By Erich Sean-Paul Spivey
Special to The Gainesville Sun
Eight strangers were recently picked to live in sukkahs to find out what happens when people stop being prejudiced -- and start getting real.
It's the "Real World" -- Sukkot style, with a touch of the CBS reality show "Survivor" thrown in for good measure.
The second annual Sukkot Survivor started Monday night, with eight University of Florida students expected to live eight days and nights inside a sukkah, a hut with wood planks supporting a roof made of palm fronds.
Monday marked the beginning of the eight-day Hebrew festival that commemorates the exodus from Egypt. The holiday is called Sukkot (pronounced sue-COAT) in the Hebrew Bible, which means Festival of Tabernacles in English.
"This is when MTV's 'Real World' meets the values incorporated into the Jewish celebration of Sukkot," said Andy Koren, rabbi at the Hillel Foundation off NW 18th Street. "Namely the values of hospitality, goodness and peace."
Added Sukkot Survivor director Julie Halpert, "This is a mixture of 'Survivor' and 'The Real World.' Except no one gets kicked off."
Instead, the eight contestants will earn points during competitions related to Sukkot and other religions. The group of students will also welcome visitors to the sukkahs -- one located at the Plaza of the Americas on UF's campus and the other at the Hillel -- to educate them about the Jewish holiday.
The person with the most points Oct. 10 wins an as yet undisclosed grand prize.
The eight contestants are Kappa Kappa Psi member Harry Kurtz, Beatles music fan Mary Elizabeth Burroughs, horseback rider Danielle Sims, Gold Key National Honor Society's Cathy Shell, freshman Andrew Vitale, Gator Growl worker Matt Sherman, Water-ski Club member Jordan Speisman and Nikki Fried, who is working on a law master's degree.
"This provides a good cross section of UF, so hopefully I'll be able to adapt to people," Burroughs said just before entering the Hillel hut Monday night.
The group will eat, sleep and live in one of the two sukkahs through Oct. 10 and participate in a variety of activities. They are allowed to leave the sukkah to attend classes and will shower at the O'Connell Center. Meals will be provided by local restaurants.
Just like CBS' reality program "Survivor," the Sukkot Survivor contest is also surrounded by secrecy. The community service trips planned for the participants and the grand prize weren't revealed Monday.
"It's a secret," Halpert said, referring to the winner's prize. "Maybe vacation or car related."
But Rabbi Koren said he hopes the contestants gain much more than materialistic prizes. He said each person should walk away with a better understanding of religious beliefs, as a variety of religious beliefs are represented in the group.
"The winner last year was a Shiite Muslim, and she spent a lot of time creating relationships with the Jewish community," Koren said.
Koren also said the second annual event draws more attention to the Sukkot holiday, which often gets overlooked, sandwiched between the September Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and December's Hanukkah.
"Jewish people usually get on the Jewish highway," Koren said.
"They get off at the exits for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But they drive right past Sukkot. We've made Sukkot part of not only the Jewish landscape in the fall, but part of the Gator experience."