Sukkot arrives this year just as the temperature is dropping and the air becomes crisp and clear; it’s officially fall sweater weather. The Jewish holiday is the third of three “pilgrimage festivals” that occur every year, with the other two being Passover and Shavuot in the spring. It is most well-known for the ritual of building a sukkah — a small, temporary hut made of wood, vegetation and other natural materials. That hut will become a place where Jewish individuals, including guests (ushpizin), will eat meals for the next week, with some people even sleeping in it overnight.
But for residents of a crowded city like Baltimore, a sukkah is no easy feat. It has to battle traffic, foot and vehicular; different kinds of critters found in urban areas; and various wind patterns.
A sukkah is also more than just a simple construction project, as it has to follow specific rules in order to be considered kosher.
According to Chabad.org, a sukkah roof should be covered with sechach, which is raw vegetable matter that has not been used for any other purpose. It has to provide enough shade so that on a sunny day, the floor is covered in more shade than it is sunlight. Walls can be made of anything so long as they are sturdy, but there must be four of them, and they should be put up before the roof. And there should be nothing between the sukkah’s roof and the sky — no trees, canopies or roofs can be between the sukkah and the clouds.
The last rule can be difficult to follow in a city, given the amount of urban sprawl and tall buildings that loom overhead. And then, there is an urban area’s singular nature.
“The biggest challenge is trees,” says Rabbi Yisrael Motzen, rabbi of Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue. “I make a number of trips to people’s backyards in the weeks leading up to Sukkot to examine their sukkah and any trees that may be covering it to help them figure out what they can or cannot do.”
Ner Tamid’s sukkah is especially large, being able to host hundreds of people under its roof. The synagogue typically has to hire a construction team to assemble it.
Motzen says that urban sukkahs have their rewards, despite their challenges.
“The best part is that we all live so close to one another and can hear what’s going on in the next sukkah over,” he notes. “Last year, my backyard neighbor and I joined together in singing the same songs as we sat in our own sukkahs. It was a beautiful neighborly moment!”
Ner Tamid uses its sukkah for weekly Kiddush after services. Congregants who cannot build a sukkah of their own are invited to come to the synagogue and use theirs.
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation has a grassy area on its premises where it will be constructing its sukkah for this year’s events. Congregants are encouraged to use it not just for services, but as a sitting area where they can eat lunch or have conversations with their friends.
“We are really fortunate that we have space on our property to be able to [construct a sukkah],” said Jillian Manko, the synagogue’s director of engagement. “It’s in a beautiful area and is a beautiful part of our property.”
The synagogue decorates its indoor synagogue with natural fall decor to celebrate the holiday, but Sukkot-specific events are held in the sukkah. In addition to services, the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s brotherhood is sponsoring a “Bagels and Ice-Cream” event for students of Jewish Learning there, and its Afghan welcoming committee is hosting a welcoming event for refugees.
“One of our most exciting endeavors this year is that we sponsored an Afghan [refugee] family who came from Kabul,” says Manko. “We’ve provided them with furniture, with housing around Afghan families so they can feel at home. … We thought that in the true spirit of Sukkot and ‘welcoming the stranger,’ we would invite them for dinner in the sukkah, sing songs together and enjoy their company, and celebrate all of the progress we’ve had thus far.”