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Pagan and Jewish practices are blended for Sukkot

Huddling together in the concave of painter’s cloth draped around a lamppost and tree near the end of Richards Road, Mills women drew around lit candles and away from the night air. Whenever someone walked by, a girl by the makeshift booth’s end would say the same thing: “Happy Sukkot. Come eat and have fun.”

On Oct. 12, the Jewish Student Union, Mills Pagan Alliance and Division of Spiritual Life produced Dessert Under the Sukkah, a Jewish holiday Sukkot that they used to blend pagan and Jewish practices.

According to the Chapel Program Assistant Margee Churchon, a junior, Sukkot followers set up Sukkahs, which are cloth shacks with two and a half walls and a roof made of organic material like leaves. Participants eat meals in these shacks as a way to celebrate the plentiful harvest and commemorate the Biblical Jews who lived in similar conditions when they wandered the desert.

Churchon, who organized the event and welcomed all visitors to the Sukkah, said that Sukkot’s celebration of harvest reflected the Jewish and pagan aspects of herself.

“A lot of Judaism is non-pagan, but we have pagan roots, so incorporating it together was exciting for me,” Churchon said.

Instead of having a traditional Jewish blessing before food was served, senior Frances Sarcona, the president of the Mills Pagan Alliance, blessed the Sukkah.

According to Sarcona, the table decorations ensured good luck. She included four candles that represented the four elements and directions, wine and rosewater to channel elements and two crystals to draw energy from a bowl of harvest wood incense.

Waving a smudge stick, a roll of sage tied together with red twine and burned, Sarcona said a prayer as she cleansed the air around the Sukkah.

Erika Macs, the Chapel director, kept Mills Muslims celebrating Ramadan in mind when serving refreshments. Because participants in Ramadan would fast until that night, food was off-limits until 7 p.m.

Macs said that she and Churchon chose to serve strudels and pomentoshen, which is a triangular cookie typically used to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim, so that Jewish students could keep kosher. The pumpkin pie and pecan tarts were offered to people with no religious restrictions.

Freshwoman Rebecca Waterhouse said that the food by candlelight is what attracted her to the Sukkah.

Finishing an apricot strudel with whipped cream, she said, “The whipped cream was like a special effect, and by candlelight, it was fun to eat.”

Sophomore Nicole Stockmen admitted that she knew nothing of Sukkot, but that the idea of an interfaith celebration intrigued her enough.

“I wanted to see what it’s about, and I love the feeling I got when it was presented,” Stockmen said, adding that the event was mindful of religious difference.

Macs said this mindfulness is her goal as the Mills Chaplain.

“I have a commitment for Mills to both honor and celebrate spiritual and religious tradition,” she said.

Macs plans to host another interfaith event in December, when she says most religions have some winter festival. Known as the Gya Festival in 2005 and as the Festival of Light and Darkness in 2004, Macs has yet to decide a new name and date.

For now, Churchon encourages students to attend religious events even if they are not of that belief system.

“Maybe you’ll learn something,” she said.