November 19, 2019

The Sukkah Challenge

The interior view of a Panoramic Sukkah. Photo courtesy of Eliyahu Alpern

This is the time of year when I envy my friends and family living in Southern California. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of spending Sukkot in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. The weather was so nice that you could pretty much live in the sukkah (if it had a toilet and running water).

I remember having all of my meals under the shade of beautiful palm-tree fronds that served as schach, the patchwork of leaves that function as the sukkah’s roof. The Los Angeles Jewish community genuinely seems to enjoy the holiday, as friends and family get together for food, drink and lulav shaking in their little huts. They are truly blessed to have such a hospitable climate.

Contrast this with Sukkot in Canada. Because 5779 was a leap year in the Hebrew calendar, the first day of Sukkot is Oct. 14. This is considered a late start for the holiday, and autumn will have had its grip tightly around us. The air is brisk, with the average daytime temperature ranging from 45 to 55 degrees. These numbers rapidly plummet as the sun sets. The only good thing about climate change is that today, it’s rare to see a snowflake until after Halloween. Only a few years ago, our sukkah was covered with snow before the eve of Shemini Atzeret.  It’s not unusual for our sukkah guests to be bundled in snowsuits, wool scarves and mittens while reciting the Kiddush.

Although they smelled wonderful, the pine needles kept falling into the brisket, so we replaced the roof witha roll of bamboo.

When Rabbi Moshe Jablon became leader of our congregation, he was disappointed that only a handful of his congregants bothered to erect sukkahs. He devised a plan to help families install sukkahs in their backyards. He engaged the services of a shul member who owned a company that manufactured canvas car shelters. Our member created a design that was easy to assemble and disassemble, if you’re a mechanical engineer. The kit featured 27 steel polls of various lengths, a bag of bolts and wingnuts, and, for the walls, a large piece of canvas with a zipper. In addition, construction required a gross of plastic zip ties to attach the canvas to the frame. The price was right and the model came in two sizes.

To help Jablon in his campaign, about 20 young volunteers learned how to build one sample sukkah. They were tasked with teaching each homeowner who had purchased a kit how to assemble it. This led to a number of challenges, such as fitting a 10-foot sukkah on a 9-foot deck, getting the sukkah to stand up evenly on a wet lawn, and changing the location of the doorway to align with the owners’ kitchen.

Our youth director, Rev. Amiel Bender, organized a sukkah “hop” so members of the congregation and their children could walk around the neighbourhood and visit the new sukkahs. The hosts would set up tables laden with candies, cookies and potato chips. Some families had a little l’chaim for adult visitors. The family with the nicest sukkah won a prize. It was a very successful program and, despite inclement weather, many families reassembled and decorated their sukkahs year after year.

My family was one of the beneficiaries of the Jablon sukkah project. Growing up, our family never had a sukkah, and I never knew very much about the holiday so it was with a lot of trepidation that I joined the sukkah builders in trying to figure out what pole goes where. It took a few years, but now my sons and I can put up that sukkah in less than two hours. We started by using pine branches for schach. Although they smelled wonderful, the pine needles kept falling into the brisket, so we replaced the roof with a roll of bamboo. 

Our sukkah has become the envy of the neighborhood. In addition to a hanging fixture, we have LED lighting, dangling electric fruit ornaments, family photos on the walls and most important, a heater that makes the sukkah a little more comfortable on those chilly nights. Friends and family members enjoy coming for dinners in our sukkah, but despite their long underwear and double hoodies, they rarely make it to dessert.

Chag sameach and keep warm.


Paul Starr is a recently retired systems analyst living in Montreal. He belongs to a Modern Orthodox congregation.