On Monday, October 13, one of the intermediate days of Sukkot, somewhere between 9,000 and 12,000 mostly Orthodox Jews will gather at Hershey Park. The event is an important fundraiser for a number of Jewish organizations, including the Lancaster Mikvah Association, but it also provides a window into the lives of Orthodox Jews in America.
Each year on #JewDay, as it is known on Twitter, the park offers a day of rides, Jewish entertainment, and unparalleled opportunity for conversation and games of Jewish Geography. This year will be a little different from years past. The event typically takes place on the first day of Chol Hamoed, the holiday’s intermediate period, but this year’s overlap with Columbus Day means there will be many coming early on Sunday evening to preview activities at the park.
Visitors will converge from at least five states—New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Maryland—and a variety of communities, including Lakewood, Monsey, Passaic, Flatbush, Teaneck, Silver Spring, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. There is even a contingent from Long Island’s Five Towns—3 hours and 45 minutes away without traffic. (And there is always traffic.)
One of the attractions is that the park accommodates religious needs with two sukkahs, kosher food, and multiple prayer services. Five local hotels partner with the event’s organizers and even build sukkahs for overnight guests.
Of course, not everyone attending is strictly observant. Chabad Lubavitch sends emissaries there to ask attendees to say the blessings over the lulav and the etrog, something observant Jews are supposed to do with their morning prayers. Last year, I asked one of these Chabadniks how many takers he found, and he told me that he got more than 900 people. Clearly, there is a diversity of practice to be found among attendees.
The diversity is also found in the modes of dress. There are plenty of Modern Orthodox teens in jeans, but there’s also the full spectrum of Haredim, including different Hasidic garb. You can hear Yiddish, English, and some Hebrew spoken. The mix of different kinds of Jews within the larger Jewish family adds to the joyous atmosphere. Everyone is on the same team, as it were, even if they are wearing different uniforms.
Hershey Park is far from the only Jewish convergence point on Chol Hamoed. The Disney parks attract many Sukkot celebrators, but Hershey is different in that it is open almost exclusively to the Jewish community. In previous years, the park has been staffed by volunteers from local churches, who help open the park on a day outside the typical park season. But almost all of the visitors are Jewish, and most of them are Orthodox. “It’s crazy, said Rabbi Ari Matityahu of the National Council of Young Israel, which helps publicize the event, during which the amusement park is closed to regular attendees. “They shut down the park just for us.”
Hershey Park is a great venue for peering into to the thriving state of the Orthodox Jewish community in America today. By virtue of its location, Hershey is convenient to large contingents from multiple communities. And as one of the most widely known of the Chol Hamoed Sukkot activities, it has the most sociological significance. Experience suggests that the attendees have a great time to boot.
Tevi Troy is a former White House Jewish liaison and the author of What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: Two Hundred Years of Popular Culture in the White House. He plans to visit Hershey Park with his family on Chol Hamoed Sukkot again this year.