This is my D'var Torah for the first day of Sukkot 5784 and Shabbat, September 30, 2023.
Sukkot is actually the third part of the High Holy Days. It’s not just Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sukkot is the zany but nuanced third festival of our kickoff month of Tishrei.
And Sukkot is specifically a continuation of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we go hyperspiritual, in the sense that we put away most of our material existence – eating, physical pleasures and adornments, even our homes as we spend more time in the synagogue than any other day. Then on Sukkot it seems like the opposite – we get hypermaterial, very earthy. Outdoors, building the hut, waving the Four Species, and in contrast to Yom Kippur the essential mitzvah in the Sukkah is to eat.
What we are actually doing is bringing our spiritually-realigned selves from Yom Kippur into a stylized version of our material life. A simple house, a week of meals, getting hands-on with four types of plants that represent four basic ways we interact with the physical world of things that grow and the water cycle. It’s like moving into a prototype of the materialist world, getting the basics straight before we step out into a more complex actual world of commerce and tangible things. On Sukkot we try to align our material selves on the basis of our reoriented spiritual selves.
So in the Talmud the Sukkah is connected to the Holy of Holies, which the High Priest used to enter on Yom Kippur. That’s where the ark was with the tablets, which means the Sukkah itself is a covenantal place. It’s a design statement meant to guide our relationship to material things and to people with whom we share meals, and to people in our neighborhood. And all through Sukkot we’re reminded that our relationships with people and food are connected directly to nature. We’re always eating in the shade of the s’chach on top of the Sukkah, the shadows that remind us of the divine protection that covers us even when we’re not paying attention, a spiritual mist made up of very earthy material.
So I want to talk about one way we can prototype our material world in the coming year, so it becomes more aligned spiritually and covenantally. I am part of a group of about ten clergy in the area who call ourselves the Greater Nashua Interfaith Housing Justice Group. We have been together for about six years but we’ve been working very publicly on issues of housing for more than four years. I want to tell you some of the what and more of the why, and invite you to engage in that work with us as members of the Jewish community and the faith community more broadly. Many of us are speaking in our congregations this week on this topic. Some of you were here four years ago when we did the same.
A Sukkah is defined in the Talmud as dirat ara’i, temporary dwelling. On a Torah level this is about bringing us back to the desert, where the Jewish people lived in a series of temporary places while we got our Torah and our training. In Egypt, even as slaves we lived in houses, as we know from the night of the Exodus with the blood on our doorposts. In the promised land we would again have homes, to live in and buy and sell. Sukkot is about the experience in between. In the desert every one of us knew a vulnerability about food and shelter survival, and it was the same whether you were Moshe or Miryam or a tribal elder, or anyone else.
In our community, dirat ara’i for some people means not having any place to call home from day to day. All of our local shelters are full all the time. Thanks to the vision of many local leaders and the generosity of many including members of our shul, a new shelter on Spring Street in Nashua was opened recently by the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter. Having a stable place to come back to each day, to rest and eat a meal and do homework, is a basic prerequisite for physical health, and mental health, and doing your job well or staying consistent in school. Too many kids have to couch-surf, which means moving also from school to school, and you can imagine the impact on educational progress and social development.
Because so many of our local nonprofits work so well on homelessness, our clergy group has picked up the next level from that, which has never had enough public advocates. So we work on affordable housing, which in practice turns out be primarily for renters – another kind of dirat ara’i, temporary dwelling.
In the city of Nashua, an increasing number of people rent as opposed to owning the place where they live. As a result, rents in the city are skyrocketing, outpacing inflation by about double in the past decade. In our part of the state, even beyond the city, about half of renters pay more than they can afford on housing, meaning more than 30% of income. If you work in health care, education, or retail, it’s almost impossible to find a place to rent in Nashua that’s affordable on your salary, and certainly that’s the case for people in lower paying jobs.
As a result, just the City of Nashua needs to add around 4,500 more units of housing by 2030 to stabilize our overall housing market, and of that at least another 1,800 units that would have to be affordable to people making far less than the area median income. Even this wouldn’t quite meet the needs of all the families emerging from transitional housing programs or everyone working as a nurse, a police officer, or a public school teacher who wants to live in the community where they work. It would still be a dramatic bite in the shortage.
Our municipal leaders and our state leaders have been paying more attention to this over the past five years. In Nashua, there have been some welcome achievements and our interfaith housing justice group has been part of a couple of them, as has the Granite State Organizing Project in these and others. Nashua created an affordable housing trust fund with $10 million from the American Rescue Plan, one of the Covid-19 relief programs passed by Congress. This money will increase the incentives for private builders to create affordable housing. Rentals are financed on the expectation of an income stream down the road, and when the apartment is going to be rented for less than the market rate, there’s a shortfall there that makes the project unprofitable – or in the non-theological lingo we’ve learned, “it doesn’t pencil.” To make it sensible for a developer to rent at a rate that someone could afford who is a teacher or a nurse or getting back on their feet with a new job, each unit requires an extra $25-80,000 of upfront financing. That’s what this fund will provide. This $10 million can help us bite off some 10-20% of the need we have. We’ll need more in the fund to hit our goal by 2030. As an example, a real-estate transaction surcharge on the order of a penny on every $1,000 of a sale could fund our need in Nashua in perpetuity.
We have a new inclusionary zoning ordinance that passed our Board of Aldermen with not a single dissent, which requires new buildings of certain sizes to have a certain number of units of affordable housing within them, or else the developer has to pay per unit built into the housing trust fund.
Many of you have seen the redevelopment and expansion of public housing downtown on Central Street off the south end of the new parkway, formerly the Bronstein Apartments and now Monahan Manor.
All of these are an acceleration of the pace of creating new affordable housing, but we are still behind where we need to be for 2030. So we need to advocate for more funding from the state and other sources, as the Covid-related stimulus funding comes to an end.
If it were just about numbers, I don’t know that we would be involved specifically as people of faith. How we create housing matters.
The Sukkah is about covenantal design. It’s about how housing links us together or divides us. When the Talmud discusses the construction requirements for the Sukkah, it connects the Sukkah to a chuppah, the marriage canopy, and to a mavoy, a neighborhood allyway where people often decide to collaborate in carry things around or share food on Shabbat. I’ve been thinking about the most bizarre design teaching about Sukkah, which is the booth has to be big enough for your entire head, a table, and most of your body but not all of it. Obviously this wouldn’t be a comfortable Sukkah, nor is it ideal to have a Sukkah where you can’t eat with other people. I think what it means is that you have to experience a full Sukkah mind yourself, but your eating has to keep you connected to what’s outside.
How we create housing is as important as the raw number of apartments. American public housing programs created clusters of high-rise buildings that concentrated poverty and had the effect of segregating many cities by race. The newest thinking even about publicly financed construction is that it makes a difference when attention is paid to how a building helps people connect with their neighbors, with local business and public space. Open space and common space matter, incentives to connect with other people in the building as opposed to fearing them. It makes a difference when people of different socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures live in the same building – so much informal networking happens, so much social trust can be built across difference, the outcomes are proven better for children.
It makes a difference when the people who live in a building or a neighborhood that will be rebuilt to increase its capacity for housing have a voice, in the design and in what happens to them while they are displaced.
Our interfaith housing groups call this covenantal thinking. It’s what we hope for and are already lobbying to happen around the next big projects in Nashua: redeveloping the Elm Street Middle School when the new school opens, recreating the public housing on Major Drive, what will happen next now where the asphalt plant was proposed down the hill from here, and how to repurpose Daniel Webster College as proposed in the new city master plan.
Covenant thinking might lead any one project to have fewer units, which on its own seems like a missed opportunity. But as the lens widens, new people might see themselves as partners for affordable housing, and new projects can emerge that the existing stakeholders might never have thought of.
The Spring Street Shelter has some of this covenantal thinking in it. There are community rooms, rooms for education, and former director Michael Reinke’s vision was for community groups beyond NSKS to share a life in the building. Not just to see residents are people who need things from “the rest of us” like clothing, or even skills training. But a place where community groups could offer interesting cultural and educational programming for anyone, resident or not, in a location central in our city right downtown.
The last time a group of us preached on housing we were leading into a public event, which generated momentum and new relationships with city officials and led to some of the progress to date. We’ve been able to collaborate and to critique. So too this coming Monday the community is invited to a forum with candidates for mayor and the Board of Aldermen in Nashua. We will hear stories about the housing crisis from community members, and then ask the candidates for their policy priorities around equitable, affordable housing. The forum is at the Unitarian Universalist Church near here at 7:30, and you’ll have plenty of time to make it after our Sukkah dinner and event here that night.
Whether or not you live in Nashua, you can advance the goals of more affordable housing created in a covenantal fashion in many ways. Attend the event on Monday. Sign up for our e-mail list, so we can keep you posted on public meetings of local planning boards and other bodies debating policies and budgets. We need people who are not the usual faces to come and be YIMBYs, Yes in My Backyard advocates, because almost every project is opposed by an organized group. Ask any candidate for office if they will accept a pledge toward 2,000 new units of affordable housing this decade if you live in Nashua. But things are happening all the time in the other towns too, and next year, the gubernatorial and legislative elections will have a big impact, because Gov. Sununu and the legislature the past few years have added tens of millions of new dollars statewide into affordable housing finance. The new governor and legislators should continue in that path and add even more.
And if you or someone you know has expertise in any area related to real estate or finance or construction, or philanthropy, help us connect. One of the things about our congregations is that we have so many different talents and resources among us, and it’s not just the same players as are around other tables who discuss and decide these matters.
Sukkot is a good time to reflect on the physical structures we live in and how they are connected as neighborhoods and as towns. On Sukkot we move out of our settled homes into dirat ara’i, temporary structures, which help us get our bearings as we relaunch into a year of commerce and consumption, neighborliness, political debate about how we marshall and share our collective resources. On this Sukkot, let’s complete the High Holy Day season by restoring our material lives to their spiritual roots, their covenantal roots, for the new year.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!