Sukkah Grapples With Refugee Crisis


It takes a village to build a sukkah. At least that’s the case at Park Slope’s Congregation Beth Elohim this year, where more than two dozen volunteers — both Jewish and non-Jewish, laypersons and design professionals — came together to build the annual ritual shelter.

While every year the sukkah at CBE creatively addresses an issue of the day — last year one wall was made of plants and the theme was protecting the earth — this year the sukkah was not only symbolic, but also huge.

The theme: the refugee crisis. The sukkah: an allusion to a desert tent 16-by-8-feet long, large enough to hold 30-40 people. The designer: a professional architect. The team: a sculptor, a lighting designer, a boutique textile designer to the stars, a carpenter, a music-industry-executive-turned-nonprofit-director, a graphic designer and more than a dozen Beth Elohim members with a range of talents.

The result: a wooden and fabric sukkah that glows from within; that has phrases of welcome — “We too were refugees,” “Welcome Home” and “Bruchim Haba’im,” gracing three sides.

“Our national conversation, really, all year, has been about whether we can make room for people when they’re fleeing violence and bloodshed,” said CBE Rabbi Rachel Timoner, who suggested this year’s theme.

To raise awareness of the issue, the sukkah’s walls have photos and stories of individual refugees, which were provided by HIAS. The materials are part of the organization’s “Welcome Campaign,” which more than 200 synagogues across the country (nearly 60 in New York) are participating in. Inside the sukkah there is information about the crisis and how people can take concrete action. There’s also a slideshow with information about Sukkot.

HIAS began providing resources about refugees that congregations can use on Sukkot last year. “Sukkot is a particularly meaningful time to be talking about refugees,” said Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, a HIAS community engagement educator. “There’s a natural connection to modern refugees.”

“I think we’ve seen people really want to take action in a way that is essentially Jewish,” she added.

In addition to the sukkah, CBE has also started a task force to address the refugee crisis and is participating in Operation Refugee Child’s Hope Box Project, which sends supplies directly to refugee families in Greece.

The volunteers spent the entire Columbus Day weekend building the sukkah at Beam Center, a nonprofit that donated the space, tools and equipment.

“Everybody was ready to roll up their sleeves and dive in,” said CBE member Carla Weiss, who spearheaded the project. “This is a story of a lot of different people lending their services.”

The sukkah was designed by architect Jennifer Hanlin.

“Sukkahs are kind of magical little buildings, and as a designer that was really appealing,” she said.

“I think everyone who volunteered, everyone was doing it because of the message. It’s really something that I think everyone could get on board with,” she added.

In truth, a few congregants, concerned about letting in refugees with terrorist leanings, were initially wary of the theme, said Rabbi Timoner. But, she said, after some discussions they came around.

“They understand the larger humanitarian imperative,” she said.