When the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC listed the inaugural Sukkah City as a rain-or-shine event, it wasn’t kidding. The entire day, including the evening hours of the outdoor festival, were chilly, cloudy and mostly rainy.
That didn’t stop a crowd of approximately 250 people from showing up to strut and dance through the mud and experience hands-on educational activities housed in sukkahs built by 12 teams from Baltimore’s Jewish community.
“At 7 a.m., I started thinking, ‘Oh no. What are we going to do?’” said Rabbi Jessy Dressin, the senior director of Jewish learning and life at the JCC, who organized the event along with co-chairs Dori Henry and Mike Schwartz. “But by 8 a.m., we had an amazing group of people physically moving all the sukkahs so we could put them on the outskirts of this tent.”
While the event was initially planned to be under the sky, not a tent, most other plans came to fruition, including the live music, educational activities and food.
“For me, there is nothing more joyous than being at a music festival and nothing more joyous than Sukkot. I knew if you had one sukkah it would be great, but if you could have a lot of sukkahs with live music and activities you would have an experience that you wouldn’t get otherwise,” said Dressin, shouting over the live music.
Teams that took part in the sukkah building and activity preparation included Jewish Volunteer Connection, Krieger Schechter Day School and Chizuk Amuno Congregation, kosher pizzeria Mama Leah’s, the PJ Library in Howard County and more.
Activities ranged from making a lulav with locally foraged species with staff from the Pearlstone Center to Israel education with staff of the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education Baltimore Shinshinim, 18-year old Israeli emissaries, to screen printing Sukkah City posters with staff from the Charm City Bluegrass Festival.
The JVC’s sukkah was designed to look like a home, with a colorful, faux-brick façade and an interior with a kitchen table and shower rack filled with toiletries. Its purpose was to inform festivalgoers about what it means to make a home, and consider what is needed for those experiencing homelessness to get back on their feet.
“This was a great opportunity. It really got our wheels turning and got us thinking in different, creative ways,” said Ashley Pressman, executive director of JVC, standing behind a table where festivalgoers could make soup kits to hand out people experiencing homelessness — dry ingredients such as beans, seasonings and rice that only need hot water to cook.
“While it’s wonderful to set this up as a sukkah, we could actually set this educational experience up in a lot of different venues,” Pressman said. “This is something we might do again.”
Just on the other side of the big tent’s entrance was the sukkah built by the Krieger Schechter Day School and Chizuk Amuno Congregation. Its walls were made of glass and were clad with the painted handprints of KSDS students. The activity there was building snack sukkahs, similar to the tradition of decorating gingerbread houses with candy.
“We’re very proud to be the only synagogue-school combo that made a sukkah this evening,” said Rabbi Moshe Schwartz, the head of school at KSDS. “This is an incredible event. I wish everyone could see this. It’s really a testament to the strength in our community.”
Schwartz’s daughter Liba, 10, sat down at a picnic table in the middle of the large tent and enjoyed pizza from Mama Leah’s. She shared that her favorite parts of the event were the “lights and the music.” When asked which sukkah was her favorite, she showed family loyalty, smiling and saying “the Chizuk Amuno one.”
Despite the rain and the mud, Pikesville resident Shelley Zimmerman made the trek with her son Brody, 7.
“I came because my son misses the JCC. He comes here for camp and they always have great programming so I knew that whatever they did would be fun,” she said. “Even out in the rain, we schlepped out here.”
Brody, like Liba Schwartz, goes to KSDS and had his handprints on the glass walls of its sukkah.
When asked what his favorite part of the event was, Brody was thoughtful and deliberate with his answer. After a long pause, pondering which of the countless sensory and educational elements he could choose from, he only needed to look at the snack in his left hand to decide. “Root beer float!”