How Baltimoreans are making sukkahs this year


The construction of a happy holiday

Though Sukkot looks a little different this year, it hasn’t stopped the community from building sukkahs.

At Beth El Congregation Sept. 24, community members created seven sukkahs for the holiday, which runs this year from Oct. 3-9.

Beth El Executive Director Josh Bender and the synagogue board didn’t want to cancel their usual huge Sukkot celebration, but they needed to keep people socially distanced. They decided to have families reserve spots in the tents. Nuclear families stay together to avoid unsafe interactions. They originally planned for 12 sukkahs for the 12 tribes of Israel, but then decided that seven sukkahs, for about 60-70 families, would be easier to construct. Seven is significant because of the days of Sukkot, the number of the species of Israel and as a symbol of good fortune.

About eight people gathered in Beth El’s parking lot last Thursday, sharing jokes and tools as they drilled together square bases for some of the sukkahs.

“The satisfaction comes when it all comes together,” said Steve Levin, president of the men’s club at Beth El, who brought in most of the volunteers.

Technician Johnnie Britt explained the process to put up the sukkahs takes about an hour and a half.

They built the frame from planks of wood, donated in part from a local lumber company, and used cloth for the walls.

Taliya Adelstein, event director and caterer for Beth El, explained her plans to decorate the sukkahs with gourds and a fall theme. “Even with the difficulties of the pandemic, nature continues to give us its bounty,” she said.

One of the volunteers, congregant Paul Weinblatt, drilled two pieces of a foundation together as he talked about Sukkots past.

“I did my own sukkah at home for 15 years, especially for my daughter, who loves the holiday,” he said. “I made it the same way, a wood structure. But the kids are all 25 to 32 now and have left the nest. So my wife mentioned this volunteer opportunity this morning, and I figured it’s a chance for me to use my skills from the past.”

Coming soon

Not too far from Beth El, Pearlstone Center will have five sukkahs, starting Oct. 10. After staff erect them, they will be available for staff and for about 75 guests of the Sukkot retreat to gather in safely.

One of Pearlstone’s five sukkahs will be the deck itself. Pearlstone purchased the materials for the other four from Sukkah Depot of Baltimore.

The holiday is particularly special to Jessica Berlin, director of immersive experiences. She met her husband on Sukkot and got married two years later a week before Sukkot. Their seventh Sheva Bracha was in the very same sukkah where they met.

“It symbolizes a pivotal time in my life because under the sukkah is where I got to know my now husband. But I also think the sukkah is where we all can get to better understand our relationship with God and the world around us,” Berlin said. “I love that Sukkot is a time when it feels like the veil between humans, nature and God is very thin. A kosher sukkah requires us to be able to see the stars. It feels reminiscent of what our ancestors must have experienced in the desert during ancient times. This intimacy lets us reflect on how we have to rely on God to protect us.”

She also finds something magical about the making of a sukkah.

“I just love the ritual of constructing something that is so temporary,” she said. “The fact that it has to be so temporary is a large part of what makes it special. Everything, especially during this time of the coronavirus, serves as a reminder that we don’t have control over our lives at all. It’s a reminder that the only thing we have control over is how we react to all that is out of our hands.”

Local approaches

Berlin is not the only one who is in love with the autumn festivities.

Avraham Cohen, 71, of Pikesville, took a break from building his elaborate sukkah to speak to the JT about how he goes all out for Sukkot.

Avraham Cohen's sukkah (courtesy)
Avraham Cohen’s sukkah (courtesy)
Avraham Cohen’s sukkah (courtesy)
Avraham Cohen’s sukkah (courtesy)

“Well, the mitzvah is to dwell in the sukkah,” Cohen said of his outdoors temporary home, which he designed 30 years ago.

He chooses to live in the sukkah throughout the holiday, so he makes sure it’s a comfortable creme de la creme 12-by-16 foot home. It has plexiglass windows, which can slide up and down. He also includes artwork, a couch, a table and bookshelves, and it’s all painted beautifully. It’s so furnished that years ago, when the kids were younger, even the family dog used to sleep outside with them. And everything is handmade.

Avraham Cohen’s sukkah (courtesy)

“Building a sukkah for me is a big project,” Cohen said. “It takes three days. There’s a lot of boards and a lot of parts. I like building it, but it’s a lot of hard work.”

He puts the effort into the sukkah because he wants to relive the Jewish experience of living in the dessert.

Avraham Cohen's sukkah (courtesy)
Avraham Cohen’s sukkah (courtesy)

“Sukkot is a beautiful holiday,” he said. “People who don’t make sukkahs are missing out on a lot. It’s a beautiful time. Sukkot is a time of joy because you realize you’re living in God’s hands. You move out of your house into this temporary home, and there’s a certain inner joy to understand God is watching over you there.”

He did have to make some changes this year.

“This year I had to leave out one of the couches in order to leave extra space for an additional table with more distance between seats,” he said.

Other community members are also doing things a little different this year.

“I figure if I have a bigger sukkah, I can invite as many people as I usually do,” said Andrew Lillien, 33, of Baltimore, who is upgrading his usual plans. Lillien uses an easy-snap sukkah outside, which he prefers because it’s easy to construct. “It’s nice, it’s like using Legos.”

Rachel Lebowitz of Pikesville is using a prebuilt sukkah on her porch.

“It’s different in terms of not having any guests from out of town,” she said.

She’s not too bummed out about it, though, because she has a large immediate family and because she prefers not to be outside too much.

“To be honest, I don’t like being outside because I don’t like bees,” she said. “But I do love eating outside at night. It’s special.”

Why? “Because there’s no bees!”

Of course, she also loves being with family.

Though Sukkot may be a little different this year, “no matter how you slice the dice, it’s fun,” Cohen said.

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