Putting the Joy into Sukkot and Simchat Torah on Zoom

By Rabbi Yael Buechler

Sukkot is an annual reminder of transitions – as the leaves begin to change colors and a cool breeze sets into the air. It often feels as if the weather is giving us a chance to take a deep breath after the intensity of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

Sukkot and Simchat Torah conveniently come with animated rituals of shaking the lulav, building a sukkah, and dancing with Torah. The presence of these traditions significantly guide our communal programming and services.

In this pandemic period, without a physical community setting that is safe for everyone, it is daunting to think about finding ways to bring joy to Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Marching in a forest of lulavim or circling the Torah over and over again are inspirational moments that are not replicable on Zoom.

How can we still spark “v’samachta b’chagecha” “you should rejoice in your festivals” (Deuteronomy 16:14) over Zoom? In the aftermath of a busy High Holiday season, how can we design our Zoom programming to be meaningful and engaging without endless hours of preparation?

Here are 5 ways in which you can make your Sukkot & Simchat Torah on Zoom more uplifting and engaging:

1) Spotlighting with the Torah:

Send young families a surprise plush Torah in the mail or encourage families to craft their own Torah using materials from around the home. This way, during Torah-related songs you can spotlight any families on the Zoom with Torahs.

Here is a quick example of how spotlighting is used in a communal zoom setting for “Torah, Torah.” If this Spotlighting opportunity is part of a longer service, you could email young families the approximate time frame for when they should join the Zoom to stand-by with their Torahs.

Additionally, if there are new babies or young children in your community, you could also spotlight them for Kol HaNearim (an honor for all youth). Here is an example of spotlighting families using Steve Dropkin’s Birkat Kehillah as they place hands on the keppes of their children for this blessing.

Spotlighting Recommendations: The Zoom Spotlight feature is a meaningful way to enable participants to be seen and feel seen on Zoom. Skillful spotlighting (2 seconds per Zoom participant is ideal) during a time when there is clapping, dancing, or singing, can really enhance your Zoom experience. To optimize Spotlighting, scroll through the carousel of faces above the speaker view and Spotlight faces that are engaged with your program.

2) Celebrity Ushpizin: Surprise! Zoom is a great platform for surprises. The camera can be turned off on one of your participants, and surprise, Avraham and Sarah could come to greet your community on Sukkot! Or, if you have any Jewish celebrity connections, feel free to invite this secret Ushpizin to surprise your community as part of your Sukkot program or service. This is also an opportunity to teach how hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) can extend to Zoom.

Celebrity Ushpizin Tip: Ask the special guest to change their name right before they go “live.” If they are a biblical character, their Zoom name could become the name of that character.

3) Kahoot: If your institution isn’t doing live services during the holidays themselves, a game show challenge can be a fun way to engage intergenerational participants. Kahoot is an app that enables you to design a game with customized questions – be they connected to the holiday of Sukkot or Simchat Torah, or questions connected to your community (i.e. Whose sukkah had a disco theme in 2019?). Participants can then answer these questions in real-time. The program automatically enables individuals and families to see top scores and makes participants feel like they are in a real game show. The music that comes with Kahoot certainly communicates “v’samachta b’chagecha!” It can be personalized (using links to youtube songs of your choice) or turned off entirely as well. Here is an example of a Sukkot Kahoot game I designed, which you are welcome to edit or use.

Kahoot Tip: If you use Kahoot, it is helpful to email participants in advance that they will either need a second device on which to download Kahoot or be able to open a second tab in their web browser.

4) Creative Hakafot (Going around with the Torah): Some communities have the minhag (tradition) of calling up themes for specific hakafot, such as cyclists or those who binge-watched a series on Netflix. In addition to creative themes, you could also take this year’s hakafot as an opportunity to recognize first-responders, teachers, or anyone else you would like to honor in your community.

In advance of your virtual hakafot, you could send participants directions for how to change their Zoom screen name during a Zoom meeting. This way, you can ask for anyone who wants to “dance” in the next hakafah to change their Zoom name to be specific to that theme. For example, anyone who wants to do the next hakafah can change their Zoom name to their favorite flavor of ice cream. Then you could scroll through the participant list and find names connected to the particular theme and spotlight them. You could also ask participants to put an asterisk next to their Zoom name or “raise their hand” by clicking on the raise hand button to indicate that the particular theme of the hakafah applies to them.

Hakafot tip: To continue to build virtual energy during the hakafot, encourage participants to stand up, clap or, or wave their arms to bring more energy to your Zoom experience.

5) Torah Scavenger Hunt: A scavenger hunt is an engaging way to review the themes of each book of the Torah. You could give participants one minute to retrieve an item connected with a particular theme from a book of the Torah or a specific parashah. For example, for Genesis, you could ask families to bring an item connected to creation (a family photo, a pet, or something they built). For Exodus, you could ask families to find an item that represents a journey in their life (a family heirloom, a passport, or an item that is meaningful from their first home). This activity can also be done in breakout rooms with smaller groups if you wanted individuals to share the meaning behind their objects. In the larger Zoom setting, participants could type explanations for these objects in the chat.

Torah Scavenger Hunt Tip: During a pre-Yom Tov Zoom, you could encourage families to take selfies with their objects next to the screen while someone holds up a pre-printed sign that says the Hebrew or English word for the title of that particular book of the Torah. You could send out a slideshow of photos from this Torah exploration activity at a later date.

While we may not want to think about Sukkot and Simchat Torah just yet, my hope is that we will all be able to find new ways to bring joy to these holidays on Zoom. Since we are all on screens most of our day, let’s find a way to make our Sukkot and Simchat Torah Zoom programs the highlight of someone’s day. 

Rabbi Yael Buechler is the Lower School Rabbi at The Leffell School in Westchester. Rabbi Buechler (@midrashmanicures) is the founder of MidrashManicures.com and recently designed a Zoom Rosh HaShanah card with a cartoonist from The New Yorker.