Every fall, just a few days after Yom Kippur, a number of huts appear on the property of Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka. The huts or sukkah are at the heart of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Also known as the Festival of Tabernacles, Sukkot is an annual harvest festival. The sukkah is very simple with an opening on one side and a view of the stars. “The Sukkah reminds us not only of the biblical period when our ancestors were moving from one temporary dwelling place to the next, but it also reminds us of the fragility of housing today,” said Jill Crimmings, the Associate Rabbi at Bet Shalom. “As we eat our meals and sometimes even sleep outside in a sukkah throughout the week-long holiday, we are grateful for the permanent dwelling places we can retreat to. We are also reminded that there are so many in our community today who are living without the security and safety of a permanent dwelling place.”
That place to call home, a place where everyone has adequate shelter -sukkah for the world - is part of the driving force of Bet Shalom since its beginning in 1981. Since its founding, the congregation has focused on a number of social justice initiatives including affordable housing, homelessness, racial disparities and hunger. Bet Shalom’s participation in the Beacon collaborative began when a member of the congregation’s Social Action committee attended Ending Homelessness Together, Beacon’s annual fundraising luncheon. The congregant shared what Beacon was all about and suggested the congregation should look into becoming a collaborating congregation. “Several of the SAC members were already aware of Beacon and it’s social justice efforts,” said Steve Ziff, chair of the congregation’s Beacon Leadership Team. Suburban Hennepin Congregational Organizer Kat Vann and Executive Director Lee Blons came to a board meeting to share Beacon’s visions and goals. As they met with Beacon Staff to explore vision and goals, Bet Shalom’s board knew their congregation would be right at home as part of the collaborative.
Bet Shalom was active in the development of Cranberry Ridge. “We participated by helping in finding a site in Plymouth, meeting with the Plymouth City Council members at the City Hall, coffee shops and at one of Beacon’s buildings for a tour,” Ziff said. They also reached out to surrounding congregations to join in advocating at City Council meetings.
When Bet Shalom started its journey with Beacon, most of the work was done through the Social Action Committee. While the team was very aware of Beacon, larger parts of the congregation were not. A Beacon Leadership Team was formed to connect the congregation’s mission and values to Beacon’s work of creating homes, sheltering families, and impacting housing policy. “We have had Kat (Vann) come to Bet Shalom and provide education around the need of affordable housing with our children and a session with adults,” Ziff said. “We gather needed household supplies for 66 West. Our leadership team is looking forward to seeing how we can integrate supporting Beacon into our rhythm of life at Bet Shalom.”
The most visible sign of this weaving came in late January when the congregation hosted the first congregation convening of 2019. On what was probably the coldest night in Minnesota in decades, hundreds of people converged on Bet Shalom to advocate for a Minnesota where everyone has adaquete shelter. With Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan in attendance, the message was clear: our faith inspires us to create home. “Having the Convening at Bet Shalom helped spread the word to our congregation of our participation with Beacon. It also informed members who came out of curiosity and energized some of our members to express an interest in being a part of our leadership team,” Ziff noted.
Sukkot reminds Jews worldwide of the times in their lives when they didn’t have a permanent place to call home. That memory forces people to look around for the many people who don’t have home.
Last fall, Kat Vann joined the congregation in commemorating Sukkot, and in the eyes of Rabbi Crimmings and Steve Ziff it helped put this religious celebration in stark relief. “This holiday inspires us to engage in the important work of pursuing affordable housing for all people who live among us,” Rabbi Crimmings explained. “We were so blessed to have Kat present at Bet Shalom to celebrate Sukkot with us this year and help make this connection between the holiday and the work our congregation is doing with Beacon.”