Inviting Ushpizin into our NIF Sukkah

28 September 2023

Photo Credit: Yoninah, Wikimedia Commons

With the Days of Awe behind me, I’m now ready for my favorite of the fall Jewish holidays, Sukkot. While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are primarily focused upon quiet, personal reflection and self improvement, Sukkot is a thanksgiving holiday, an opportunity to find gratitude for the blessings life has bestowed upon us, encouraging us to share those blessings with others.

The sukkah – the temporary hut traditionally built and lived in during the holiday– testifies to that theme. It recalls the tents ancient farmers slept in while working long hours in their fields to collect the summer’s bounty, AND it is an open space, welcoming visitors and curious guests to join us for a drink or snack as summer turns to autumn. My favorite Sukkot custom is a kabbalistic one, the inviting of Ushpizin, which proposes the mystical notion that the sukkah can draw not only our neighbors in the here and now, but metaphysical/historical guests from our tradition’s memory as well. However, rather than inviting the Zohar’s traditional guests – an all male cadre of ancient Jewish heroes – I’ve adopted my sister-in-law, Molly Rubin’s custom of inviting each guest at her sukkah to share the name of a person – living or deceased – that they’d most want to have by their side for the meal. Then, Molly asks each person who visits her sukkah to tell the story of their beloved Ushpiz, and why they hold that person dear. When I’ve visited her sukkah for the large and delicious holiday meals she hosts there, I’ve always left both inspired and encouraged by the lessons and stories the other guests have shared about their beloved and unique Ushpizin.

This Sukkot, with Israel’s democracy in a state of true peril, I fear that many of us – justifiably! – are exhausted by the troubling news from the region. With that in mind (and with my sister-in-law’s permission) I’d like to offer a new Ushpizin custom for 2023. I hope that you’ll allow me to share the names and stories of two incredible activists – my Sukkot 2023 NIF Ushpizin – who are working on the ground in Israel/Palestine today and who I will be “inviting” into my Sukkah for the upcoming holiday. (Alas, they won’t actually be visiting me in LA, but I’ll print their photos to pin on my sukkah’s walls, and I’ll be sharing their stories with visitors who join us for a holiday meal.)  

As my first Ushpiz for this Sukkot, I’d like to invite Nasser Nawaj’ah, the recipient of NIF’s first William S. Goldman Truth to Power Award which our board bestowed upon him on September 4. Nasser is a community activist, a researcher for B’tselem, and an unflappable leader in the movement that continues to insist upon the basic human rights of all Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank. Even though he was born, and has lived his entire life under military rule, Najaw’ah stands firm in his dedication to a non-violent struggle against occupation through documenting, writing and lecturing about injustice. I am in awe of his steadfast commitments. You can learn more about Nasser here and here.

Along with Nasser, I’m inviting protest leader and activist for Jewish-Arab partnership in Israel, Shir Nosatzki, to my Sukkah as my second Ushpiz.  Shir has been a civil society leader and changemaker for more than a decade, beginning with the 2011 Israeli social justice protests for healthcare, education and housing reform. She later co-founded NIF grantee organization “Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?” an incredible NGO that we are proud to support for its work advancing Jewish-Arab political partnership. Since January 2023, Shir has been one of the organizers of the weekly protests against the current government’s attempted judicial coup.  And… while I can’t bring Shir to my sukkah or to yours unfortunately  – you can all meet Shir at NIF’s October 15th Guardians of Democracy Gala– either live in San Francisco or virtually from the comfort of your homes. That night we’ll be celebrating Shir Nosatzki’s leadership and bestowing upon her our 2023 Gallanter Prize for Emerging Israeli Social Justice Leaders. To learn more about Shir or sign up for our gala celebration, follow this link.

With leaders like Nasser, Shir, and tens of thousands of others who have taken to the streets to insist upon the key principles of liberal democracy, I am confident that we have much to be thankful for this Sukkot holiday.  I hope that you will join me in inviting Shir and Nasser into your sukkah, that you will help me share the stories of these heroes with your friends and guests in the week ahead, and that you will consider joining us – either virtually or IRL in San Francisco on October 15th to toast our Guardians of Democracy.

Chag Sameach and to a more just, shared and democratic tomorrow,