At Sukkot the custom of Ushpizin, offers us a chance, to be as welcoming and as inclusive as we would like to be. Traditionally, the Ushpizin are biblical figures who we symbolically invite to join us in the sukkah, bringing their legacy in to guide us in the here and now. Whether or not you have a sukkah, we invite you to get in on the fun. We have created a list of global Jewish figures who we can invite to join us at the table during Sukkot (October 17-23). Have one ‘visitor’ join you each day, or have them all come together! We think their stories are worth celebrating and will remind us of how the historic diversity of Jewish life can enrich our modern lives.
Lady Judith and Sir Moses Montefiore – This 19th-century couple were a ‘mixed’ marriage. Lady Montefiore was born into a prominent Ashkenazi family and he into a prominent Sephardi family. In coming together they formed a formidable team that not only socializing at the highest levels of British society but also advocating for Jews around the world. In 1840 they went to Damascus to defend the community against a Blood Libel (accusation that Jews murdered Christian babies). In 1846, they went to Russia to protest expulsions of Jews from borderlands. Additionally they were frequent visitors and strong supporters of Jewish life in the Holy Land. They are a timeless model of the global nature and value of Jewish community.
Rabbi Moses Maimonides – “From Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses.” So reads the epitaph on the tombstone of Moses ben Maimon , whose extraordinary rabbinic wisdom made him stand out among generations of Jewish scholars and leaders. Maimonides or The Rambam, as he was also know, also made strong contributions as a physician and philosopher and was well known among the Muslims of his time as well. His legacy of exceptional Jewish intellectual religious thought as well as connection with non-Jewish scholars provides a model for generations of Jewish learning and community engagement to this day.
Rita Levi-Montalcini – Levi-Montalcini won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1986. Born in Turin, Italy, the loss of a close family friend changed her childhood aspirations to write towards medicine. Even the rise of Mussolini and her dismissal from the University of Turin did not stop Levi-Montalcini from her research; she simply set up a laboratory in her own bedroom and then in her living room when her family fled to France. This work was the base of what would eventually win her the Nobel Prize. She is a model not only of scientific excellence but also for all those who continue to be true to themselves even in the face of discrimination.
Semei Kakungulu – When the British took power in what is today Uganda, Semei Kakungulu came to their attention. The powerful leader of the important Baganda tribe, they wanted his support in ruling the peoples in the area of what is today Mbale. The British pushed Kakungulu to accept the teachings of Christianity, but through his studies he came to believe in Judaism and brought his tribe with him as he took on Jewish living. Kakungulu died in 1928, less than a decade after he came to Judaism but because of him, today there is a thriving Jewish community in Uganda. His journey is a reminder that the Jewish path has much to offer any and all who wish to walk it.
Donna Gracia Mendes HaNasi – Born in Portugal in 1510, to a family that hid their Jewish lives to survive in a country that demanded public fidelity to the Catholic Church, Donna Gracia would go on to be the most powerful and wealthiest Jewish woman of her time. Widowed at a young age, she moved to Antwerp to continue her husband’s trading business and live more openly as a Jew. She used her growing commercial power to influence religious and political leaders on behalf of Jew in need and to create an underground network that brought Jews out of the Iberian Peninsula. She eventually settled in Constantinople and provided significant financial support to Jews throughout the Sephardic world. Her capacity to reinvent herself is a reminder that we can recover from loss and her philanthropy and good works remind us that we can use the gifts we have to make the world a better place.
Baruch Spinoza – Contemporary secular Jews owe much to this Dutch Jew of Portuguese origins. Spinoza’s family fled Portugal when the Inquisition demanded that Jews convert. In the Netherlands, Spinoza’s family was able to once again openly live as Jews and young Baruch, born in 1632, had a very traditional upbringing. But reaching adulthood in the cosmopolitan Amsterdam, Spinoza began to question the tenants of Jewish faith including authorship of the Bible. Though he was excommunicated from the official Jewish community, his ideas lay the framework for modern Biblical scholarship and for secular Judaism.
Ofra Haza – Born in 1957, to Yemenite Jewish immigrants to Israel, Ofra Haza grew up financially poor but culturally rich. Her exceptional musical talent was noticed at a young age and during her military service she was recruited for one of the most prestigious of the competitive military music groups. She would go on to become a music sensation in Israel and then throughout the world. Haza is credited with creating broad appreciation for the complex and deep Jewish Yemenite musical heritage. Her success is a reminder to us all of the wealth and diversity global Jewish cultural and their power to enrich us all.