Busy people with little time to dawdle can pick up a hamburger, a prescription, and dry cleaning at drive-through windows. They can even view the dearly departed without shifting into park.
Now, congregants of at least one synagogue in the region can celebrate a sacred fall festival and the omnipotence of God, all with the ease and efficiency of E-ZPass.
For the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Har Zion Temple in the Main Line’s Penn Valley built a traditional outdoor hut, called a sukkah, with a nontraditional twist: It can be visited with motor running.
Any of the 850 member families may use the drive-through whenever a rabbi is on hand. But it is particularly geared to young parents dropping off their children for preschool and religious classes and picking them up.
“It has to do with convenience and busy families that may not have time for something if they haven’t experienced it,” said Har Zion Senior Rabbi Scott Rosenberg. “We’re saying it’s important to us, and we want you to share it.”
The temporary structure – 32 by 16 feet, with a bamboo roof, green plastic walls, and construction-paper decorations by the children – sits in the parking lot at the synagogue entrance for the one-week festival, which began last Sunday evening and ends at sundown this Sunday.
Parents drive into the sukkah to deposit or gather up their charges. There, the family is greeted by a rabbi who leads them in the blessing and the shaking of an etrog citrus fruit and a palm frond surrounded by willow and myrtle leaves, symbolizing blessings from nature and God’s omnipresence. It’s over in a minute.
Commemorating the 40 years that the Israelites wandered the desert, living in makeshift huts, Sukkot closes out a series of holidays during the holiest time on the Jewish calendar. First comes Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a time of prayer reflection, and then Yom Kippur, a period of fasting and repentance.
Sukkot is like the party after a final exam. Families build sukkot at home; synagogues erect them on their properties. Jews eat and sometimes sleep inside, and invite loved ones over for a good time. Legend has it that the Pilgrims turned the idea into Thanksgiving.
“For me, it’s a time to celebrate family and the fall,” said Rebecca Wuhl, a mother of two from Villanova, adding that she loves Har Zion’s drive-through. “It’s great for someone who may not be so handy – like my husband. We have the synagogue sukkah, and we can drive through every day.”
Har Zion’s innovation is one of a growing variety of ways to celebrate Sukkot. The holiday offers Jews a chance to interpret the tradition in their own way, said Hila Ratzabi, editor of Ritualwell, a repository based at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College that catalogs and creates new rituals to “enhance Jewish life.”
The holiday and its roots in the Jews’ escape from Egypt can make celebrants think about issues such as homelessness, hunger, and life’s fragility through a Jewish lens, said Rabbi Nathan Martin, the college’s director of student life.
Still, fun is a big part of the week.
Last year, Tribe 12, a nonprofit that develops programs for young Jewish professionals in Philadelphia, hosted a “sukkah crawl.” About a dozen people piled into a Cadillac Escalade limousine and visited several synagogues and their sukkahs along the Main Line.
The group sat barefoot and cross-legged on the ground jamming with a guitar-strumming cantor at one sukkah, talked about social change at another, and played beer pong at yet another.
On Wednesday, Spectrum Philly, Tribe 12’s LGBTQ project, hosted a potluck dinner in a sukkah built by Kol Tzedek synagogue in a West Philadelphia park.
A contributor to Ritualwell suggested that sukkah builders decorate their structures with ribbons on which they’ve written their hopes and fears about climate change.
The new traditions make “young people want to be involved without invoking images of our grandpas saying you’ve got to do this,” said Rachel Waxman, a marketing manager for Tribe 12. “It makes ancient traditions more relevant and approachable.”
Rosenberg said he first heard about a drive-through sukkah during conversations with members of Miami synagogue that had installed one. Rabbi Mark Kula, of Temple Bet Shira, came up with the idea for what the congregation calls a “McSukkah” about six years ago, as he looked for a way to offer the joys of the holiday to young families pressed for time.
“Fewer people are building sukkahs at home,” Kula said. “It’s our responsibility as Jewish leaders and rabbis to make sure we are teaching better because the lessons of Sukkot are profoundly meaningful.”
Since the synagogue installed the drive-through – over a speed bump in the parking lot, so cars must stop – a motorcycle club roared through and a priest brought over his confirmation class.
Saul Wachs, a professor of education and liturgy at Gratz College in Melrose Park, disagrees that fewer families are building sukkot at home.
“When I was growing up, the only time I saw a sukkah was in a synagogue,” said Wachs, 84. “Now, more and more are building sukkot.”
Wachs views the increased participation as a reflection of the freedom Jews have begun to feel about expressing their religion, in contrast to the fear of virulent anti-Semitism when he was young.
When considering a drive-through sukkah, Wachs said, he had to resist the temptation to be “one of those older people who grumble at innovation.”
At Har Zion, like Miami’s Temple Bet Shira, some members have expressed concern that a drive-through would trivialize the holiday.
Har Zion has two other sukkot in the parking lot, neither of which can be visited from behind a steering wheel.
Still, Rosenberg argues that any moment that connects Jews to their traditions is worth it.
“It’s better to have a small experience to touch on the meaning of the holiday,” he said, “than none at all.”