Sukkah Building Remains a Timeless Tradition for Area Synagogues

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While the synagogue is usually the focal point, building a sukkah has become more personal for many people.

Shortly after you’re done filling your stomach with enough food and drink to make up for the time you missed while fasting, don’t forget that another big tradition lies just around the corner: Building the sukkah.

It’s been going on since Moses had the Israelites wandering through the desert build temporary shelters out of whatever materials they could collect. But over the centuries it’s evolved from an act of survival to one of celebration, in which the whole community can get involved.

While the synagogue is usually the focal point, building a sukkah has become more personal for many people.

In some neighborhoods, it’s even taken on a life of its own. That’s where they may have a sukkah “hop,” in which families go from one sukkah to the next over the course of the day or night.

Perhaps they’ll stop by just to visit or maybe it’s more organized. Start off by saying kiddush and with a motzi at one house, head to the next for soup or salad, have dinner at a third and then dessert somewhere else to cap off the night. All of these gatherings occur, of course, while sitting in the sukkah, weather permitting.

For those in the Philadelphia and suburban Jewish communities, Sukkot has become a special time of year to appreciate the bounty in our lives.

“It’s one of the core messages, along with reconnecting with the earth,” said Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom in Manayunk.

“The sukkah is a temporary dwelling to remind us of the beauty and fragility of life, so we don’t take each other or the planet for granted.”

While many synagogues have set aside a special day — often Oct. 16 — to build their sukkahs, Zevit said that’s a little too late.

“It’s a little ambiguous in the Bible, but there’s a custom at the very end of Yom Kippur that you should go out and put the first pole for the sukkah in the ground,” he said. “You’re immediately taking the energy of that inner journey and teshuva and opening it out to the world.

“I like to think of it as the first test of Yom Kippur. We’ve done the work of forgiveness and immediately have the opportunity to welcome people into the sukkah — maybe people we’ve lost touch with or been alienated from, as well as family. The custom of Sukkot is welcoming guests.”

And everybody has their own way of doing it.

At Congregation Kol Emet in Yardley, sukkah building has become part of what they call “Mitzvah Day.”

“Sunday the 16th, the men’s club and anyone who turns out to help will start putting up the structure around 8 a.m., and they’re done around 10 a.m.,” said Kol Emet President Randi Davis, who indicates they’ve been doing it this way since she arrived 13 years ago. “Then the kids will decorate it.

“We have a blood drive going on. We have people making meals to feed the homebound. We clean some of the debris off the roads. The entire building is buzzing. We have people coming and going, doing all sorts of different things.

“Then Sunday night we have a welcoming Sukkot dinner. I’m not sure how many we’ll have this year, but one Sukkot we put 10 long tables in there and didn’t have enough room. I think this year, being a Sunday, it should work out well.”

That’s also the hope at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Center City, where they’re actually building two sukkahs.

“We’ve got so many events going on,” said Director of Communications Carol Perloff. “We’re building our traditional one outside, and then we’ll have one in our new courtyard, where we have our Buerger [Early] Learning Center.

“It’s a holiday where we’re trying to bring more life and excitement. We have something in the sukkah almost every night of the week.”

That includes a “steak and scotch night” on Oct. 20, which was probably not on the agenda for Moses and his people.

There will be comparable events at Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid (CBENT) in Broomall, which has been building its sukkah out front in recent years rather than hiding it in the back.

“It’s close to the paper clip,” said CBENT Rabbi Barry Blum, referring to a 7-foot-high metal paper clip that memorializes the Holocaust. “Last year, we put it on the front lawn. It used to be in the back.

“Building the sukkah is mainly a men’s club undertaking. They come out early Sunday and build it. Then the kids decorate it. We’ll have all our kiddushes and some other things in the sukkah, which usually stays up for a week. It’s supposed to be down by Shemini Atzeret.

“This has been going on almost since I’ve been here, 27 years.”

Like most Jewish traditions, it’s had a long shelf life. But Blum reports one problem that’s resulted from a number of local Judaica shops closing.

“It’s been harder to get lulavs and etrogs,” he said, referring to the traditional palm fronds and fruits that signify Sukkot. “Local places don’t seem to have them, so we have to order them online or get them out of New York.”

Assuming he’s successful, though, the sukkah will be built, and the various events that help celebrate the holiday will continue.

While everyone sits in the sukkah, gazing at the stars through the corn stalks or whatever materials were used to build it, the hope is that they’ll understand the true beauty of the holiday.

“It’s a connection with nature,” said Rabbi Howard Cove of Beiteinu Synagogue. “It’s about vulnerability and appreciating the bounty around us.

“It’s Jewish adults — and children — sitting around on a fall night appreciating their blessings.”

Now what could be better than that?

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