Give Me Shelter: A New Sukkah at Congregation Beth Elohim for Sukkot

A team of designers from a Gowanus studio built CBE’s sukkah on Eighth Avenue for this year’s holiday.


If you’re walking along Eighth Avenue near Garfield Place you might smell fresh cut pine.

And if you can take your eyes off of your cell phone and look up, you’ll see a newly made nine-foot tall hut, or sukkah, on the western wall of Congregation Beth Elohim.

A group of designers from a Gowanus-based studio, named Studio Tack, built the structure for the Jewish holiday Sukkot, or The Feast of Tabernacles, which is a joyous harvest holiday where Jews build walled structures, which are covered with plant material, such as leafy tree overgrowth or palm leaves called skhakh.

This year, Sukkot started on Sunday, September 30 and ends in the evening of Sunday, October 7.

Ruben Caldwell, the co-founder of Studio Tack on Second Avenue, met his future partners, Leigh Salem and Cody Zalk, while pursuing a Masters degree at Columbia University for architecture.

Caldwell was also a teaching assistant at Columbia with Babak Bryan, who built CBE’s sukkah last year with partner Henry Grossman from the architecture firm BanG Studio. Caldwell also helped Bryan and Grossman build their award-winning sukkah “Fractured Bubble” in 2010’s Sukkah City contest in Union Square.

Salem, the other co-founder of Studio Tack in Gowanus, was building the sukkah on Sunday with their partner Zalk.

When CBE’s senior Rabbi, Andy Bachman asked Bryan to come back and make a new sukkah, he said he couldn’t but recommended Studio Tack’s crew for the job.

“When this all started, I didn’t even know when Sukkot was,” Caldwell said while finishing up construction on the 14-foot wide sukkah at Eighth Avenue and Garfield Street. “So it was a quick turn around. We only had three weeks to plan, design and build it.”

Caldwell actually flew in from Tucson, where he is currently a professor of architecture at the University of Arizona, to build the structure, which is composed of walls that are actually shelving units and a thatched bamboo roof.

“It was a compressed process, but I think we have a great project,” Caldwell said, explaining that the name of their sukkah is “Archive.”

But this year is a special one for CBE because it’s the synagogue’s 150th anniversary, which will be celebrated at the end of Sukkot.

“Andy said he wanted a snapshot of Brooklyn and what it means to be here right now,” Salem said. “So we decided to make the sukkah an archive of CBE’s history.”

The team created the sukkah to function as an archive itself with a shelf system, which also acts as walls at the same time. The shelves will be filled with notes, stories and drawings from people who stop by and write or draw whatever they want on a piece of paper.

Bachman also scanned images of CBE’s archival documents to place in the sukkah, everything from photos, event posters, books and other items.

“We strived to make the wall of the sukkah be the archive and bookshelf system,” Zalk said. “Its entire form is built around the content.”

Caldwell further explained their motivation for the sukkah’s design:

“Our whole plan was to make sure the architecture didn’t get in the way,” he said, explaining that function informed the sukkah’s form.

The entire structure is built with natural elements and materials. The shelf system is made from Eastern White Pine, which they picked out as logs in Upstate New York and then brought to a local sawmill to cut into planks. The roof is made from bamboo they bought in Borough Park.

Although Caldwell and Salem are not Jewish, Caldwell said that the Jewish tradition of telling stories inspired their work.

“A chunk of our design is exactly that—the shelves will be filled with people’s stories, prayers and thoughts and experiences they share with the community,” Caldwell said.

One of the reasons Jews build sukkot this time of year is to recount the exodus from Egypt and remember their “humble origins as Jews,” Rabbi Bachman explained. “We are commanded to eat in it, sleep in it, and be reminded of the fragility of life, especially considering the Israelites’ 40-year pilgrimage to Israel from slavery in Egypt.”

But this sukkah, “Archive,” also pulls inspiration from the modern world. As the sukkah will be a tangible, physical archive, the team has created a digital archive as well. They are taking pictures of each item that people put on the shelves and upload them to a Tubmlr site here, http://cbesukkah.tumblr.com/.

They are also pulling pictures people take on Instagram, a picture-based social media smartphone application, that people tag with “#CBESukkah.”

“Sukkot are temporary structures, they only last one week. But the digital archive will play on the sukkot’s impermanence and permanence,” Salem said.  

Caldwell expanded on the sukkah’s theme:

“This structure is temporary, but it represents and celebrates a permanent series of tradition and community involvement that CBE has been doing for 150 years,” Caldwell said. “We even made Archive so it could be reused next year.”

The sukkah was completed on Sunday afternoon, and once the sun set the structure’s string of Edison light bulbs illuminated the inside, so people could see the items on the shelves and sit on benches surrounding the table. 

Zalk said that the sukkah was made to be generic so it could be reused over and over again, another play on impermanence and permanence.

“The same sukkah will have a brand new life next year,” Zalk said.

People are urged to add something to the sukkah, any experience or story they would like to share.

“There is an element to this that people hopefully will connect with the Western Wall [in Jerusalem] and stick notes in it,” Rabbi Bachman said, explaining that the sukkah is coincidentally on CBE’s western wall along Eighth Avenue. “We want people to feel that they can and should contribute to the sukkah and interact with it.”


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