By Daniel S. Horwitz and Marisa Meyerson
The yearly field trip from the Sunday school classroom to the Sukkah in the courtyard of the synagogue was always a treat. We were able to have arts and crafts, snack time, and a fun lesson from the Rabbi all rolled into one, as we made paper chains and decorated the roof, sang hamotzi and noshed on challah, and learned how to shake the lulav and etrog. For most of us, the essence of Sukkot boiled down to this one Sunday morning or Wednesday afternoon activity, and we understood it as a sign that the fall season had arrived and the High Holiday season was nearing its end. As we got older, this version of Sukkot is what stayed with us.
Committed to infusing relevant Judaism into the lives of young adults, The Well embarked on a mission to rekindle a connection with Sukkot, and after a year of planning, EMBODIED: Séance – Kabbalah – Sukkah was born.
The origin story: The Well’s founding director, Rabbi Dan Horwitz, was attending the Kenissa Network conference when he met Jon Adam Ross, the founding artist and managing director of The In[heir]itance Project. An avant-garde theater company, The In[heir]itance Project aims to engage communities in unique artistic expressions by combining their lived experiences with sacred texts. Both named in the 2018 Slingshot Guide, The Well and The In[heir]itance Project share a mission of reaching those previously thought to be unreachable – using innovation and relevant tradition to forge a connection to community. A partnership quickly became clear, and the brainstorming began.
The central aspects of Sukkot are standard Sunday school curriculum: the sukkah, the lulav and etrog. Seldom taught though, is the mystic custom of ushpizin: inviting exalted ancestors into the sukkah. While the ushpizin (Aramaic for “guests”) are traditionally our Biblical heroes, we were prepared to get a bit more creative with just who was invited into our immersive Sukkot theater experience…
After several months of conceptualizing, script writing, and logistical planning, we had a framework for a series of gatherings. We started with a murder-mystery concept that slowly morphed its way into a séance; inviting our guests back from The World To Come to share with them the hospitality they once modeled for us. The In[heir]itance Project team took characters from Jewish history – both biblical and modern – and wove their stories together. Within this abstract and spiritual headspace, it made sense for Esther to interact with Emma Lazarus and Chana Senesh, and for Noah and Jonah to work together to build a sukkah. These weren’t the infantilized characters or stories studied in Hebrew school – these were intentional and relatable (and frankly, deeply flawed). While some of the characters struggled to make sense of Jewish traditions they’d forgotten over the years, others provided solace and advice, and reminded us that our Jewish identities are to be cherished, and that cultivating personal meaning in inherited ritual is prophetically powerful.
Just as the characters in EMBODIED represented the interconnectedness of Jewish wisdom and ritual, our cast and crew did too. Our directors from The In[heir]itance Project came from Minneapolis and New York, while the additional cast members were hired locally in order to showcase local talent. Instead of hiring a handful of random people, our existing network at The Well led us to our first actor, who led us to another, who led us to another.
With support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s Grassroots Events initiative, we held three showings of EMBODIED over three nights, providing scores of young adults in Metro Detroit with a Sukkot experience unlike any they’d had before, giving them something new to think about, to share with others, and to add to their lived experiences of Judaism.
EMBODIED’s immersive nature was intentional, as we wanted to allow audience members to feel involved in the show without the pressure to act alone, or to perform a ritual they didn’t fully understand yet. However, we made sure to create a space in which participants could have direct interaction with the ritual while still in the event venue, and/or later on in their own homes.
While The Well is invested wholeheartedly in cultivating the strength and future success of the Metro Detroit Jewish Community, true empowered co-creation knows no geographic bounds. As a result, we’ve made it a goal to continue to develop and execute innovative Jewish models and experiences that can be easily implemented in other communities, sending a ripple through the world of content-rich experiential Jewish educational programming. Just as we did for our Passover Seder inspired Escape Room (highlighted in eJP here), we plan to compose a “how-to” guide for EMBODIED, including the script, logistics of marketing, ticket sales, character creation, atmosphere and more, so that others around the country will have the opportunity to bring the ritual of ushpizin and a newfound appreciation for Sukkot to their communities in a truly unique way!
Rabbi Daniel S. Horwitz and Marisa Meyerson are 1/2 of the professional team of The Well, a Slingshot-recognized inclusive Jewish community building, education and spirituality outreach initiative of the Lori Talsky Zekelman Fund at Temple Israel of Metropolitan Detroit, geared to the needs of young adults. For more information, visit meetyouatthewell.org