It happened 9 years ago at a Shabbos dinner at Samuel Merrin’s brother-in-laws’ home in Westchester—who shared with Sam the joy he had, every year, building a Sukkah in his backyard with his children. Samuel recollects that he knew little about Sukkot at the time, except that you eat in a Sukkah and hang popcorn and paper chains on the walls. “I wanted to learn about this holiday that comes right after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he says.
“I learned, this is one of the three big holidays. The Festival of Sukkot begins on Tishri 15, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. The holiday lasts for seven days with the first day celebrated as a full festival with special prayers and service. It is a drastic transition, from one of the most solemn holidays to one of the most joyous. Sukkot is the last of the Shalosh R’galim (three pilgrimage festivals). Sukkot is both historical and agricultural,” shared Mr. Merrin, the owner of The Merrin Gallery in New York.
Historically, Sukkot commemorates the forty-year period of wondering in the desert, living in temporary dwellings because these are the structures that the Israelites used after coming out of Egypt. Agriculturally, Sukkot is a harvest festival and is sometimes referred to as the festival of gathering. Meals are eaten in the Sukkah, and some families even sleep there. A blessing is recited, the Arba Minim, or four species, consisting of the Lulav, Etrog, Hadassim and Aravot. The Sukkah should be free standing but the walls may include sides of a building or porch in its structure. The roof of the Sukkah, must be of natural, unprocessed material that is detached from the ground. The inside of the Sukkah is traditionally decorated with pictures, hanging fruits, ornaments.
Samuel continues, “Last year, I discussed with Rabbi Hirsch the idea of building a Sukkah with other children and parents. I did not want to put up a prefabricated Sukkah. I wanted to buy the lumber and have the children go to the park or country to find natural materials to decorate the walls and roof of the Sukkah.”
“I called some friends from the SWFS community and asked if they would be interested in building two Sukkah frames”, but he adds that, “a Sukkah should not be completed with a roof and decorated until right after Yom Kippur”. Samuel Merrin, who is on the board for the JECEI (Jewish Early Childhood Education Intiative), vividly remembers that his proposition was met with an enthusiastic ‘yes’.
He said he wants his children to have positive memories towards Jewish holidays and Judaism, and adds, “I want to start building these bonding, joy and meaningful Jewish times so they will look back many years from now and remember when they spent time with me, building the Sukkah, and baking honey cake for Rosh Hashana, and having Shabbat meals with family and friends, and dancing in Synagogue for Simchat Torah.” As a devoted father, he expressed that he wants his children to have enjoyable experiences and give the chance to embrace Judaism, and continue these traditions with their children.
“On September 13th, we built our Sukkah frame. It was about 80 degrees and most of us were in shorts—12 fathers and about 20 children,” he begins. Samuel Merrin goes on detail, for those who wish to try this at home, “We built two Sukkahs, one 18 feet by 24 feet on the roof and another smaller one on the terrace. We had 8 foot planks, 2″×4″×8′, 1″×2″×8′, power drills, screws, hammers and nails. The larger Sukkah was built by drilling together two four-feet-long pieces of wood (seven times) and taking the eight-foot-long wooden planks and placing them in 7 brackets attached seven feet high to the solid wall; which made the frame for the ceiling. The fathers built supports for the ceiling and the older children with their fathers tied bamboo mats on to the fence to make the Sukkah walls. The younger children built the smaller Sukkah just using wood and plastic ties.”
In a different area of the roof there were 6 wooden tree stumps of different heights for the children to practice hammering nails into wood, and sanding blocks that the children learned how to sand. Teachers helped to sure the children were safe and told them a story about Sukkot. The fathers taught the older children proper usage of power tools: to stand straight over the power drill and push down while pressing the power button.
Sam recalls, “I heard the clanking of wood as the children helped us to carry different lengths and widths of wood to where we were building. I heard fathers explaining what we were doing and showing them how to use a screwdriver, hammer in a nail, and use a plastic ties. The children not only helped their own fathers but helped other fathers and worked together with other children.”
“Being Jewish, we were unsure if we could pull off building a standing structure but we did,” Sam laughs, “It was an amazing moment when we realized what we accomplished. We all felt like we spent quality time with our children and at the same time felt part of a community building a Sukkah for the first time.”
Then the children went downstairs with some teachers to eat pizza while Sam Levine (an ECC parent) led a discussion on the importance of Sukkot, and how instead of a permanent hut, it is said to build and eat in a Sukkah every year—to “experience what our ancestors went through year after year.”
Sukkot lends itself especially well to living the fundamental Jewish value of Hachnasat Orchim, the welcoming of guests into one’s home, or in this case, the Sukkah.
A major philosophy of JECEI is to place “unparalleled emphasis on the importance of serious Jewish inquiry on the part of the entire family in the community of the Early Childhood School.” One of their central goals “is to significantly upgrade the Jewish experience and commitment of families” in a Jewish Early Childhood School. “Independent of family background, bringing Jewish ideas and values, community and life will transform the face of families” that go through the JECEI program. Sam adds that, “Through the Sukkah project we kept with the ECC, Reggio Emilia and JECEI philosophy of the deep respect for and amazement of the potential and competency of children.”
Samuel Merrin concludes that he truly enjoyed decorating and eating in the Sukkah he built with the ECC and greater SWFS community, and looks forward to continue making Judaism fun and meaningful for all the children—by celebrating the other Jewish holidays in comparable ways. Sam ends with a final thought, “I wanted to have a moment in time, a Jewish memory that I could share with my children. I hope when they hear a screw being drilled into wood or the smell of sawdust, they will think back to the time they built a Sukkah with their father.”