Hebrew Voices #103 – A Jerusalem Sukkot Encampment

Nehemia Gordon with David and Emily Verela discussing the laws of Sukkot in Jerusalem.In this episode of Hebrew Voices, A Jerusalem Sukkot Encampment, Nehemia Gordon speaks with an American couple who sparked a worldwide Sukkot-movement by pitching a tent in Jerusalem with their seven children. They share the story of their humble beginnings studying the Bible, which led them to discovering the name of God and forgoing pagan holidays. Years later and hundreds of people, from all over the world, join them in fulfillment of prophecy of Zechariah 14:16 about the nations of the world celebrating the Feast of Booths in Jerusalem.

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Hebrew Voices #103 - A Jerusalem Sukkot Encampment

You are listening to Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon. Thank you for supporting Nehemia Gordon's Makor Hebrew Foundation. Learn more at NehemiasWall.com.

Emily: I would go out every Sukkot. I would have to get away from all these women and children, at least once during the week, go to the backside of the pasture, and just cry, and just cry out to Yah about, “Can we just do this all together in Jerusalem like we’re doing it here?” and so, that was my prayer and my cry from 2010.

Nehemia: Shalom, this is Nehemia Gordon. And I’m coming to you from Gan Ha’atzmaut, Independence Park, in the heart of Jerusalem, and I’m surrounded here by an encampment of people who have come on the pilgrimage of Sukkot. I’m here with Emily and David, shalom, guys!

David: Shalom.

Emily: Shalom.

Nehemia: Where are you, guys from, and what brought you here to Independence Park on Sukkot?

David: We come to obey the commandment to dwell in booths for a week.

Nehemia: Okay, and where did you come from?

Emily: We came from the United States. David’s originally from Mexico, but we represent the United States and Mexico, but we came to dwell in sukkahs, but in Jerusalem.

Nehemia: Wow. So, you’re not Jewish, right?

Emily: Right.

Nehemia: So, how did you come to be celebrating the feast of Sukkot?

David: Through the studying the Scriptures.

Emily: Yeah, we came from differing backgrounds, and so there was a little bit of a problem. So we decided to throw away the literature from both of the backgrounds we came from and just start studying the Bible by ourselves.

Nehemia: What were those backgrounds?

Emily: My background is Baptist, and he didn’t have a religious background. He grew up in Mexico, which is Catholic, but his family had been visited by the Jehovah Witnesses. So he didn’t really have a lot of background, but what happened was we were living… Actually, I picked him up hitch hiking and I brought him to the ranch I was working on to work for me.

Nehemia: So, you picked him up hitchhiking in west Texas and brought him back to your ranch. Give me the story of how you get from being a Baptist to keeping Torah.

Emily: Okay. I had picked him up, and I didn’t speak Spanish and he didn’t speak English. So, I got him a Spanish Bible and I got a Spanish-English dictionary, and I would use my Baptist Sunday school book to tell me where I’m going to read that day, and I would put his Bible in the same place, and he actually didn’t know how to read, but he was learning how to read through reading his Bible.

Then one day the Jehovah Witnesses in Spanish came to the ranch and gave him some materials, and that evening when we got together to study the Bible he was all excited with his materials, and growing up Baptist I recognized the materials and I said, “Oh, we can’t use those,” and he was really excited about them and he said, “Well, why not?” and I said, “Well, I don’t know, we just can’t use them.” He said, “Well if we can’t use mine, we can’t use yours either.”

So that was fair enough. We got rid of the materials and we just studied the Bible. And from that point, it was about a year later that we ended up getting married. We left that part of the country because that was where I worked, I wanted to be a good wife and mother, and I couldn’t do it in that kind of life I was living at the time. Plus, I had made during this time complete repentance, like just totally given my life to Yah, who I knew as God at that time.

Anyway, we moved to the eastern part of the country and just continued. We were both really just in the word, and the Sabbath question had bothered me since I was a young child, but that was kind of our first major step out - was when we finally, we cried out for the answer on that, and got the answer from the Scriptures and then started looking into history to see, “Well, why do the Christians do it on Sunday then?” And when we came to that answer, we started keeping the Sabbath. And then we were still studying, and then we began to see other things like the name; the way we came into the names was just a footnote in our one of our Bibles. We were in Bible studies, so they gave us a free Bible because we were in a Bible study, and the notes in the front of the Bible said… And that horrified me, that they had actually changed the name.

Nehemia: So, as many of my listeners know, the name is one thing that I’m really passionate about. So, tell me about that. What was the footnote that got you interested in the name?

Emily: I don’t remember, it just said that in Hebrew it was four letters, and that the translators had followed a Jewish tradition of not pronouncing the name. And so, in the English Bibles, where the Hebrew would have said Yehovah, it said “the LORD”, in the capital L-O-R-D. So, at that time, as soon as we learned that information, as soon as I learned it, when I would read the Bible to my children, I think I was pronouncing it Jehovah at the time, because that’s how it showed in the Bible. And so, we… whenever we got to “the LORD”, in capital L-O-R-D, then I would just pronounce “Jehovah”. And then I realized what a huge difference that made, especially when you get to… well, everywhere, even in the story of Boaz, and they were greeting each other in the name of Yehovah.

Nehemia: He said to them, that’s right, he said to them “Yehovah imachem,” and they said, “yevarachecha Yehovah,” “Yehovah be with you”, and they said, “Yehovah bless you”.

Emily: Yes, that was a common greeting it seemed like…

Nehemia: Yeah.

Emily: And then so many places, like where it says in the Psalms, “And they shall know that My name is Jehovah,” at that time it was Jehovah, and I was thinking, “Woah, they should know that My name is the LORD,” that doesn’t make any sense.”

Nehemia: What I find really interesting about this, is you start out with, “Hey, we can’t use your stuff, and we can’t use my stuff, so, let’s just see what the Bible says.” [laughing] I love that!

Emily: Exactly.

Nehemia: That’s so cool! That’s really cool! So you’re just seeing what it says, and you’re realizing about Sabbath, and you’re realizing about the name and other things. Okay, how do you get from there to camping out in a park here in Jerusalem?

Emily: Okay, so, then we got to Leviticus 23 one day in our reading. We would just start it in Genesis 1 and read through the whole thing, and then start over in a different translation, and at that time we weren’t doing any kind of Hebrew stuff.

But Leviticus 23 says, “These are the feasts of Jehovah,” at the time is, “These are the feasts of,” in my Bible, it said, “the LORD” and all of a sudden this thing went off: Whoa! These are His feasts, and if I am His…

David: But it was not a feast of the Jews.

Emily: Right, it wasn’t the Jews’ feast.

David: It was His feast.

Emily: And in Christianity we’ve been taught…

Nehemia: Oh, this is a really important point. So up until then, you had this idea that, “We don’t have to keep those, those are for the Jews,” and then you read it in Leviticus 23, these actually belong to God.

David: Yes.

Emily: Right.

Nehemia: Oh, wow, that’s actually a really interesting insight. And so, were you keeping up until that point Easter and Christmas, or…?

Emily: At that time, yeah, we still were, but there was something really bothersome, especially with Easter. We had a big problem with Easter, because the whole timing. We already figured out the math, you know, three days and three nights, so, the whole Easter problem wasn’t in that. Easter was a big problem, but that we had a problem with Christmas, and his family had never kept Christmas because they weren’t Catholic anyway, and the Jehovah Witnesses visited them, and so the Jehovah Witnesses have that right, that they don’t celebrate the Pagan festivals. But my family was really big on that tradition, but right after we started keeping the feasts, I think Christmas just got so painful, there was just something wrong, and we didn’t know what it was. So we made an announcement to my family that we didn’t want to… We went through one last horribly painful one, and we said, “We can’t do this anymore.”

In 2005, we start keeping the feasts, so we saw that the feasts were to be… Sukkot, you were supposed to build temporary shelters, and remember what the Israelites did in the land of Egypt, they dwelt in temporary dwellings. And so, my idea of that was that we would do things the old way, and I was always for that anyway, that’s kind of in my blood.

David: Not the old way, but the closest you can to the commandment.

Emily: Right

Nehemia: Okay, and what was that, as you understood it?

Emily: Well, you were to dwell in temporary dwellings, which I just thought, “Anybody who was going to do this would like live in the temporary dwelling, not…” I know some people think maybe you just eat there or something like that, I learned that later, but no - for us, I thought in English it says “to dwell”, in Tabernacles and so, we would live there for the week.

Nehemia: And I think in the Jewish world no one disputes that it means “to dwell”, but for practical reasons, especially Jews living in like Northern Europe, they weren’t going to sleep in a sukkah. I grew up in Chicago, and Sukkot was always one of my favorite holidays, and I actually was… as becoming a Karaite as a young man, I said, “Look, it says to dwell in the sukkah, why would I just go there and have my meals?” My father’s response was, “Well, if it rains you have to leave the sukkah. Why? Because the rabbis say so.” And I’m like, “Well, no.”

What I would do is I would sleep, I had a tarp over my blanket, so if it rained my head would get wet, and I was a teenager, I could handle it. One year, I’ll never forget this, I woke up covered in a layer of snow probably this thick, and the irony is that layer snow may have saved my life, because it insulated me. I didn’t realize… like, I was a stupid young teenager, thinking I was invincible and could do anything. But no one disputes in the Jewish world that it is dwelling in the sukkah; the question is, what do you actually do when you’ve got a baby? And you know, whatever. And you’re saying, “Hey, we’re just going to do it.”

Emily: Yeah.

Nehemia: That’s pretty cool.

Emily: So, 2004 was our first one, and then we saw that the men were commanded to go to Jerusalem three times a year, and so in 2005 he came, he basically ended up coming by himself, although he had one email contact that he knew was going to be here, and he ended up miraculously….

Nehemia: How did you end up in my sukkah, I don’t actually remember. Do you remember Georgia, my dog?

David: I think I do.

Nehemia: You do? Okay, I’m pretty sure, if he was in my sukkah, he was woken up probably one morning with Georgia licking him in the face. [laughing]

David: So, it was like a big… You know, the Father kind of put us together with different people. In the airport, when I was coming, I was thinking, “Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do; this is the first time to Israel, I don’t speak Hebrew, I’ve never been there, so I decided that as soon as I come in, I was going rent a car. I don’t know where Jerusalem is, but I can drive, and if I get lost I’ll sleep in the car.”

So, when I was in the airport, I see a guy standing right about two or three people in front of me, and I see the tzitzit, the tzitziot, I see the blue on him, and I thought, “Wow, that guy must be somebody that’s going to Israel to obey the feasts,” but I don’t want to talk to him, because he was with his family and I said, “Well, I’ll wait, maybe I can run into him later.” I never thought about it, and so we got in the plane. When I landed in Tel Aviv I went to the rental car and when I got to the line he was right in front of me.

Nehemia: The guy with the blue tzitzit?

David: And he turned, and he saw my tzitzit, and he asked me, and so, we began talking, he said, “Oh, I’m going to Jerusalem.” I said, “I’m going to rent a car, I’m going there too.” And he said, “Oh, I’ll take you there.” I said, “Well, that’ll be nice, because I don’t know where I’m going.” And he said, “Where are you going?” So, I showed him my reservation, and he was two doors down from me, and he said, “Well, I would like to take you, if you don’t have anybody, we are going to meet with somebody tonight for a dinner.”

Nehemia: Okay.

David: I said, “Okay, that’ll be very nice to meet some more people.” So that evening another friend came and knocked at my door, I don’t even know the guy…

Emily: The one he had the email contact with before he came.

Nehemia: Okay. So, you just know from the email, you’ve never met him before?

David: Yeah. So we met, and he said, “We would like to take you to meet somebody else, a friend of mine.” And I told him, “I already have plans for tonight.” He said, “What? You just got here.” I said, “Yeah, I’m supposed to go with some friends to meet somebody else.” So he said, “Okay, well, maybe we’ll hook up the next day,” And I said, “Okay, fine.”

So that evening we go to the place, the guy knocks in the door, and that friend from the email opens the door, it was in Avi Mordechai’s house, and you were there, too.

Nehemia: Okay, so you go to a mutual friend that we have and we meet there, and then you end up in my sukkah also with this guy George, right? The two you were in my sukkah. Okay.

David: Yeah.

Nehemia: So, that is your first Sukkot in Israel, and that’s just you, not the whole family, and what were you doing in Tennessee while he’s in my sukkah with Georgia?

Emily: That was 2005. We had six children, then the oldest was eight, and so we set up a tent in our front yard, and that year it was very windy and stormy, and we lived there in the tent until actually the night that Sukkot was over. We were going to stay even for the eighth day in the tent, but this huge storm came in and was slapping our tent flat on top of us, and so we moved in that night. But Sukkot was officially over.

Nehemia: Wow! So, I want to talk to for a minute about the tents, because you’ve got the tents here, and I counted 17 tents, unless you’ve set up more, and it’s not just your family. There are other people are staying here, you have people from all over. I mean, I met a lady here from Korea, you have people from Switzerland, from Sweden… what other countries do you have people from?

David: Argentina.

Nehemia: Argentina.

Emily: Romania.

Nehemia: Romania… Other countries?

Emily: Yeah… Germany? Poland.

Nehemia: So many, we can’t even count them. Poland, Italy. All right, so you have people from all over the world, you’re like this nucleus, and they’ve now joined you here in the park, and I see tents, and I understand from some of the people that some Jews have walked by and said, “Oh no, you guys are doing it wrong - you have to have a sukkah.”

So I want to hear your understanding of that, and I’m going to give some of my opinion on that. So, tell me about… you mentioned temporary dwelling as the understanding of the word sukkot, and I know some people say, “Oh, I’m going to go live in a hotel room for a week, you know at a campground, with my friends, or in a cabin and that’s my temporary dwelling,” and you’re doing Sukkot. Why aren’t you doing a hotel room? And then how do you contrast that with like the traditional Jewish sukkah?

Emily: So, if we can back up a little to 2005, you know, he was here, we were there. In 2006, he came home, and that’s the only Sukkot he’s ever spent with us, at home, since then, and we’re in construction, but he’s the builder, and we wanted to build a sukkah, because it’s our understanding from Scripture that a sukkah is to be built out of branches, and then we get the idea from reading it that “For the seven days you’re to wave branches before Me, and celebrate before Me,” so our idea from that was that we were supposed to gather branches, wave them, celebrate with them, and then come and use them to build the sukkah with, and that’s what we did. And then each day, because the branches would start wilting, we didn’t have these kinds of plants that it talks about in Scripture to use.

Nehemia: There are no palm trees in Tennessee? [laughing]

Emily: Right, but there are some of them that we understand, like “goodly trees”, well, we didn’t know what goodly tree… in English it says that. So we just were getting branches and actually weeds, because we’ve had a lot of weeds too, and so, we would wave weeds, and sing, and rejoice and stuff.

But the 2006 Sukkot was extremely cold, and it snowed, and in effect our water… we had water in buckets that we had hauled from the house to our dwelling out there, and in the morning they would have ice this thick. We bathed in a 5-gallon bucket, so we started with the baby. At that time we had a baby that was a couple of months old, and so we put the hot water, we heated water on the fire and we put… she had the warm water first, and then everybody… That was also the year that we had kittens that came, and they moved in the sukkah with us, and the children were fighting over “Get that cat off me, get that cat off of me,” and by the third night they were saying, that, “Get on that cat on me, get that cat on me!” because it was so freezing.

Nehemia: Oh, really? [laughing]

Emily: But anyway, he built this enormous sukkah, because he’s a builder, you know…

Nehemia: What was it made from?

Emily: Just sticks and branches. But it was like almost not a temporary dwelling, as much as he made it, and it was big. And then we had to cover it with plastic, because was so freezing cold, and then we put the branches on, and anyway... But that was 2006, and then in 2007 it was… Well the men are to go to Jerusalem. So he was back to going to Jerusalem, and I was all for it, because I saw it and I wanted my man to be one of the men there, but it was also difficult that here I am doing this with the children, and it seems to me like it’s a family thing. And then all the other families, like, in the United States, that we knew - by this time we knew more people - and they were gathering together in gatherings in the United States. Well, I couldn’t go anyway because we had the farm, and the children and I had to stay back and take care of the farm anyway. But it was difficult to be without him.

So before he came in 2007, we had already seen the passage in Deuteronomy that said that on the seventh year, when everyone is gathered for the Feast of Tabernacles, “All the men, women, children, gather them all together and read this book,” which we assume was the book of Deuteronomy, what we call Deuteronomy, okay? Devarim.

Nehemia: Or it’s the Torah, that’s the other option.

Emily: Yeah. So we were just taking it to mean that one book, and so we thought, “Well, so just the men are specifically commanded to go three times a year,” which at this time he was just going once a year, that was the first step. But we thought, “Okay, the seventh year we need to all be there and read this book there, so we started making plans in early 2007 to go for 2008, because we didn’t know when the seventh year was, but some things that the Father showed us in our own lives, we kind of basically just did it from the time we started keeping the Sabbath, I think, is how we kind determined the seventh year. And then he ended up on the plane with a Jewish guy on the way to Jerusalem, who said, “Well, this is the seventh year; 2008 is the seventh year.” So we thought that was pretty interesting that they would also think that. So in 2008, that’s why we were coming with the whole family.

Nehemia: You came with the whole family to Israel?

Emily: In 2008, yeah, that was our first time.

Nehemia: Before you get to that, I want to back up a little bit - you brought up what essentially is Leviticus 23:40 and you talked about waving the branches. It doesn’t actually say “to wave the branches”, that is something that you see Jews doing - they’ll take the lulav and the etrog and they’ll do the waving ceremony, that’s not actually in Scripture. It says to take these different types of branches, and it’s unclear what to do with them, when we read Leviticus 23:40.

In Nehemiah chapter 8 it interprets that as materials to then build the sukkah out of, and so I’m just going to jump into the Middle Ages, when you had Jews reading these passages saying, “Okay, what does this mean?” And there were some Karaite Jews who said, “Look, we’re not bound by rabbinical tradition.” They basically did what you guys did. They said, “We’ve got this tradition and that tradition, let’s put those aside, go back to Scripture and see what we can figure out,” and they came up with different understandings. There were different interpretations.

One of the interpretations of medieval Karaites was to say that actually the sukkah is a tent, and where did they get that idea? In 2 Samuel 11:11, there is a verse where David had just told Uriah the Hittite to go back to his house, and we won’t go into that whole story here of what that was about, but it had to do with David trying to cover up his crime, and Uriah responds, “Look, I just came from the battlefield”, and he says, “the Ark and Israel and Judah are dwelling in sukkot. How can I go to dwell in my house?” And some of the Karaites in the Middle Ages looked at that and said, “Wait a minute, we know the Ark was in a tent. It repeatedly talks about the Ark being in a tent,” and so they took that to mean that sukkah is a tent, that has branches put on top of the tent to keep the sun off, right, because Israel is very sunny.

So, some people are walking by, saying, “Oh, no you are doing it wrong! This is not a true sukkah!” Well, that’s based on their interpretation from the tractate of Sukkot in the Talmud, not based on Scripture. That’s tradition that developed over time, and it’s interesting - when I was a young man and my father, who was a rabbi, was discussing with me being a Karaite, he said, “You have to read this book”, and he gave me a book called Sefer Hakuzari by a rabbi named Judah Halevi, and this rabbi wrote this book to prove that the rabbis were right and that you had to have an Oral Law, and one of this arguments is, “Well, how would you know how to make a sukkah if you didn’t have the Oral Law?” And what they really mean is, “How would you know to follow the laws that we made up are the real laws?” Well, we wouldn’t, because you made them up. [laughing] If we push everything aside and go back to the original Scripture, there might be some uncertainty. I might make my sukkah as a booth with branches on top, and you might have a tent, and somebody else might take the branches and shake them around. All these things are possible if you’re going back to Scripture, but at least we’re doing the best we can to figure out what God actually said, and not just blindly following man-made rules.

So, I love that you guys went through this process. You essentially went through the process in a period of a few years that Jews in the Middle Ages went through when they said, “No - traditions. Let’s go back to the original Scripture.” That’s pretty cool stuff.

David: The way we take it is in 37 it says, “You must cut branches and rejoice for seven days.”

Emily: “Rejoice before Me,” so we just… in our minds… rejoicing, we’re jumping around with the branches.

David: So we’ve got the branches and rejoicing for seven days, and what do you with the branches? Well, we’ll put them in the sukkah.

Nehemia: Okay. So, essentially you’re combining the two interpretations, which is fine, I mean, you know…

Emily: But we didn’t know they were anybody’s interpretation….

Nehemia: I understand. You’re going back and you’re innocently reading it. I love that. All right. So, you come here with the whole family in 2008, and you have six kids at that time?

Emily: We had seven at the time…

Nehemia: Seven kids!

Emily: The oldest was 11, and I was like seven months pregnant…

Nehemia: Wait! [laughing] You’re getting on a plane with seven kids and you’re seven months pregnant.

Emily: Yeah, well, seven months pregnant, and the thing is, when we planned the trip in early 2007, he came in 2007 for Sukkot, and he was going to scope out, because we had this great plan of what we were going to do, and it turned out we were actually going to fly into Cairo, Egypt, and travel by bicycle the way the Israelites… You know, we were going to have somebody take us across the Red Sea, of course, not try to ride through it…

Nehemia: Wait, you weren’t going to tread through the Red Sea? [laughing]

Emily: No, but he actually went to Egypt during Sukkot, he went overnight into Egypt to check that out, and then realized, “No way - we’re not taking the family there.”

Nehemia: Good decision.

Emily: But our plan of travelling by bicycle still stood because that was the only way that we could afford to be in Israel with a family like that, but after we made the plan…

David: Our youngest was 3 years old.

Emily: The youngest on the bike, the two-year-old was on the back of my bike.

Nehemia: [laughing] Was it a tricycle or a regular bike?

Emily: But that’s what the book called: Pedaling Home - How the Quest for Truth Became a Family Adventure.

Nehemia: Where can they get it?

Emily: Just by our email. We just give our email here.

Nehemia: Give your email.

Emily: Okay. You know, it's amigos@twlakes.net, and that stands for “Twin Lakes”. So, it is twlakes.net.

Nehemia: Okay.

Emily: So, we knew before he went in 2007 to scope out, we wanted to write a book because we were really passionate about the things that the Father was showing us, and as we started to practice these things, I mean, just blessings, I mean, it was unbelievable stuff that was happening in our lives. And we love to share with people, but we found that a lot of people would ask us a question and we would answer the question, and then they would get upset. And we didn’t understand why they were getting upset, and we’re tired of telling the same stories over and over, so, we thought, “We’ll write a book about whatever happens on this trip to Israel in 2008, and in it we’ll show the history of how we came to this, and that way we can stop answering these same questions over and over, and people can see and we’ll put Scriptures so they can look at the Scripture for themselves to know that we’re not just making this up. But after he came in 2007, several months later, we found out we were pregnant again and our baby was due to be born during Sukkot.

Nehemia: So, your baby is due to be born on Sukkot?

Emily: And we had already planned that we were going to be staying on the roof of the Petra Hostel in the old city Jerusalem in a tent, because while we wanted to build a real sukkah, we didn’t see that would be very practical.

Nehemia: I am going to challenge you on the word “real” but, go on… a “traditional” sukkah.

Emily: I’m sorry. No, no, I don’t mean a traditional sukkah, I mean a sukkah by my idea, so like of the branches. To me, out there in the country, the sukkah would have been of branches. So even though I stayed in a tent the second year we kept Sukkot, the year he was gone, no, my idea of the sukkah was built out of branches.

David: And in Jerusalem.

Emily: Not a plastic tent or whatever.

Nehemia: My best understanding right now is the ancient sukkah probably was some kind of a tent-like structure with sheets around it, and a covering over of branches, which is what you see a lot of sukkahs like that here. The more traditional style sukkah has wooden sides. There’s not a whole lot of wood in this country, right? I mean, there are probably branches, but not a whole lot of wood, so it’s quite likely that it was probably some kind of maybe not plastic, right, but it was some kind of tent-like fabric.

Emily: Fabric or animal skins, maybe?

Nehemia: Maybe, even animal skins, and then with the covering to keep the sun off.

Emily: Thanks for fixing that wording.

Nehemia: But, anyway, I’m being the word police right now…

Emily: No that’s good.

Nehemia: So you want to build your understanding of what a true sukkah is…

Emily: It was built out of branches.

Nehemia: Right, but you can’t do that in the Old City, because there are no branches in the Old City.

Emily: We figured we would be at a disadvantage because we wouldn’t know where the branches are, anyway, and then we were going to have to get him up through that Arab hostel onto the roof without trouble, and he had already stayed there, I think in 2007 you stayed there, didn’t you? So that’s how we knew about it. So we took our tent up there and ended up, our baby was delivered on the roof in our tent.

Nehemia: So, your baby is delivered on the roof of an Arab hostel in the Old City of Jerusalem in a sukkah…

Emily: Overlooking the Temple Mount.

Nehemia: Overlooking the Temple on Mount. Incredible!

Emily: Yeah, and remember, we committed to writing this book in 2007 before we even… I mean, we had no idea we would even have another baby, you know. But then the Father gave us these incredible stories to put in the book that we could have never thought about.

David: Actually, they are more like miracles…

Emily: There were a lot of miracles, a lot of miracles that happened up to our leaving, and everything. So, it’s like book-worthy, and we were just going to write a book. So, He designed what was going to be in the book. Anyway, after that, he continued to come year after year for Sukkot, and then there I was at home and we couldn’t really go anywhere because of a farm. So, in 2010 we started opening up our farm for women and children who wanted to keep Sukkot, who either their men were in Jerusalem or their men didn’t keep Sukkot at all, or whatever reason that they were by themselves.

So, we opened the farm to women and children, and in the meantime we had purchased a military tent, a 16 by 32 military tent - it rains a lot in Tennessee - so we would set up the military tent. He would, before he left, set up the military tent, and he would also build the structure of our sukkah that we would sleep in, our family sukkah, and then during Sukkot, we would go around and do what my idea was from the Scriptures, which would be to gather the branches and rejoice and sing and rejoice and then come and lay them among the sukkah, but we had the big tent as our kitchen space, and so that when it was pouring down rain, we could all go in there. We dug a fire pit, we cooked over the fire all week, we heated our water, we took baths in the water that we heated, and we just had a blast with these women and children that came.

So that was started in 2010, but every year during Sukkot, and I was so thankful, so thankful that my husband was in Jerusalem, okay? But I was sad that we weren’t together. I wanted him here with us, but I wanted to be there with him, but over there he’s on top of a hostel, and he’s not building the sukkah, he’s in something, maybe, I don’t know, but it just seemed like it wasn't right. We were doing this, which I thought was good, and he was doing this, which I thought was good, but we were separated, and so my dream… and I would go out every Sukkot, I would have to get away from all these women and children at least once during the week, go to the backside of the pasture and just cry and just cry out to Yah about, can we just do this all together, in Jerusalem, like we’re doing it here?

And so, that was my prayer and my cry from 2010. And then, in 2015, well, over time, every time he would come to Jerusalem he would meet different families from all over the world, different men from all over the world, that also had their hearts to be here for the feasts, had their hearts for Yah, and during 2015 he kept trying… I said, “Can’t you just try to find us a place, because we’re going back in 2015. Can’t you find a place that we can just build the sukkah in Jerusalem for the family?” And he kept trying to find stuff, and it wasn’t working out, and then he made connections with another guy, Chris, and Chris now lives in Israel, so he had other connections that we didn’t have. And so then in 2015 this is where Camp Efraim was born, somebody else named it, I don’t know who named it… great name I thought.

David: Some other guy in the camp.

Emily: But they got a schoolyard, and that was our first Sukkot where our family and some other families were also able to come and build the sukkah in Jerusalem, and that first year was in the schoolyard, last year was here in Independence Park, but because of the police we had an issue…

Nehemia: So, tell us about that. Do you have permission to be camping out here in Independence Park? [laughing] Sort of, right?

Emily: Well we have the Torah, that says we have to be in Jerusalem. [laughing]

Nehemia: That’s true, you have God’s permission. But you’ve had some issues. For example, last week the police showed up and said you have to be out by 4:00 p.m. unless you can get permission, and somehow, miraculously, you get permission to stay here, but even that is somewhat very tenuous, right? It’s unclear how long they’ll let you stay and whether they’ll let you stay next year. And so, really, like you said, this is miracles, that you’ve been allowed to even stay this long with a bunch of tents. I mean, this is not a campground guys. We’re here in a park, there are people walking through the park, there are certain people who use this park for nefarious purposes at night, and they’re trying to survive here alongside those things, now at least there are lights and cameras.

Emily: Last year there were no lights and cameras, last year was…

Nehemia: So that helps with some of the nefarious things going on in the park at night. You could just imagine a city park.

Emily: So can we back up to last year?

Nehemia: Yeah.

Emily: So we were not able to secure the schoolyard again, because they changed headmasters.

Nehemia: So if there’s some Jewish man in Jerusalem or woman who has a school or some kind of property where people can set up a camp, there are folks here who are looking for… They want to do it legitimately, they’re probably even willing to pay for the usage of the area, but right now you don’t have that ability right? You don’t have access to something like that.

Emily: And we’d like to be closer to the Temple area, instead of farther away.

Nehemia: And the schoolyard is an ideal solution because…

Emily: We’ll clean it up, keep it clean…

Nehemia: Well, the Jewish kids have off of school during Sukkot, it’s a week where there are no classes, so it’s perfect. You wouldn’t interrupt with the school, that really sounds to me like an ideal situation. If there was some school that had bathrooms and showers that would let you…

Emily: That would be nice, a luxury.

Nehemia: …camp out in their schoolyard, I mean that’d be perfect. We just need to find those people. So if you’re watching my podcast and you’re a school director in Jerusalem, this is your opportunity to bring these people who love the people of Israel, who love God’s Torah and want to live by it, these are… You know, I’ve encountered so many people in the world who just hate Jews and hate Israel, and here are people who love us and want to participate in this covenant that God has made with us, and so, if you’ve got a school out there, contact them, and what is your email again?

Emily: amigos@twlakes.net.

Nehemia: amigos@twlakes.net

David: Or if you even have a connection to get a permit for the park.

Emily: Yeah, that would be good.

David: So we can rent toilets…

Nehemia: Yes, they could bring chemical toilets here. But you have to have the right permissions for that, right?

Emily: Yeah, exactly. Okay, so in 2015 because there was a new headmaster in the school, I mean, it wasn’t comfortable with that anymore. Last year we came here. Well, last year in 2016 there were a lot of more people than had been at the park… because what happened, because of where we were located, more and more of us people from the nations that had come to Jerusalem were able to see each other. Before, if we're on the top of a hostel, we’re really only with those on the hostel. We might bump into somebody on the street, but it’s different now that we were more where people could see us.

So last year there are a whole lot of people here, but because of the police situation, because we could not secure an official permit before… They kept saying, “Well, we’ll get back to you, we’ll get back to you,” and they never got back to us…

Nehemia: Welcome to Middle Eastern bureaucracy. [laughing]

Emily: So then what we decided, and the problem was we had several people writing us from different countries wanting to come in and stay with us, but we didn’t want to be responsible… I mean, we would be responsible for own family, we can pack up everything on our back and move, but we didn’t want to be responsible for others and giving them a bad experience in Jerusalem, or whatever, if they were going to look at that way, and so…

Nehemia: And that’s a legitimate, you know, issue; in other words, somebody writes to you know from Indonesia and shows up here with their tent, and gets kicked out after two days and says, “But Emily said I could stay here for a week,” well…

Emily: So we’ve just had to keep putting people on hold and just say, “No, it’s just faith. It’s just faith.” And you know, Yah, a lot of times He doesn’t speak to us, He doesn’t tell us anything till the last minute, and what our family decided was… Okay, because first, we’re trying to obey these commandments as we see them in the Scriptures and only the Scriptures, and we try to study the whole Scriptures on one topic to get the fullest idea of what it’s supposed to mean, but one of the things we’ve realized only this year was that the reason - well we knew this - but only the reason that we’re celebrating Tabernacles is so that we can remember the Israelites dwelling in temporary dwellings in the wilderness, and so one of the things that we thought of in our situation was, “Wow, they never knew when they were going to have to pick up and they never knew when they were… where they were going.” So this is our next step in keeping Sukkot - are we willing to just go somewhere and not know ahead of time if we’re going to have to pick up, or when, or where we’re going to do if we do. And we decided that for our family we were okay with that, and so we told the people, anybody who wanted to stay with us, with our family, that they’re going to have to be willing to do this also. And also, there’s a guy who’s been going around this park for several years just praying that Yah would bring the nations here.

Nehemia: Wait, who is this guy?

Emily: James Bach. Do you know James? He’s a musician that came to Jerusalem a few years ago.

Nehemia: And he prayed people would come to this park?

Emily: To this park. Because in 2005, when David came, he met on Shabbat… there were five men meeting on Shabbat here, they joined together, that had met each other around the city, and every year that he’s come there are more and more. Well, then last year we were able to again be here as a family, and there were like 300 people at this meeting in the park. And as more and more people come, but there’s also more and more connections being made, so a lot of the people before didn’t know each other.

Nehemia: When I was here the other day and you had an event, and I guess it was like an informal event, it’s not like there were signs posted, but people just heard by word mouth about this event, and there was something like 300 people in the park here.

Emily: On Shabbat?

Nehemia: On Shabbat.

Emily: Yeah. That’s the same thing.

Nehemia: People had come, they heard from a friend who heard from a friend, and this is not official, there are no permits from the city, but 300 people just showed up, and our fellowship being people who had come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and all kinds of people from different backgrounds, incredible! It really is incredible.

David: We used to know the people, now you don’t even know. There are so many people I don’t even know.

Emily: But we know these people, and these people know those people, and it’s just bringing everybody together. It’s just great.

Nehemia: Yeah, it really is incredible. So, all right. What do you have planned for next year?

Emily: So, next year we’re in the same boat as this year.

David: We’re trying to get a permit again, we’re going to try again to see if we can get a permit…

Emily: But next year we may be just as wandering as we are this year, because we don’t have a permit yet.

Nehemia: So, I’m the wandering Jew, and you are the wandering Ephraimites…

Emily: Ephraimites, yes sure. We’re coming together as one stick in his hand.

Nehemia: Halleluyah! I don’t know if you realize the significance of this place. This place, Independence Park, is named after the independence of the modern State of Israel, which I see is a partial fulfilment of the prophecy of God gathering His people back to the land, giving them now sovereignty, and in 1967, just before the Six Day War, this is the place - this park, where the government of Israel sent gravediggers to dig 10,000 graves because they thought they were going to lose the war, and they would just have bodies piling up, and didn’t want diseases, and so this was going to be a cemetery. That was the plan if we lost the war, or if had a partial loss of the war. If it was a complete loss, we’d all be killed, but if we lost just enough where we would survive, they expected 10,000 dead, and so they dug graves in this park, and now this park is a place of life! A place for life where people are not coming for graves, they’re coming for life to celebrate the feast of Sukkot, living in these tents, living in these sukkot, from all over the world, from all the nations. To me this is the fulfilment of a different prophecy, the prophecy in Zechariah of the nations coming to celebrate Sukkot in Jerusalem.

Emily: And what about the dry bones?

Nehemia: Tell us about the dry bones!

Emily: You’re just talking about death, and this is now life, and then in Ezekiel it talks about the valley of dry bones, and then they start clattering and coming together and then they get flesh put on them and then they get the spirit in them.

Nehemia: Yes. So, I mean this is it! You made the connection that here we have a place which was supposed to be a cemetery, and now the bones have come back to life. God’s people are gathered back into His land. This to me is a fulfilment of prophecy, you being here is a fulfilment of prophecy. We might not see eye to eye on some things, about does the Messiah come, or is he going to come back, or what his name is, and I don’t even know what his name going to be, but we come together on common ground is walking in the Torah of the Creator of the Universe, and in this place, the place where the bones have now come to life! Halleluyah, would you end our conversation with a prayer?

David: Thank you, Father, for today, thank you for this beautiful day that you gave us, thank you for the time that we have spent with Nehemia. Father, may you use this interview to open people’s eyes and maybe the whole face turns towards Jerusalem, Father, may they come and celebrate the feast with the people of this nation. In Yeshua’s name. Amen.

Nehemia: All right, thank you.

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Verses Mentioned:
Ruth 2:4
Psalm 83:18
Leviticus 23:2
Leviticus 23:42-43
Exodus 23:17
Exodus 34:23
Deuteronomy 16:16
Numbers 15:37-41
Deuteronomy 22:12
Leviticus 23:40
Deuteronomy 31:9-13
2 Samuel 11:11
Ezekiel 37:15-28
Zachariah 14:16-19
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Campgrounds in Israel
Israel Nature and Park Authority Campgrounds
Go Israel Camping
Jerusalem To Open New Camping Site In The Peace Forest


13 thoughts on “Hebrew Voices #103 – A Jerusalem Sukkot Encampment

  1. was observing Shabbat in the Philippines and i chanced upon this video. chills all over! praying for and looking forward to one day getting to observe/celebrate YeHoVaH’s feasts in the Promised Land with His Chosen People. thank you for posting this inspiring video, Nehemiah!

    Got your books, by the way and loved each one of them!

    Shabbat shalom from Manila!

  2. The reference that Nehemia gave from 2 Samuel 11:11 (re. “the ark and iIsrael and Judah are dwelling in [sukkot]”) is very interesting. That verse also references the soldiers being “encamped” using the same term used in many other military contexts as well as for the people Israel being “encamped” against the sea when they thought they were trapped by Pharaoh. That one, absolutely, was in both reality and intent, temporary.

    Also, in 1 Kings 20, in the story of ben-Hadad attacking Ahab’s Samaria, “sukkot” is used twice to refer to what various English translations render as “tents”, “temporary dwellings”, “pavillions”, “quarters”, and “booths”. It is much easier to imagine an attacking army, having embarked on anything longer than a day-trip mission, setting up camp in tents and pavilions rather than putting in the time and effort to build wooden structures.

    This makes my Charlie Brown Sukkah (a tent adorned with branches) seem much more legitimate. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  3. Col ha Cavodh l’yhwh, we kept the feast last month, most of our group, some this month too, seems like a “double blessing”. Great to see some people “living the dream” of keeping the feast in Jerusalem! I hope that the civic authorities will take notice, and help make some arrangements that the campers need not relocate in the middle of the event.

  4. Such an awesome story of ephraim returning! Insipes me to be there next year.
    7th year, 7 kids, 7 mo pregnant ?
    I’m sure Nehemia caught that!

  5. Wow!! That was wonderful! Thank you for highlighting Yehovah’s work in the life of these humble, sincere truth seekers!! Refreshing to the spirit!

  6. Love this story of their Discovery of truth . And stepping out . I hope they get some where safe and permanent Next year ?. Thank you Nehemia for supporting them..Gaylene Donehue NZ

  7. Thank you so much, Nehemia. It’s been a long year waiting for this one. I don’t think we really understand how much time and effort goes into the editing and publishing process for these interviews. And the end? Well, just … wow!

  8. I’m filled with so much emotion, that the tears are falling!! What an awesome story of life! I feel blessed to watch this unfold and look forward to reading the book. Thank You Varela Family and your quest to be children of Yehovah our Father, according to scripture, in the most heartfelt of ways!

    • Greetings Kimberly,
      The Varela Family go directly to scripture in search of answers. They use the term sukkot as the title for this feast. They also repeat the traditional idea held by many that the purpose for this feast is to remember the Israelites dwelling in the wilderness. Why do you use the term sukkot as the title for this feast? Is it possible that this is not the title for this feast? Is it possible that by learning the true title for this feast, the true purpose for this feast will be revealed?

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