If you check out the winning designs of this year’s SukkahPDX competition at the Oregon Jewish Museum on Northwest Kearney (see box), you might see another new sukkah two blocks away at Havurah Shalom. The Reconstructionist congregation Havurah Shalom has grown from a handful of families who first met informally at each other’s homes 36 years ago to 365 families today. For decades the community built, took down and rebuilt its gathering place – like the sukkahs used more than 5,000 years ago, until the community bought property in 1996 to build a more permanent home at the corner of Northwest Kearney and 18th Avenue.
Havurah’s new sukkah grew out of a partnership that started when seven Master of Architecture students at the University of Oregon, led by Nathaniel Eck, offered to design a sukkah for Havurah. The architecture students attend the U of O branch campus at 70 NW Couch St., so they know Havurah’s neighbor- hood. Another key partner is Tivnu: Building Justice, a nonprofit that offers gap-year, service learning opportunities for students to learn construction skills in a Jewish context to help ensure that everyone’s basic needs, including housing, are met. Steven Eisenbach-Budner, executive director of Tivnu and a member of Havurah Shalom, has been a carpenter for about 25 years and has built more than half a dozen sukkahs. He appreciates the project in large part because “It’s fun to work with an architect and to consider differ- ent design ideas.” He also likes including Tivnu students in both building a structure and building community.
The sukkah project gave the architecture students an opportunity to build something they designed. “Much of architecture school is already filled with its share of hypothetical projects,” Nathaniel says. “Architecture students (myself included) often crave the opportunity to build, not just design.”
Another project partner, Monica Moriarty, joined Havurah along with her husband, Bill Kwitman, in 1980. Initially, Monica explains, when the congregation didn’t have a perma- nent shul, congregation members created four or five kits with instructions so members could build sukkahs at their homes and invite others in the community to join them for meals during Sukkot.
Havurah’s first community sukkah was built when the shul was under construction. “I thought it would be a good way for the members to get to see the site and have Havurah’s first on- site holiday celebration,” Monica says. So she designed a sukkah to set up in the alley between the two buildings Havurah was renovating. The sukkah continued to be constructed for Sukkot for many years afterward in the courtyard of the new building; holes were even incorporated in the courtyard’s design to be used for support beams of future sukkahs.
As the congregation grew, a larger sukkah was created to provide space for more people. But it hasn’t been easy to set it up each year, and some of its larger pieces couldn’t be stored in the basement of the shul.
The new sukkah will be successful, says Steve, “If it goes up easily and comes down easily, and can be used for several years,” with pieces that can be stored in the building’s basement.
What inspired Nathaniel and his colleagues to propose the project? While completing his undergraduate degree in architecture and community design at the University of San Francisco, Nathaniel helped develop community gardens, community centers, low-cost housing solutions, and urban planning projects with underserved communities around the world. In Nathaniel’s words, the experience left him with a passion for “working with communities to create uplifting environments that enhance community cohesiveness and pride.”
Havurah’s sukkah project has been a learning experience for everyone involved. The seven members of the architecture team “come from a range of faiths,” Nathaniel explains. “So the first thing we needed to do was to become familiar with the holiday of Sukkot, the commandment to build and dwell in booths, and the activities and traditions that occur during the festival.”
The team spent weeks preparing for the project by “researching a transect of the holiday from ancient times to current day.” In addition, they visited Havurah Shalom’s courtyard, where the sukkah would be built, attended a Havurah event so they could experience a community gathering, researched the history of Havurah, and consulted with Steve and Monica to learn about previous sukkahs and Sukkot celebrations at Havurah.
To reflect the “cyclical and temporary nature of the holiday and the period of wandering,” Nathaniel says, the new sukkah includes “repurposed, reclaimed, reused and recycled materi- als,” including some pieces used in the congregation’s previous sukkah. The goal was to “create a framework for the community experience, generations and recalling of memories during the celebration of Sukkot.”
Since August Havurah members have been planning sukkah gatherings, many of which are open to the community.
Teri Ruch is the synagogue community organizer for Havurah Shalom (HavurahShalom.org)