Time to build a Sukkah

After you break the fast, it’s time to break out the tools. One of the most authentic ways to celebrate this ancient harvest festival is to build a sukkah (booth) of your own. 

Today, the celebration of Sukkot is a way to connect with our Jewish past — to commemorate the 40 years our ancestors wandered the desert. The sukkah represents both the temporary huts they used as dwellings and the protection and care offered by God during that time.

The commandment to “live in booths” during Sukkot is interpreted in modern times to mean enjoying meals and entertaining family and friends in your own sukkah. Some people even sleep in their sukkah during the holiday. All of these actions constitute mitzvot.

“The holiday of Sukkot is a wonderful time to reconnect with nature, sleep out under the stars,” Rabbi Alyson Solomon said. 

She describes the sukkah as a house that is open and vulnerable to the world. 

“Judaism is, at heart, a home-based religion. To build a sukkah outside of your own home is to remember our roots as wanderers, farmers, harvesters. It’s also a great time to share your spiritual practices with your neighbors, invite friends over for dinner, and welcome into your sukkah holy ushpizim, holy guests, to offer blessings and share cheer,” Solomon said. 

Before you begin, there’s one important question to ask yourself: Do you want to build your own sukkah from scratch or buy a kit? 

By definition, a sukkah is a temporary shelter, with at least 2 1/2 walls. The roof must not be solid — it must provide shade during the day, but allow stars to be visible at night. Because you’re not supposed to make a sukkah that will withstand hurricane-force winds, you probably don’t need to worry too much about your handyman skills. 

You also can find loads of ready-to-build, prefabricated sukkah kits online or through large local Judaica sellers.

Yossi Cohen, owner of Mitzvahland in Encino, said he sells sukkah kits each year to customers across Southern California. 

“Building a sukkah is an easy way to perform a mitzvah,” Cohen says. “Each year, I see more and more people wanting to observe the mitzvah of building a sukkah.”

Cohen says sukkah kits can be as inexpensive as $175, and there are kits to fit just about any budget. 

What if you want a sukkah, but don’t want to do the work? Not a problem. Like most things, you can hire someone to build your sukkah. In addition to designing and building custom sukkahs for clients, Cohen says he also provides large-scale sukkahs for community centers and synagogues.

Michelle Starkman, a West Hills mother of two, builds a sukkah from scratch with her family. 

“We use 2-by-4s that are bolted together to form the frame. We line the walls with outdoor fabric and then the top with sechach [raw vegetable materials] or palm fronds. We also leave one side open,” she says. 

Like many local families, the Starkmans began building a sukkah at home when their oldest son was in Jewish preschool. 

“The kids are now old enough to help with the entire process — they help build the sukkah, and they especially love helping to decorate it,” Starkman says.

When it comes to decorating your sukkah, the sky’s the limit. Many families have their children cut out designs from construction paper. Others use fruits, vegetables and plants as décor. Some Orthodox groups do not add decorations to their sukkahs; they believe the structure itself is beautiful and needs no embellishment. 

The most important thing when building a sukkah is finding your family’s personal meaning behind the custom. 

“We find it important to build a sukkah at our home because in addition to it being a fun family activity, it reinforces the history of our people, reinforces what our children learn in school and helps us feel connected to our community,” Starkman says. 

Solomon agrees. She says that the beauty of the holiday is found in the simple things: “I’ve even seen a family that had no yard, balcony or roof access build a sukkah in their living room with houseplants and tapestries. To top it off, their kids drew stars on the ceiling — it was beautiful!”