Oh, the Jewmanity! Sukkah builders all booked

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Every year, a few days before Sukkot, Esther D.’s husband used to get out a ladder and a few tools and put up a sukkah in the couple’s yard in Palo Alto.

Rabbi Joey Felsen (center) and a Habitat for Jewmanity volunteer crew photos/courtesy of marcy weiss

In 2010, he passed away. When the next Sukkot rolled around, Esther didn’t feel safe trying to put a sukkah up by herself.

Then she heard about Habitat for Jewmanity, an annual project run by the Palo Alto–based Jewish Study Network that brings together volunteers for one day a year to build sukkahs for the elderly, disabled or others around the Bay Area who can’t build their own. This year, that day is Sunday, Sept. 15.

“I just need a couple of extra hands,” explained Esther, who didn’t want her real name used in this article. “They send out four or five nice people — the whole thing only takes about 45 minutes. And then they come back a week later to take it down.”

The annual day of volunteering began in 2007, after a brainstorming session on how to teach people about Sukkot “in a hands-on way,” said Rabbi Joey Felsen, founder and executive director of the JSN.

This year, he said, roughly 100 volunteers will be helping to put up 13 or more sukkahs three days in advance of the eight-day holiday, which begins on the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 18.

For weeks, www.jsn.info has included an area reading, “Click here if you need a sukkah built,” but as of this week, that led to a screen that read, “We’re sorry. Sukkah builders are all booked. Please try again next year.”

“The Jewish Study Network is really focused on raising Jewish literacy in the Bay Area, and we know project-based learning is really effective,” Felsen said. “Sukkot is one of the more colorful Jewish holidays, but I don’t think people have a solid grasp of why we put up the sukkah, why we celebrate like we do. It seemed like a great learning opportunity.”

Jonathan Cohen helps build a sukkah.

The program, whose name plays off the international nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, has partnered with the Young Adult Division of the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley, as well as with Hillel centers at several local colleges.

People and organizations from Marin to San Jose have signed up to have sukkahs built, and the list includes some places — such as Chai House, a senior living facility in San Jose — where the sukkah will serve dozens of residents. Judis Corso, a resident at Chai House, said having the JNS-built sukkah on site is a “very positive experience” for her and the other Jewish residents.

Lynn Weiss of San Lorenzo is one of the regular volunteer builders.

“I do it because it’s a mitzvah,” said Weiss, 40. “People are so appreciative … this is what we do as Jews. We follow halachah [Jewish law], and we help people who might want to follow halachah but maybe aren’t able to do it physically.

“It’s also absolutely an opportunity for learning,” she added. “I have a feeling there are people who maybe put up a sukkah but they don’t know why the heck they do it — and that first year I did this I learned so much about the meaning behind rituals, why we do things they way we do them.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.