Lumber, tarps and poles lay in piles outside the University of Pennsylvania Hillel late last week ready for groups of students to assemble into sukkahs.
By the time the holiday began Sunday evening, the campus was expected to be a maze of 10 structures, some tiny and made to resemble those built in the ghettos during the Holocaust, others adorned with T-shirts along the walls, a theme meant to highlight social action.
Organizers said the idea for Sukkathon 2012 — intended as a competition — came from a notion spawned in New York City in the fall of 2010, when architects constructed sukkahs that broke with tradition. One designer in New York formed walls with cardboard signs purchased from homeless people.
In form, these sukkahs will be less intricate — all the students started with the same frame and then altered them as they wished — but the spirit of the event was meant to encourage a similar freedom of interpretation.
“There’s a real range of how much the students involved have heard about these laws before,” said Naomi Hachen, an organizer of Sukkathon 2012. “There are some students who have never thought that a Sukkah could be ‘kosher’ or ‘non-kosher.’ ” A kosher sukkah needs to follow certain specifications, such as having two and a half walls and a roof partially open to the sky.
Students started to build the Sukkahs under cloudy skies on Sept. 28, delayed by wet weather earlier in the morning. They were operating with confinements, prohibited by Jewish law from starting to build the structures until after the end of Yom Kippur and then were also interrupted by Shabbat. Work could be resumed on Sunday but had to wrap up by dusk, when the holiday began.
“Teams have a lot of support,” said Hachen. “They’re not expected to go out and build these crazy structures. The one in New York was really just a design competition. This is a lot more community focused.”
Yet, each team still had to submit a design proposal to ensure that their ideas fit with the event guidelines. Each of the teams will host a “house-warming” event at the structures related to their specific theme. On Oct. 5, organizers will host a barbecue and awards ceremony.
The team that dubbed itself “WearCare” had to figure out how not to damage the T-shirts, which they will donate to a student-run homeless shelter after the holiday, when hanging them on the sukkah walls. So they decided to string them up along the frame with a clothesline. Many of the shirts were give-aways at events like Race for the Cure and so emblazoned with graphics that emphasized social action.
Melissa Goldstein, a senior from New York and part of the WearCare team, kneeled down and started to drill brackets into wood with two teammates.
“Stuff that people care about usually ends up on free T-shirts,” said Goldstein, who had built a sukkah each year with her mom. This was the first time she hadn’t gone home for the holiday.
Residents of the Harnwell House dorm decided to match their sukkah with the basement of the building, which is called “the Dungeon” because of its castle-like appearance. They planned to host a tea and tiaras event.
Aaron Senior, a freshman Harnwell resident, said he’s been building sukkahs with family in Brooklyn for as long as he could climb a ladder. He said the holiday offers a chance to bond that you can’t find elsewhere.
“When you eat in the cafeteria, each table has their own conversation,” said freshman Senior said. “In the sukkah, the energy and the environment is very dynamic.”