‘The Hand Of God’
On short notice, U.S. soldier builds sukkah in Kuwaiti desert.
A lawyer by training and soldier by family tradition, Jonathan Gross can recite a list of miracles that allowed him, a captain and legal expert stationed at Fort Campbell, an Army base on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, to spend the High Holy Days in Atlanta, with friends, six years ago.
That’s before he, assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, was deployed to the Middle East, two days before the start of Sukkot.
With no Jewish chaplain at his base in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert, little prospect of finding the necessary materials in time to make a sukkah and limited time before the holiday began, Gross says he did not despair. A Christian chaplain found an extra cardboard box big enough for a small sukkah. At a rifle range 45 minutes away, Gross found a small, dried-out bush, suitable for the schach that goes atop the temporary hut.
A few hours before the start of yom tov, Gross had a kosher sukkah.
It was the first time that the Queens native, who had attended Binghamton University and Hofstra Law School, made his own sukkah, having spent the holiday in most prior years with his family in Montreal, at the Chabad House of Binghamton, or with the Atlanta Jewish community.
He attributes his success on short notice to “the hand of God.”
His jerry-rigged sukkah, was small, not reaching his waist, but conformed to the specifications of Jewish law. “Before I left Atlanta, a friend of mine, Kivi Bernhard, discussed the halachic requirements for a sukkah with me,” Gross says. His met “the halachic requirements [of] three sides, schach. I was able to fit my head, arms, torso and part of my legs in it, which made it halachically acceptable.
Gross, now 34, ate — kosher ready-to-eat meals, and kosher grape juice obtained through the chaplain — and prayed in the sukkah or beside it during the week of Sukkot; the sukkah survived sandstorms that knocked over tents and more-permanent structures on the base, he says. “If you try your best to do the right thing, Hashem is there to help you.”
On the last day of Hol Hamoed, as he left the sukkah for the last time, his uniform got caught on one of the bush’s branches and the whole structure fell over. “It collapsed and blew off,” Gross says. “Because it had served its purpose and I did not need it anymore.”
In subsequent years, Gross has observed Sukkot in Atlanta, at bases where a sukkah was erected, or with the community at his current home in White Plains.
A third-generation member of the Army, he now serves as an assistant professor of law at the U.S. Military Academy, at West Point. He looks back at his time in the Middle East, including two tours in Iraq, as a series of miracles. Among them: an unexpected minyan that allowed him to say Kaddish on his father’s yahrtzeit and a narrow escape from a rocket explosion on Chanukah. “The whole deployment was filled with nissim (miracles) that happened to me.”
Now he uses standard, more-sturdy materials for the sukkah he builds each year at his home, but the one he made from cardboard, topped by a desert bush, holds a particular spiritual meaning. “Nothing will ever beat that sukkah.”
Category 4 Sukkah
Eagle Scout project withstands hurricane winds in Texas.
High school senior Jeffrey Pacht needed a Boy Scout project four years ago, and his Reform synagogue near Houston needed a new sukkah.
Pacht got to work. A month before the start of Sukkot, the aspiring Eagle Scout designed a sukkah, did some research on its halachic specifications, conferred with an architect, received a zoning permit from municipal officials and permission from Congregation Beth El in Missouri City, arranged a tax exemption, raised several hundred dollars for building supplies, bought the construction materials and over a two-day period supervised a crew of two dozen relatives, shul members and fellow scouts.
The sukkah was a perfect fit for the project Pacht required to reach the rank of Eagle Scout. “I thought I would like to do something for the synagogue,” he says. “I wanted a big project.”
Two weeks before the first night of the holiday, the new sukkah of the sole Jewish house of worship in Missouri City, a 30-minute drive southwest of Houston, stood on the lawn, replacing an old hut that had fallen apart over the years. Pacht’s — wooden beams and thin lattice strips, held together with some nails, which Jewish law does not allow — is 10 feet by 12 feet, 10 feet high.
Congregation members came and ate there during yom tov; during the year, the structure doubles as a gazebo.
The next year Ike came.
The Category 4 hurricane, which made landfall at nearby Galveston, wreaked heavy damage on Texas’ gulf coast area and prompted the largest evacuation in the state’s history.
Thousands of trees were blown over in the area around Missouri City, and power in some area was out for weeks.
After huddling in his family’s home the night of the storm, Pacht wondered about his creation. “I was really curious if my sukkah was still there.”
He got on his bike — downed trees and other blown-around items made the streets dangerous for a car. The five-mile ride to Congregation Beth El ended with good news. “My sukkah was there,” virtually unscathed, says Pacht, now a 20-year-old junior and Army ROTC members at Texas A&M University. “I was definitely surprised.” The only damage was a tiny piece of wood.
A month later, on Sukkot, synagogue members used the sukkah again.
“We were fortunate to have a ‘Bezalel’” — the biblical figure who designed the Israelites’ Tabernacle in the Sinai wilderness and scores of other artifacts — “in our congregation,” says Rabbi Seth Stander, the congregation’s spiritual leader. “The synagogue building … was a mess” after the hurricane.
“Jeffrey,” Rabbi Stander says, “gave our community a wonderful, durable gift, which we will use for many years to come.”
Had he found the sukkah damaged, Pacht says, he figures he would have fixed it in time for Sukkot. “I probably would have tried to repair it,” he says. “It’s still my project.”
No, An Etrog Is Not A Grenade
During Yugoslav civil war, journalist brings Sukkot necessities to isolated community.
In 1992, covering the civil war in the former Yugoslavia for Gazeta Wyborcza, a prominent Polish newspaper, I carried a lulav and etrog to besieged Sarajevo.
I had the lulav in a cardboard tube, and the etrog wrapped up in a cardboard box. The tube looked like a tube for carrying a bazooka, and the etrog had the exact shape of a hand grenade.
I was a passenger in a car rented by some Western journalists, German, I believe.
Why did I carry the lulav and etrog? I’m Jewish.
On the road were some 14 checkpoints, of different armies, manned by factions at war with each other. The soldiers were all drunk and bored out of their minds.
The first checkpoint had us dump everything from the car, found the lulav and etrog, and started quizzing me about smuggling weapons.
They knew, of course, these were not weapons, but entertainment was hard to find.
They eventually let us through, but must have called the next checkpoint up the road — not their friends — to tell them a funny man was coming their way: another half hour explaining this is not a bazooka, not a grenade, they are Jewish ritual objects. No, the Jews are not especially on anybody’s side. No, this cannot be considered a food transport (I would need a permit for that). Yes, the Jews just shake and smell these. No, Commander, I am not pulling your leg.
I spoke some Serbo-Croatian, as the common language was then known.
Each checkpoint — Croat HVO, Bosnian Army, Serb VRS and local village guards of different ethno-religious persuasions — was very different. Each had its fun; the trip lasted forever.
I was scared all the time I was in Bosnia; I ended up spending a year there.
I missed the whole yom tov, as I was caught up by the fighting in the different part of town where I was staying. But the community did get its lulav and etrog.
The writer, a Polish journalist and Jewish activist, formerly served as an adviser to the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission.