Each year, the JTS community comes together during Sukkot. Enjoying time away from the hum of daily life, we enjoy the company of friends, colleagues, and family and give the lulav and the etrog a good shaking.
Yet in the weeks before we celebrate the holiday, The Jewish Theological Seminary Facilities staff is in the midst of their own long-held tradition: hauling, constructing, and assembling the two eight-hundred-square-foot booths (sukkot) that dominate the courtyard while, across JTS, everyone from Student Life, the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, Dining Services, and other departments ready their teams to help make it a successful celebration.
For more than thirty years, we have watched as a dedicated team of Facilities professionals carefully builds these festive feats of engineering. Designed by a previous maintenance foreman more than twenty-eight years ago, according to Senior Mechanic James George, the sukkot are made out of ten-foot-high treated plywood panels, galvanized pipe, and wood planks. Lighting comes from almost two dozen one-hundred-watt bulbs used to illuminate each booth and an innovative retractable canvas roof that lets sunlight stream in.
“Sukkah safety is a top priority, both for builders and JTS staff,” said Facilities Manager Rosario Velez. Each booth is braced and stabilized using wooden 4x4s, and Facilities maintains a constant vigil, checking and rechecking the structures as well as the weather report to monitor wind conditions and any potential lightning.
Decorations come courtesy of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, who use pumpkins, corn, hay, and hemlock to create a bountiful harvest atmosphere. The current chairs of the decoration committee are Victoria Friedman and Amy Schindler, members of the board of directors of the Women’s League.
“We have created a complete new look for the JTS sukkah,” Victoria says. Colorful artwork from local Jewish day and preschools, including Town and Village Hebrew School, Schechter Manhattan, and YM&YWHA of Washington Heights, now lines the walls and Women’s League members hang over four hundred Besamim mesh spice bags to fill the sukkot with fragrance. “It is such a fun project to work on with the Jewish community,” says Victoria.
The sukkot will also play host this year to a flock of butterflies made from coffee filters and pipe cleaners by Jewish day school students. Credit goes to Amy and Victoria for “innovating the entire decorating process,” says Carolyn Baron, director of the Torah Fund.
Student Life is responsible for coordinating the sale of the more than one-hundred lulavim and etrogim from Westside Judaica to JTS students. For those who want a more traditional experience, Jewish Life directors take an annual trip down to the Lower East Side for students to pick out their lulav and etrog in the shadow of the tenements that previously housed newly immigrated Jewish families. “It is a great community-building time for us,” says Sara Horowitz, dean of Student Life.
Meals served in the sukkot come courtesy of Dining Services, who work tirelessly to make the mitzvah of eating in the sukkah a reality for the many dozens who sign up to do so. “It is a lot of work, but it is a lot of fun for us and the community,” says Richard Costas, general manager of Dining Services.
With so many individuals working together to help our community celebrate the holiday, JTS enables all to join in the special mitzvah of simhah (happiness) on Sukkot, proving that at JTS, the joyous feeling of this special holiday is centered not only in the courtyard but in the hearts of all members of the community.