A crowd of about 300 sat in front of the tent-like sukkah and listened as Rabbi Neal Schuster explained how the Jewish people were commanded to “for seven days dwell in Sukkot.”
“Why on earth in the fall do we come out and eat or sleep or both in these booths, these huts, for seven days?” Schuster asked the largely non-Jewish crowd. “This also should remind us to be humble first of all, that we step out of our homes and go into a simple, plain little hut. ... You have to experience the flapping of the sides and rocking of the structure when the wind blows. You have to feel like life is a little tenuous.”
The gathering around the sukkah at Kansas State University occurred after it was found bent, destroyed and wrapped around a car Oct. 6.
K-State said Friday that the sukkah had been damaged during thunderstorms, heavy rain and high winds.
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But for a time this week, many on campus considered the damage to be vandalism, one incident in a string of actions targeting diversity at K-State. In September, white nationalist fliers were found on campus, and in May, a noose was found hanging from a campus tree. Days after the sukkah was found damaged, students saw an attack using religion, when the anti-gay slur “God hates (expletive)” was found written outside the student union building.
When the university’s president, Richard Myers, said in an initial statement that the sukkah was “shamefully vandalized,” area faith communities responded as such, gathering Wednesday night to walk with KSU Hillel, an organization for Jewish students, to the rebuilt sukkah.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of people who aren’t Jewish who came and clergy leaders are asking a lot of questions, how do I feel about it, and they want to help,” said Libby Garrett, a Jewish student and acting president of KSU Hillel. “It’s really good to know that even though we’re surrounded by Christians and other religions, they still care.”
The Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Manhattan, said she saw students and others driven by their beliefs to address the damage to the sukkah, as well as the homophobic graffiti, white nationalist posters and more.
“No religious tradition deserves to be persecuted. If you start with one, then there’s another one that’s next,” Johnstone said. “If you’re going to live consistently with the values you espouse … then you have to walk that talk and that’s what I see a lot of people doing.”
In the case of the sukkah, Jess Girdler realized she wanted to respond after talking with the student who had built the structure.
Girdler works in housing and dining on campus. Soon, she began planning the Sukkot Solidarity Dinner for Wednesday night. A member of First Congregational United Church of Christ, Girdler decided to ask a variety of faith leaders to lead the walk to the sukkah.
The event was different because people would be going to the sukkah and eating a meal there, in the spirit of Sukkot. Sukkot is the biblical holiday that commemorates the Israelite’s 40-year journey through the desert after the exodus from Egypt. During the holiday, many Jewish families will eat or sometimes even sleep in their sukkahs.
“Instead of it being a march or a rally, it turned into this let’s gather for a meal just as people and uphold Jewish custom,” Girdler said. “I think there’s great power in learning from other faiths, and it informs yours. A big part of tonight is that gathering in community piece, also to show that regardless of your religious background, you don’t support religious intolerance.”
Eating together is a “sacred and holy act” in many traditions, including Judaism and Christianity, said the Rev. Christian Watkins, pastor of the Ecumenical Campus Ministry.
She helped lead the walk toward the meal at the sukkah.
“It’s sacred in that sense too that we’re able to gather around a meal and share conversation and certainly each other’s pain but also know that we’re not alone,” Watkins said. “I really think that’s important to be able to look around and break bread and eat together.”
Girdler isn’t the only person who used the sukkah’s destruction as an opportunity to learn about Judaism.
Siti Farhiah, who is in K-State’s PhD grain science program, said she’d seen the sukkah Saturday, but didn’t know what it was. Before the Sukkot Solidarity Dinner, she watched videos about Sukkot and tried to learn more about the holiday.
Farhiah is president of the Muslim Student Association at K-State.
It’s important to not just show support, but also to learn about the practices and beliefs of other religions, Farhiah said.
Gregory Newmark, co-adviser for KSU Hillel, said seeing people gather around the sukkah on the seventh day of Sukkot was a “wonderful event” to cap off a rocky time.
“I think the idea of the walk to a sukkah was very kind of beautiful. It connects the core of the campus to the residential and dining area,” Newmark said. “Hate hurts everybody, but this solidarity event shows love will supersede.”