Thousands of Jews throughout Long Island this week are marking Sukkot, a festival that commemorates God's sheltering of the Israelites more than 3,000 years ago as they wandered the desert after their exodus from slavery in Egypt.
The celebration, which began Oct. 8 and ends Wednesday night, involves the construction of temporary shelters where observant Jews eat their meals, pray, spend family time together and, in some cases, sleep at night.
After the intense self-reflection and fasting of Yom Kippur, many Jews say Sukkot -- also known as the Festival of Booths -- is a welcome holiday of pure joy that also recognizes the fall harvest.
"I think it's a wonderful, happy holiday," said Nancy Kemper, of Roslyn Heights. "You're celebrating something that is joyous."
The festival is rooted in the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. According to Jewish belief, during the Israelites' 40 years in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, God helped them survive by providing small shelters to protect them from the elements.
To commemorate that, observant Jews construct a sukkah, typically in their backyards. The temporary structures must have at least three walls and can be made of almost anything -- wood, plastic, cloth. The ceiling, however, must allow for the stars to be seen. Often, it is made of bamboo and has small slits.
"It doesn't have a full ceiling that cuts you off from the rain or the wind or the sun," said Rabbi Charles Klein of the Merrick Jewish Centre, a Conservative synagogue. "You're supposed to feel connected to the world, the world of nature and to God."
Even a well-constructed sukkah is "a fragile structure," he said. "It reminds us of our vulnerability as human beings."
Most synagogues construct a sukkah, and a growing number of the faithful are doing so at home, too, said Klein, a former president of the New York Board of Rabbis. Another 10 families in his congregation bought sukkah kits this year, bringing to about 40 the number who build a sukkah for the festival.
Steve Zucker, 55, a computer consultant from Bellmore who attends the Merrick synagogue, said he slept in his sukkah the first night of the festival, but it was too cold to continue for the entire week. He and his family have been eating most of their meals there.
"It's a great experience to be outdoors and have a meal as the moon is coming up in the sky," he said. "This is putting us back in touch with God."
Randy Schoenfeld, a teacher from Merrick, said Sukkot is her favorite Jewish holiday. She decorates her sukkah each year with family memorabilia, such as the artwork of her children, now grown, when they were young.
"It brings us back to their childhood," she said.
Many of the faithful invite guests to eat with them in their sukkah during the festival.
Yaakov Raskin, a rabbi with the Hasidic Chabad movement, said a mobile sukkah built by Chabad will visit several communities, including his home base of Huntington, so more people can learn about the festival.
The sukkah, he said, "just becomes like our second home."