spent 17 years as a camper and then educator at Ramah Camps in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and YUSSR camps in the Former Soviet Union. Avi has a B.A. in religious studies from Columbia University. He was ordained in the charter class at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the open Orthodox rabbinical school. Avi lives in White Plains with his wife, Cantor Adina Frydman, and their children, Yadid, Yishama, Emunah, and Libi.