Written by Meredith Englander Polsky, this article originally appeared in The Jewish Week’s blog, The New Normal, September 30, 2013.
By this point, there’s been quite a bit of buzz in the Jewish community about the fact that Vice-President Joe Biden not only celebrated Sukkot, but did so in a sukkah built on the grounds of his residence at Number One Observatory Circle.
And while this is amazing, there is more to the story, as there is more to a sukkah than its walls and roof. Hint: It’s all about the decorations.
It all happened thanks to Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a supporter of and contributor to this blog and a big macher in D.C., especially in the worlds of disability and Israeli advocacy. She called me up last Wednesday afternoon, just befor the start of Sukkot.
“Is Matan doing anything this weekend for Sukkot?” Jennifer began. “Yes,” I said. “My Maryland Matan program is meeting on Sunday and the lesson is all about Sukkot.” “Good,” she said. “Vice President Biden wants to build a sukkah, and we would like the Matan kids to create the decorations for it.” She said some other things too, I’m sure, but I really couldn’t tell you what they were. This was not what I expected!
Everyone I have told this story to (and it has been a fair amount!) has had the same reaction: “Joe Biden has a sukkah?!” During the course of my conversation with Jennifer, though, that thought never entered my mind. All I could think was, “The vice president of the United States wants the children from Matan to decorate his sukkah!!”
As Jennifer later explained, the vice president often hosts Jewish leaders during the High Holiday season. Since Jennifer is “Facebook friends” with much of the administration’s staff, they had taken note of her postings about sukkot, asked her about the holiday, and decided this was the way to go. Together, they decided that the Vice President would have a sukkah that represents true inclusion and is decorated entirely by children with and without disabilities.
So Matan kids made the decorations, and Jennifer invited nine children to help hang them up. I had the great privilege of accompanying her, her husband and these nine kids to the residence. After the decorations were complete, Dr. Jill Biden surprised us all by coming outside with her dog, Champ, and special “goody bags” for the kids complete with packages of candy with the Vice President’s seal. She listened as we explained the holiday of Sukkot, talked about the children who made the decorations and gave her a “tour” of the different parts of the sukkah.
In the Bidens’ sukkah, I don’t think a single person was thinking about which decorations came from kids with “differences” and which were made by “typical” kids, or about which of the decorators had disabilities, and which ones didn’t. There was no way to tell. They noticed the amazing poem one girl wrote about Sukkot – they didn’t mention anything about her developmental delay. They noticed the kids who were tall enough not to need a ladder – they didn’t mention how those kids spoke or what difficulties they may have with learning. They noticed the creative ideas other kids had about how to use the materials – they didn’t mention that they walked differently or had difficulty communicating.
I can teach my children all about respecting differences, or how each of us is created in God’s image, or how everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. But it is only by living these truths that equality and inclusion will become ingrained in who they are and how they see the world.
So no, the vice president is not Jewish and yes, this may be the first sukkah ever built on the grounds of the Vice Presidential residence. But even in this once-in-a-lifetime experience, those are not the most important takeaways. My children got to participate in an organically inclusive Jewish experience that was entirely focused on the commonalities among their peers, and not the differences. They were among children like themselves who are proud to be Jewish – and who were using their unique strengths and talents to create a truly inclusive sukkah for the vice president of the United States of America.