Folsom rabbi takes holiday on the road with Sukkah Mobile

Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum in his Sukkah Mobile in Folsom on Wednesday, holds a lulav and etrog set which is part of the Sukkot celebration. The lulav is a bundle of willow, myrtle and date palm, and the etrog is a type of citrus fruit.
Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum in his Sukkah Mobile in Folsom on Wednesday, holds a lulav and etrog set which is part of the Sukkot celebration. The lulav is a bundle of willow, myrtle and date palm, and the etrog is a type of citrus fruit. rbenton@sacbee.com

Folsom Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum is bringing the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot directly to local Jews this week with his Sukkah Mobile – a white Ford pickup equipped with a tall lattice-work hut, or sukkah.

More than 75 people have climbed into the pickup truck’s bed to receive a blessing that celebrates unity, joy and 3,326 years of Jewish tradition.

Sukkot literally means “huts,” while a sukkah is a single hut representing a shelter built under the sky and covered by branches to allow in the sun and the stars, Grossbaum said. Jews participating in Sukkot build temporary shelters, where they are instructed by the Torah to eat and dwell for a week. The ritual recalls the 40 years that the scriptures say Jews wandered the desert after escaping persecution in Egypt, and how God protected them during that time.

“Jews lived in temporary huts while in the desert, then erected them in their fields during the harvest season,” Grossbaum said.

Jews traditionally invite friends and family to dine in their backyard sukkahs during Sukkot, which ends Thursday night. But “not everyone makes it to a house or synagogue, so with the Sukkah Mobile we don’t have to wait for people to come to us, we bring it to them,” said Grossbaum, executive director of the Chabad Jewish Community Center in Folsom.

The Sukkah Mobile has stopped at various businesses, as well as dozens of private homes, Grossbaum said. On Tuesday, it drew about a dozen American and Israeli Jews at Intel’s Folsom campus.

“There are close to 600 Jews in the Folsom-El Dorado Hills area, and we consider them all members,” Grossbaum said. He is a member of the Chabad movement, which encourages every Jew to re-engage with their heritage regardless of their religious beliefs.

Sukkah Mobiles have been used in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and other cities around the country, and there’s even been a “Mitzvah Mobile,” an RV used as a traveling synagogue, said Grossbaum, who moved to Folsom with his family in 2007 from Brooklyn, N.Y.

A mitzvah is one of the many commandments in Jewish law, but the term is commonly used to refer to a good deed performed as a religious duty. “My day job is to encourage Jews to do an extra mitzvah,” Grossbaum said.

In the Sukkah Mobile, people are given four species of plants: a palm branch representing scholars; a myrtle branch representing those who are actively doing mitzvahs; an etrog (a large Mediterranean citrus fruit) symbolizing those who excel in both areas; and a willow branch symbolizing those who struggle in both areas. The objects are bound together and are waved in all directions, “reminding us to include every member of the community, not just the talented and influential members,” Grossbaum said.

Grossbaum visited Jews across congregations, often showing up unannounced. On Monday night, he rang Jessica Birch’s doorbell in Folsom, and her 15-year-old daughter called out “Mommy, a rabbi’s here!”

Birch, who belongs to a Reform synagogue in Carmichael, had already built a sukkah in her yard, but said the Sukkah Mobile made her smile.“It’s very whimsical, but at the same time demonstrates our traditions,” she said. “Sukkot is actually my favorite holiday. There’s always a full moon, and it’s a special connection to our heritage and the 40 years we spent in the desert.”

Dr. Jonathan Burg, the first person to board Wednesday, recently moved to El Dorado Hills from New Mexico. “To me this is the holiday of unity for everyone,” he said.

“All people, not just all Jews, live under the protection of God, who loves all of us like his children,” Burg said as he waved his bundle of plants north and south, then front and back. “In the era of Ebola and ISIS, Sukkot will bring us all together so we won’t be terrified of each other.”

While some Jews have questioned the seriousness of a Sukkah Mobile, Kevin Duewel, 23, noted that the Talmud – a record of ancient oral teachings – discusses rules for putting a sukkah on a camel or a wagon.

Leena Tucker, who spotted the Sukkah Mobile around town, happily scrambled aboard. “He’s a nut,” she said affectionately of Grossbaum, as she took a bite out of a chocolate wafer.

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee