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A Holocaust museum is launching in Fortnite. Can video games fight antisemitism?



(JTA) — There’s no way to win “The Light in the Darkness,” a new video game where the characters are members of a French-Jewish family in the years before and during the Holocaust.

No matter what choices the player makes, they will be murdered by Nazis — a dark end that the game’s creator says is essential to its success as an educational tool.

“I didn’t want to make it seem like people in the Holocaust had a choice,” said Luc Bernard, a 37-year-old British-French video game designer who has spent his entire adult life developing “The Light in the Darkness.” “It was all pure luck, the people who managed to live.”

Bernard’s vision for the game is only one prong in his expansive, enduring and at times quixotic mission to bring Holocaust education to the video game landscape. This week, a virtual Holocaust museum called Voices of the Forgotten opened inside Fortnite, one of the most widely played games in the world, as the result of his efforts.

The museum includes general information about the Holocaust as well as plaques on lesser-known stories like the Tripolitania riots and Dutch resistance fighter Willem Arondéus; some of its information was pulled directly from Wikipedia. Still, Bernard is hopeful that it will lead to a better understanding of the Holocaust among gamers.

“The reality is, video games are the number-one-used platform now,” Bernard said. “They’re bigger than movies, they’re bigger than music. Video games are the future of storytelling. So that’s why I also saw this as kind of a perfect platform to educate about the Holocaust.”

Yet Bernard’s single-minded quest to use the medium to teach about the Holocaust continues to elicit deep skepticism — including among groups like the Anti-Defamation League that have identified antisemitism among gamers as an increasing problem.

“I think this is obviously a tough, probably impossible, educational piece to gamify,” said Brian Soileau, the chief business officer of Lost Tribe, an organization that uses video games such as Fortnite and Minecraft to engage Jewish teens.

An image from Voices of the Forgotten, a virtual Holocaust museum built inside the popular video game Fortnite. Players could access the museum starting in August 2023. (Courtesy of Voices of the Forgotten)

For Bernard, the path to a Fortnite Holocaust museum began when he was a teenager and learned about his own family’s Holocaust story. Raised without a Jewish identity in what he called “a rural, poor area of France,” Bernard was in high school when he discovered that his grandmother had been a British Jew who had helped rescue Jewish children on the Kindertransport, which granted thousands of children safe passage to the United Kingdom from Nazi-occupied territory during the Holocaust.

“Everyone hid it, pretty much,” Bernard said about the family history. His grandmother had changed her name several times and that the family’s Judaism only emerged after a long-lost family member reappeared.

Soon after, he was shown “Schindler’s List” in school. The immersive story transported him to another time and place, one where the horrors of what happened to the Jews of Europe were presented in stark detail.

A gamer himself, he immediately realized that video games could offer a similarly immersive experience — and that games didn’t have to be “fun” to be illuminating.

In 2008, when he was 21, Bernard first shared blueprints for his planned venture: a Nintendo DS game called Imagination Is The Only Escape, which he envisioned as a surreal storybook journey into the fanciful mind of a Jewish child being rounded up by the Nazis. Players would experience horrors as illustrated metaphors, before suddenly being yanked back into “reality” — although no violence would be shown on screen.

From the game’s earliest stages of development, Bernard was quick to publicize it. But media attention about his efforts stirred up considerable backlash from people who he said misunderstood the project and thought he was being insensitive. Jewish and Holocaust memory organizations were insulted at what they believed was a desecration of the victims’ memories. Nintendo issued a statement saying it would not distribute the game in North America.

“People are thinking, ‘Oh my God, a video game about the Holocaust,’” he recalled. “So it was quite divisive. You had some organizations be like, ‘What the f–k is he doing?’”

Bernard abandoned that game, blaming the backlash — though he briefly tried to resurrect the idea in 2013, launching a new crowdfunding campaign that proved unsuccessful. But even as he busied himself with work designing other games, he still couldn’t shake the idea of bringing Holocaust education to the games space, especially as online gaming communities boomed in recent years and antisemitism boomed alongside, and inside, them.

The gaming industry, which had already been growing steadily, exploded during the pandemic, generating more than $200 billion in revenue in 2022 — more than twice the value of the industry in 2016, and a number substantially bigger than movies and sports combined. There are around 3 billion active video game players worldwide, a number that includes players of so-called “casual” games on mobile devices; studies suggest that between 70 and 99% of all American teenagers play games.

The multi-billion-dollar games industry boasts a global user base that heavily skews young and male, and online multiplayer games have become a fertile recruiting ground for white nationalists and antisemites. In addition, popular game streamers and YouTubers, like PewDiePie, began dabbling in antisemitic rhetoric laced with heavy doses of irony, an approach that courted controversy and followers. The ADL found that 15% of young gamers and 20% of adults said they were exposed to white supremacist ideologies in video games last year — a proportion that the organization says is on the rise.

Casual antisemitism, including Holocaust jokes, is so prevalent that some gamers say it can almost stop being noticeable. Jake Offenheim, Lost Tribe’s director of influencer marketing, said he has encountered so much antisemitism within gaming that it doesn’t faze him anymore.

“I’m an avid Jewish gamer. I’ve been playing video games my entire life, and I’ve been the victim of many Jewish slurs,” he said. “There’s definitely a subset of these people that are 13-year-old kids that think the funniest thing to say is, ‘You should have died in the gas chamber.’”

Decades of education initiatives have proceeded from the idea that learning about the Holocaust would make young adults less likely to joke about it or, in more extreme cases, less likely to adopt hateful ideologies. While that idea has faced challenges more recently, Bernard couldn’t shake it and decided to try again with a new Holocaust game built for a new generation of gamers.

By 2021, when he started on “The Light in the Darkness,” his efforts had been dormant for so long that the Nintendo DS had become obsolete. So he turned instead to newer platforms, overhauling his core idea to fit. Instead of fantasy and surrealism, his new game would be rooted in cold, hard reality — that of how the collaborationist Vichy government worked with the Nazis to round up Jews in his own country.

The game would incorporate authentic documents from the time period to show the bureaucracy the Nazis used to suppress the Jews. Its plot would be based on real survivor testimony, and its digital renderings of occupied France would hew as close to actual history as possible.

“The project hasn’t changed, but the intent behind it has,” he said of his vision, noting that his original idea of a “more artistic” approach to the Holocaust no longer seemed relevant as, in his eyes, the severity of antisemitism in gaming spaces increased. “Now it’s turned into something where I feel like it has to be done because things are getting so bad,” he said, speaking to his desire to make the game “100% accurate because you don’t want anyone to say, ‘This is inaccurate and then the Holocaust didn’t happen.’”

An image from “The Light in the Darkness,” a video game designed by Luc Bernard to teach players about the Holocaust. Bernard released the game in 2023 after 15 years of development. (Voices of the Forgotten via YouTube)

Most significantly, every character would die. (The outcome is similar to that of a Holocaust video game that serves as a plot point in the 2022 bestseller “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” by Jewish Korean-American novelist Gabrielle Zevin. “Everyone loses,” the 19-year-old who develops the game says, to plaudits from her professors.)

Over the last few months, Bernard has been rolling out the game’s release on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 5. He’s giving it away for free — “I’m insane,” he said, laughing, about this decision. “I’m absolutely bonkers” — and accompanying its release with museum exhibits, public talks and, most visibly, the Fortnite installation. More than 500,000 people have so far played and finished “The Light in the Darkness,” Bernard said.

Bernard’s game and approach have drawn mixed responses — including about whether it can be pulled off respectfully enough to still be engaging.

Andrew Denning, director of the museum studies program at the University of Kansas, who has published papers on video games and history, said efforts to bring Holocaust education to the games space are “incredibly important.” But he said he thought building a game without traditional game elements, like winning, was liable to turn players off.

“People still play games to have this sense of agency, to solve problems, to ‘win,’” Denning said. “Recognizing the incredibly narrow set of choices that individuals who were targeted during the Holocaust had, that doesn’t make for a compelling game.”

The choice not to allow anyone to win, Denning noted, has implications beyond what it’s like to play the game. “The experience of victims of the Holocaust, and even those who survive, is [of] being almost entirely stripped of agency,” he said. (The vast majority of French Jews did survive the Holocaust, making it an outlier in Nazi-occupied Europe.)

Offenheim, too, says he sees potential in using video games to teach the Holocaust. “I think what he’s trying to do is a super noble cause,” he said about Bernard. “I think bringing accessible Holocaust education on the Internet has to be the way of the future.”

But Bernard’s approach could have drawbacks, Offenheim said. Lost Tribe has recreated several Israeli locations in Minecraft for its community and is developing a game to be hosted within Fortnite to teach about the siege of Masada during the Jewish-Roman Wars of the 1st century. So he knows that these games’ restrictions on religious and violent imagery can be a limitation.

“Doing it through Fortnite might bring its own host of challenges, in terms of respect and in terms of what you can and can’t show,” Offenheim said, noting that Lost Tribe was not allowed to include a Star of David in its virtual Jewish summer camp. (He got his job after recreating Camp Ramah in Canada inside Minecraft as a pandemic activity.)

A rendition of a shuk, or Israeli market, built inside the video game Minecraft by the organization Lost Tribe, which works to build Jewish community among young people in online spaces. (Courtesy of Lost Tribe)

Lost Tribe is working with the ADL on broader strategies for combating the kind of antisemitism young people often encounter online, including in games. The group reports instances of antisemitism on its Discord channel through the ADL, adding to its data collection about hatred against Jews in online spaces, and it also provides guidance on how to think about antisemitism on platforms like TikTok.

“They know that there’s an area they’re leaning into as far as antisemitism in online spaces, and we’re able to give a lot of feedback on that,” Soileau said.

Bernard, on the other hand, has harsh words for establishment Jewish groups who, he says, haven’t taken video games seriously enough. His request to partner with the ADL on his game have been met with “total silence,” he says, accusing the Jewish civil-rights group and its ilk of being more focused on surveys than solutions.

“‘Sign a petition to make Activision change things,’” he said, invoking the blockbuster publisher of the “Call of Duty” series to mock the approach the ADL takes in addressing antisemitism concerns that pop up in video games. “You really think a big, billion-dollar company is going to give a s–t about your thing?”

An ADL spokesperson would not comment on Bernard’s characterization of the group. But in a statement, its CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called Bernard’s Fortnite museum “potentially worthwhile.”

Greenblatt said he was encouraged by the fact that virtual visitors to the Fortnite museum will have their onscreen communication tools disabled and will be unable to manipulate the environment. “We commend the creators of this ‘Fortnite’ experience for utilizing one of the most influential mediums of our time — online games — to build a new kind of Holocaust museum,” he said.

An ADL spokesperson added that the group isn’t focusing on projects like the museum because its interest in the games space is primarily focused on how online multiplayer games function as “social platforms.”

In a subsequent statement to The New York Times, Greenblatt took a harsher view of the Fortnite museum’s utility, saying, “Until the game industry can change the norms of hate and abuse in online multiplayer games, we cannot view experiences like these as a true alternative to more traditional forms of Holocaust education.”

Over the course of the 15 years that Bernard has been trying to bring Holocaust education into the games space, one consistent anxiety from establishment Jewish groups has been around whether the setting allows for proper respect to be paid to the subject matter. That worry helped doom his first game attempt, and it has been a theme of the early responses to the Fortnite museum, as well. But Soileau thinks such concerns are missing the point of an endeavor like this, which is to reach players where they are most likely to pay attention.

“Is it disrespectful for you to be in a Spider-Man avatar costume while reading some of the plaques in the Holocaust Museum on Fortnite?” he asked. “That’s the part we have to get over. This is not meant to be like going to Yad Vashem, right? … We’re all about meeting kids where they are, and that’s meeting them where they are. They are online, in a Spider-Man costume, and that’s OK, let’s teach.”

How much can one well-intentioned game turn the tide of antisemitism in the games space? Bernard likes to point to another game he developed, in between his Holocaust projects: a free-to-play online game sponsored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the animal-rights group. He saw firsthand how even players skeptical of the group’s mission found themselves playing, and enjoying, the game.

“It was very interesting to see them on YouTube, because they were like, ‘F–k PETA, I’m gonna eat a cow or something,’” Bernard recalled. “They started out with that. But towards the end, they started [saying], ‘Yeah, animal rights are a thing. We should be nice to animals.’”

“That’s pretty much what I think will happen,” he said, going so far as to predict that even people who hate Jews will want to play his game “and might get emotional from the story.”

“I’m not saying I’m going to solve the Nazi, white supremacist problem,” he said. “But I think it will help in reducing it.”

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25 years after opening, Yiddish Book Center overhauls its core exhibit for a wider audience




AMHERST, Massachusetts (JTA) — Since its opening in 1997, the Yiddish Book Center has wowed visitors with its architecture. A Jewish village resurrected on a college campus in sylvan Amherst, Massachusetts, the building conveys the Center’s mission: to rescue and revive a language spoken for over 1,000 years by Ashkenazi Jews in German-speaking lands, Eastern Europe and wherever they migrated. 

On Oct. 15, the Center is unveiling a new core exhibit, meant to flesh out and deepen the story told by its building and the treasures stored inside. Arriving at a moment when Yiddish is experiencing one of its periodic revivals, “Yiddish: A Global Culture” is a major Yiddish institution’s answer to a question without easy answers: How do you tell the story of a language without a country, and of a culture that lost a majority of its purveyors in a little over a decade of madness?

In response, the new exhibit depicts the “secular” Yiddish culture that arose in the mid-19th century as a distinctly transglobal, modern movement that includes theater, the press, mass market publishing and intellectual ferment in big cities from Warsaw to New York to Shanghai.

The exhibit is “foregrounding a story of creativity, tremendous accomplishment and tremendous diversity of a culture that has migration built into its DNA,” David Mazower, the Center’s research bibliographer and the exhibition’s chief curator, told me when I visited Amherst last month.

The displays in the exhibit will surround and weave in and out of the Center’s book stacks, another striking architectural feature of the building. The stacks offer duplicates of the Center’s collection of 1.5 million Yiddish books and periodicals, for sale and browsing. I couldn’t be the first visitor to be reminded of the closing scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which reveals a colossal government warehouse filled with, in the words of the screenplay, “crates and crates. All looking alike. All gathering dust.” 

What a casual visitor might not see is all that is happening at the Center to blow the dust off those books, including translator workshops, summer fellowships, conferences, an oral history project, a busy publishing program and a riotous summer music festival.

Interest in all of those activities has been helped along by young Jews interested in the language and culture and a pandemic that created a demand for online Yiddish classes. The Yiddish Book Center has been drawing 10,000 visitors a year since its pandemic shutdown. The New York Times made the latest revival official (to non-readers of the Jewish media, anyway) in an essay last month by the Jewish polymath Ilan Stavans, declaring that “Yiddish Is Having a Moment.” Stavans notes a flurry of new translations of obscure and classic Yiddish writers, the all-Yiddish staging of “Fiddler on the Roof” and the Yiddish dialogue in three recent Netflix series: “Shtisel,” “Unorthodox” and “Rough Diamonds.”

A mural featuring key moments in the global history of Yiddish is a central feature of a new core exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. (JTA photo)

(More controversially, Stavans also reports that Yiddish is appealing to those — presumably young anti-Zionist Jews — for whom Hebrew “symbolizes far-right Israeli militarism.”)

Such a revival also challenges keepers of the flame — not just the Yiddish Book Center, but the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, The Workers Circle, publications like In geveb and the Yiddish Forward, academic departments plus a host of regional Yiddish organizations — to define a language and culture that means many different things to many different people.

Is it a language of a decimated past? A progenitor of the Jewish left? A tongue, still spoken daily by haredi Orthodox Jews, that continues to grow and evolve? Is it an attitude — a Jewish way of being and thinking — that survives in humor and cooking and music even if those who appreciate it can’t speak the language? For European Jews of the Enlightenment, the Yiddish scholar Jeffrey Shandler reminded me a few years ago, “Yiddish represented the resistance and inability of Jews to enter the cultural mainstream. It represented something atavistic, a way of holding Jews back.” For Zionists, meanwhile, it represented a weak Diaspora and everything associated with it (a clash explored in a current YIVO exhibit, “Palestinian Yiddish:  A Look at Yiddish in the Land of Israel Before 1948”).

Goldie Morgenthaler, herself the daughter of the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb, has written that she teaches Yiddish literature to mostly non-Jewish university students in Alberta, Canada because “studying what is specific to one culture is often the first step to understanding many cultures.”

At YIVO, an institution founded by scholars in Vilna in 1925 and transplanted to New York in 1940, Yiddish is regarded as an expression of and vehicle for “Jewish pride,” according to its executive director and CEO, Jonathan Brent.

“For Jewish people in the Diaspora to understand that they have in fact a future as Jews,” he said last week, “they have to take pride in their heritage. For all kinds of historical reasons, many Jews felt that [Yiddish] was somehow a shameful or devalued heritage. It was ‘zhargon’ [jargon], and it had been basically eliminated from public discourse in the land of Israel. YIVO from the very beginning wanted to study Yiddish as a language among languages, the same way you studied Russian or Spanish or French. It was a language with a history.

David Mazower, the Yiddish Book Center’s research bibliographer and the exhibition’s chief curator, shows off a samovar to be used in a recreation of the Warsaw literary salon of writer I.L. Peretz. (JTA photo)

“What Yiddish does,” he continued, “is help anchor us in the language in which our grandparents and great grandparents communicated their deepest thoughts and feelings. And that has real implications for the survival of the Jewish people.”

Aaron Lansky, the founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center, said the story he wants to tell goes back to his days as a graduate student in Yiddish at McGill University in the 1970s, when he first started saving the discarded books that would become the core of the Center’s collection.

“People think of [Yiddish] as this nostalgic creation,” he said. “But the truth is, it was a profound, multifaceted and really global literature that emerged in the late 19th century, and then just took off throughout the 20th century…. It wasn’t long before writers were using every form of literary expression — expressionism, impressionism, surrealism, eroticism. It all found expression in this very short period of time, and even the Holocaust didn’t destroy it. “

Lansky admits his own vision is more literary than the core exhibit’s, and thanked Mazower for creating a broader view of Yiddish as a global culture.

That view is represented in a 60-foot mural that serves as an introduction to the exhibit. Cartoons by the German illustrator Martin Haake depict key historical vignettes in Yiddish history, from nearly every continent. Glikl of Hameln, a German-Jewish businesswoman, writes her diaries at the turn of the 18th century. Women call for a strike at “Yanovsky’s Cigarette Factory” in Bialystok, Poland, in 1901. A nursery scene honors the leading Yiddish activists who were born in Displaced Persons camps after World War II. And tubercular Yiddish writers are seen recovering at the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society in Denver, Colorado, which operated from 1904 to 1940. 

The mural lines the ramp that leads to the bookshelves, where displays (some of which Mazower calls “wedges”) use artifacts and wall-mounted photos to talk about the breadth of Yiddish culture. There’s a display about Yiddish celebrities, including writers, such as Sholom Aleichem and Chaim Zhitlowsky, who would draw tens of thousands of mourners to their funerals. Another display honors those who preserved and studied Yiddish culture, from YIVO (described here as “The Mothership”) to the monumental “Language and Cultural Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry” undertaken between 1959 and 1972 by the linguist Uriel Weinreich. A Yiddish linotype machine, rescued by Lansky, anchors an exhibit about the Jewish press.

Michal Michalesko (center) and chorus appear in a publicity photo from an unidentified production, ca. 1930. Michalesko (1884–1957) made his name in the 1910s as a star of the Warsaw Yiddish operetta stage. (Yiddish Book Center)

A centerpiece of the core exhibit is a recreation of the Warsaw literary salon of the writer and playwright I.L. Peretz, a leading figure of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. While few actual artifacts belonging to Peretz survive, the room will include contemporaneous objects and photographs to immerse visitors in the literary scene of the day. 

“You’ll step through his doorway the way that so many young writers did, clutching their first manuscripts to show them either in Hebrew or in Yiddish,” Mazower explained. “His name, his address was known throughout the Russian Empire at that time. People would come thousands of miles in some cases to Warsaw to try and get entry into this alchemy-like space where extraordinary things happen.”

One of those pilgrims was Mazower’s great-grandfather, the famed playwright Sholem Asch. When Asch showed Peretz a draft of his notorious play “God of Vengeance,” whose lesbian subplot would shock audiences and rile religious leaders, Peretz reportedly told him to burn it. 

“My hope is that through the exhibition as a whole you see Jewish history through a Yiddish lens and in a different way from the Holocaust-defined story that so many of us have been educated with and that popular culture feeds us,” said Mazower. 

A Yiddish book features a stamp for a bookseller in Cairo, demonstrating the global reach of the language. (JTA photo)

The exhibit treats the Holocaust as one part of the Yiddish story, not its culmination. The original Yiddish edition of Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” published as part of a memorial project in Argentina shortly after the war, rests in a wedge about individuals who rescued Yiddish culture under the Nazis. The same section features a tribute to Rokhl Brokhes, a writer murdered in the Minsk Ghetto in 1945. A still from a recent animated adaptation of one of her stories by Alona Bach, currently a PhD student at MIT focusing on the “intersections of electricity and Yiddish,” affirms one of the Center’s aims: to bring young Yiddishists into conversation with the past.

The story of Yiddish theater will wrap around the auditorium, starting with a large photo of the audience at the opening of the Grand Street Theatre in New York in 1905. A memorial section remembers the probably thousands of actors, playwrights and musicians who were killed in the Holocaust.

“Had Yiddish theater not suffered a rupture, which it did, it would have continued to evolve and borrow and expand,” said Lisa Newman, the Center’s director of publishing and public programs. “What’s so important about this exhibition is that it places Yiddish in this context of language no less than any other country’s, except it’s not a country.” 

I asked Mazower what kind of stories he did not want to tell about Yiddish culture.

“It’s not a story about Yiddish humor,” he said. “It’s not a story about the Holocaust. It’s not a story about the state of Israel. It’s not a lachrymose story about Jewish persecution through the ages.”

Other Yiddishists told me much the same thing (Brent said that the story of Yiddish “shouldn’t be told as a collection of jokes, or Yiddish curses, or as a cute language that connects you to Bubbe’s gefilte fish”). 

And yet, said Lansky, “We’re not feinschmeckers, we’re not elitist when it comes to Yiddish. Yiddish was a vernacular language, and I am happy to embrace that. I love the humor and social criticism that’s embedded in it. It’s the aggregate that’s so impressive. To see all of this literature and culture in a lively and accessible way can be quite transformative.”

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San Francisco Giants fire Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after disappointing season




(JTA) — The San Francisco Giants have fired Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after four seasons.

Kapler joined the Giants in November 2019 and led the Giants to a 295-248 record during the 2020-2023 seasons, highlighted by a 107-win 2021 campaign that earned Kapler the National League Manager of the Year award. The team rewarded Kapler with a two-year contract extension that was set to run through 2024.

The Giants were eliminated from postseason contention this week, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

In addition to his 2021 accolade, Kapler’s tenure in San Francisco was punctuated by his unorthodox style both on and off the field. The 48-year-old Hollywood, California, native is a fitness geek with an active social media presence and his own blog. ESPN deemed him “the most interesting man in baseball” in May 2022. Kapler also has a Jewish tattoo on each leg: a Jewish star on his left leg and “Never Again” — a reference to the Holocaust — on his right leg.

On the field, Kapler in 2020 became the first MLB manager to kneel during the national anthem amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. In 2022, in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Kapler announced that he would begin skipping the pregame national anthem to protest the “state of this country.” He frequently used his platform in the sport to share his political beliefs.

Kapler played for six teams during his 12-year major league career, largely as a role player and backup outfielder. After retiring in 2010, Kapler played and coached for Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. He previously managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 2018-2019 and worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

With Kapler’s firing, San Diego Padres manager Bob Melvin becomes the league’s lone Jewish skipper.

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Flash floods put a dangerous damper on the first night of Sukkot in NYC




(New York Jewish Week) — Mark Vogel, who lives in Riverdale and runs a website about Jewish and kosher travel, spoke for many of his neighbors when he posted a video on Instagram of his sukkah being pounded by rain, standing forlornly in the middle of his flooded backyard.

“I built a Sukkah,” he wrote in a caption. “I should have built an ark.”

Vogel, and many of the other millions of Jews in the tristate area, have been coping with the reality that Sukkot, the most outdoor holiday on the Jewish calendar, has coincided with heavy rains that have flooded highways, shut down subway lines and triggered a state of emergency in New York City. More than 8 inches of rain had fallen at John F. Kennedy airport by Friday afternoon, and more is expected into Saturday.

New Yorkers should expect heavy rain and flooding to continue throughout the night tonight,” Gov. Kathy Hochul posted on social media on Friday afternoon. “To our Jewish neighbors celebrating the beginning of Sukkot, please take steps to stay safe during this severe weather event.”

Sukkot begins Friday night, and on the weeklong holiday, Jews traditionally eat their meals and even sleep in the sukkah, an outdoor hut with a roof generally made from tree branches that recalls the Israelites’ biblical sojourn in the desert and emphasizes the need for divine protection.

But rain makes those observances close to impossible — leading most would-be sukkah-dwellers in New York to accept that they’ll be eating indoors on the holiday’s first night, and sparking a wide variety of theological and practical responses from rabbis and rank-and-file Jews alike. For others, it has complicated travel plans hours before the holiday’s start, backing up traffic and making the subway especially hard to navigate.

“I once heard that if it rains on [the] first night of sukkoth, it’s some sort of sign that God is displeased with us,” Linda Gisselle Roth, who splits her time between New York City and Connecticut, wrote on Facebook on Friday. “And it’s been raining for days. And I’ve never felt like this before.”

She added, “I want to spend [the] first night of sukkoth, in my sukkah. So for right now, I’m asking, please let the rain stop.”

While the rainy season in Israel traditionally begins right after Sukkot, rain is a common occurrence on the holiday in the United States and even inspired the title of a children’s book from the 1990s, “Why Does It Always Rain on Sukkot?”

Mark Vogel, a Riverdale resident, posted a picture of his sukkah in a flooded yard to Instagram on Friday. (Screenshot)

Observant Jews have varying customs when it comes to dealing with rain on the holiday. Many avoid their sukkah entirely, while others will quickly recite blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then eat the rest of the meal indoors. Adherents of Chabad, the Hasidic movement based in Crown Heights, try to eat in the sukkah under nearly all circumstances.

One resident of Teaneck, New Jersey, a heavily Jewish suburb, posted a single-spaced, two-page guide from his local rabbi on what to do if it rains on the holiday. (The rabbi, who is not named in the document, recommends saying blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then continuing the meal inside.)

Rabbis on social media, meanwhile, explored the theological dimensions of the weather. Some cited a passage from the Mishnah, the ancient code of rabbinic law, that compares rain on Sukkot, following the effort of building a sukkah, to a servant bringing his master a jug of wine, only for the master to throw water back in the servant’s face.

“Nasty weather on sukkot is a sign of God’s displeasure with us,” Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, who teaches at the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah seminary, wrote on Facebook. Then, referencing the recent High Holidays and addressing God, he wrote, “If all we did the last few weeks is not good enough for You, what’s left for us to say?! We did the best we can. If You want more, You will have to let us know what that more is.”

Rabbi Ethan Tucker, the president of the Hadar Institute, an egalitarian center of Jewish study based in Manhattan, also cited the passage and encouraged people to focus on the experience of the servant in the parable. He added that because the first day of the holiday falls on Shabbat, the other central commandment associated with Sukkot, praying with four species of plants, is also deferred a day. (Sunday is expected to be sunny.)

“What does it *feel like* when you have prepared for something and then you cannot execute it as planned?” he wrote on Facebook. “It feels like rejection, as in the parable. The weather may in fact just be the weather, but it doesn’t necessarily make the feeling of loss less palpable. Is there a way to make this Sukkah rainout an opportunity to sit with rejection? To empathize with other such experiences, even if they are not our own?”

Some New Yorkers tried to stay positive. “It might be flooding and we might consume a lot of rain water with our food lol but Sukkot Dinner under the Stars is still on even if we might end up eating indoors under a roof instead!” a Facebook user from Queens posted on Friday, advertising a meal that night.

Nina Jochnowitz, a State Senate candidate in New Jersey, cited the rabbinic idea that Sukkot is considered a time of joy, and referenced a Hasidic saying that “‘joy breaks all boundaries,’ transforming even the most negative occurrences into blessings!”

And others reached for seasonal parallels: “If only sukkot came with rain dates like baseball,” one person posted.

For Vogel, the travel writer and Riverdale resident, the rain was especially unfortunate, as he has built a smaller sukkah in recent years to limit capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first year he had gone back to building a larger one.

“Well, I was looking forward to eating in a large sukkah this year with friends and family,” he told the New York Jewish Week. “But we can’t control the weather, so we will make the best of it.”

The post Flash floods put a dangerous damper on the first night of Sukkot in NYC appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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