U. City Rabbi supersizes sukkah

Mordecai and Tzipporah Yaroslawitz hosted between 35 and 60 people for meals throughout Sukkot at their home in University City. Photo courtesy of Mordecai Yaroslawitz

By Eric Berger, STAFF WRITER

If you want to understand Rabbi Mordecai Yaroslawitz’s sukkah, think about a pop-up eatery that is successful, with people constantly shifting in and out for meals. 

The Orthodox rabbi, who goes by “Yari,” has been building a sukkah for three decades in University City. For the past 16 years, he has built a sukkah measuring 16 feet by 40 feet that can accommodate about 90 people. The rabbi and others say it is the largest private sukkah in St. Louis.

A few hours after having had 60 people over for breakfast, Yaroslawitz reflected on why he and his wife, Tzipporah, had hosted a similar number of people for meals throughout the seven days of Sukkot. (The meals are, of course, free.)

“The idea is that it’s a temporary hut and it’s a seven-day concentration recognizing that this whole world is temporary – there’s a world to come,” said Yaroslawitz, 56 and a father of eight. “And this is a world of short-term investment for long-term gain.”

He chuckled and added, “That’s not the goal of it. The goal of it is to do the right thing because God tells us what to do, but that’s an idea.”


The sukkah is just one example of the ambitious ways in which the family supports others in the Jewish community. Almost everything they do appears to be done on a large scale. 

On Sunday, after a night of study, as is customary in some communities during Sukkot, a young man was taking a nap on a twin mattress in the corner of the sukkah. Eating meals and sleeping in the temporary structures are considered good deeds. 

The rabbi’s wife and children were preparing food for the two-day holiday Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. 

They were working inside a newly remodeled kitchen, with commercial-size appliances and separate meat, dairy and pareve areas. In addition to the new kitchen, the family had a makeshift set-up in the basement, with crock-pots and assorted kitchen supplies next to a washer and dryer. That sort of infrastructure is necessary because the family regularly hosts as many as 135 people for Shabbat meals in their basement.

On a counter upstairs was a giant challah that Tzipporah Yaroslawitz had shaped to look like a crown. 

Before Rosh Hashanah, she used 71 pounds of flour to bake such bread for people around the country. She keeps a spreadsheet to help her organize whom to say prayers for and whom to send the challah.

“It’s just bread, right?” said Tzipporah Yaroslawitz, who teaches at Torah Prep School. “But when you infuse it with that holiness, on the Shabbat table, when the bracha is said over it,” it becomes more than that.

The challah that sat in the kitchen Sunday was smaller than some others she often bakes. 

Jimmy Fendelman, an Orthodox Jew and a lawyer, said, “I happened to run into Rebbetzin Yaroslawitz (over the weekend). And the dimension of this challah (she was carrying), I can’t even describe to you. It would not fit in a normal oven.”

Aaron Lefton, also Orthodox and a lawyer, recalled that after his wedding 15 years ago, during the customary seven days of celebration, the sheva brachot, the rabbi unexpectedly invited him to come to his annual Jewish retreat, Kulanu Yachad Gala Seminar. (The next one will take place Thursday, Dec. 22 to Sunday, Dec. 25 at the Sheraton Lakeside Chalet in West Port Plaza. The cost per couple is $980 or between $400 and $490 for individuals, which includes lodging and food. Scholarships are available.)

Lefton described his experience at the event as “a second wedding, basically,” adding that there were more than 650 Jews from around the country. 

“It was dancing, it was singing, there was music,” he continued. “There was a huge dinner. The dinner was already (planned), but he turned the focus of the dinner to the wedding.”

But Yaroslawitz said Lefton really did him a favor.

“We had 440 guests for Shabbat” from around the country and including 200 local community members, “and it really gave the chance for Jews who never had seen such a Jewish celebration in their life to witness it.”

For local Orthodox Jewish weddings, Yaroslawitz also usually supplies the mechitza, or partition, to separate dancing among men and women. When asked how it is that the rabbi became the go-to person for the equipment, a community member who had stopped by the rabbi’s home started laughing.

“Because Yari is the only one willing to go to such great lengths,” he said.