Bill talks with Rabbi Samuel Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom about his temple, how his congregants are faring under the pandemic, and his upcoming event with the Racial Justice Committee’s speaker series.

Rabbi Samuel Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom

Bill: Hi friends, my name is Bill Evertsberg and I’m one of the ministers at Kenilworth Union Church, and this is Doogie, my assistant minister.

You probably recognize the location we’re filming from. This is Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette on Central Avenue. In the summer of 2017 during July and August when Kenilworth Union was refinishing our floors and our pews, Sukkat Shalom hosted our worship service. You’ll see in a minute the beautiful worship space.

I’m going to talk to the senior rabbi here, Sam Gordon, and I just want to say thank you once again to Sam and to the congregation here at Sukkat Shalom for being so welcoming to us now almost four years ago. So thank you, Sukkat Shalom.

So Sam, thank you for inviting Doogie and Matt and me into this beautiful house of worship. We’re so glad to be here. Our partnership with Sukkat Shalom has been a rewarding experience for my six years here. So tell us something about how Sukkat Shalom got started and what your mission and meaning is.

Sam: Well, Sukkat Shalom, the Hebrew, a sukkah is the tabernacle which in the fall is the festival Sukkot. And we use the term “Sukkat Shalom,” a shelter of peace. And the idea of a sukkah is that it’s open. It doesn’t have permanent walls or a firm roof. It’s open to people being able to enter, as well as being open to the heavens. And so it was a name that really reflected what we wanted as our mission.

We wanted to be an open congregation that would be welcoming to people of all backgrounds, whether they were Jewish, from conversative, orthodox, non-observant world, or whether they were often times people who grew up within the Christian world who had married, intermarried, with a Jewish partner, and were raising families that had a diversity within it. And so we wanted to be a place that nurtured that and was able to build a spirituality based on that diversity of our families.

Bill: So you have a bunch of Christians as part of your congregation?

Sam: We do. In fact, we have a few people who are members of our congregation and members of yours.

Bill: That’s how we became acquainted, right? One of the spouses was yours and one of the spouses was mine. When was Sukkat Shalom founded?

Sam: Well, I founded it, about 25 years ago, although it had grown from a small group of friends who were either parents of my children’s friends, or neighbors from the Wilmette-Evanston area, and some of them were colleagues of my wife at work, who came to me because they were intermarried and did not feel welcome in other places and wanted to know how to manage the issue of raising a family with two faiths. And so we started meeting informally in that way and 25 years ago, we formed the congregation.

We did not have a building for a long time. For about 15 years we had no building of our own, we—similar to our being willing to open our doors to Kenilworth Union—the doors of First Congregational Church of Wilmette, the Community Church of Wilmette, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints on Lake Street, all of them opened their doors to us and so we wanted to return that favor, but we were looking for sacred space.

This wonderful building was originally the Christian Science church of Wilmette and it became available to us and we were able to renovate it and build our own sanctuary here for our congregation.

Bill: Such a charming sacred space. What a wonderful place to worship. Sam, we were talking before Matt turned the camera on that your experience as a homeless congregation made you mindful of homeless congregations like Kenilworth Union when we were renovating our pews and floors. And I think that’s so interesting, kind of Biblical precedent, right? Jesus said foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head; Hebrews wandering in the wilderness before finding Canaan; so that’s kind of a beautiful sentiment. Thank you for that hospitality years ago.

So tell me, my congregation is curious about how our sister congregations are faring during this almost yearlong pandemic now, as a congregation and as individuals, how is your congregation faring during this time?

Sam: Well in many ways it’s been very challenging, as I think it’s been for all of us. However, there was a creative response that we didn’t expect. We were able to maintain our relationship with our congregants, particularly in terms of worship, by using video, sometimes Zoom, sometimes livestreaming, sometimes prerecorded services that are then livestreamed.

We also had to reach out to people in new ways. Twice we delivered goody bags to every member of the congregation by the senior staff and the senior clergy. We’d drive around, 330 families or whatever, we dropped off things for the high holy days and for Hanukkah, and we expect to do the same thing for Passover. So the congregation is faring well.

It’s also interesting, some of the advantages that we found unexpectedly. At our worship services on Friday night, people are logging in from California, from Florida, from Arizona, from Las Vegas, our typical winter snowbirds are not disconnected anymore. We’re able to keep connected with them. So that’s a certain advantage.

Very luckily, thankfully, we’ve really not had deaths because of COVID-19; except, among particularly some of our elderly, there have been a number of losses that are not directly attributed to COVID-19, but because of isolation, because they’re not being supported by family that come visit them, they may be in senior housing which limits them and also exposes them. So we have seen loss, we’ve seen people who are shaken by this.

And then of course shaken by the kind of political—there’s a sense of division in America that I think we’re all concerned about. Whatever our political positions, our partisan positions, but that divisiveness, the demonization of the other. So that also has been a disruptive part of this year, but also I think—I’m sure you’ve seen the same thing—the houses of worship are sacred centers, have become all the more important to our members. I think the value we provide has been recognized.

Bill: Fabulous. Sam, you’re going to come over to Kenilworth Union Church virtually, it’s going to be a Zoom meeting, but you have an interest in Isabel Wilkerson’s important book called Caste, and you’re going to be talking to Kenilworth Union and whoever else wants to join that meeting on February 8, right? Which is a Monday night at 7 p.m. and you can go to kuc.org to register, friends, but Sam is a wonderful teacher and preacher and he really thinks very highly of this book so you’ll want to join us.

Sam, thanks for having us.

Sam: Delighted.

Bill: God bless you and your congregation.

Sam: And you as well.

Bill: We’ll work in partnership for as long as either of us is here.

Sam: Well I look forward to that, and I look forward to being with you on February [8].

Bill: The Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine upon you.

Sam: Thank you, and so may it be with you.

Bill: Thanks, Sam.