In 2009, Rabbi David Leipziger Teva, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and University Jewish Chaplain, chaired a committee of Jewish leaders that proposed an unusual challenge to the 15 students of Architecture II. That task was to construct “WesSukkah,” a sacred space symbolic of the temporary living structures of the wandering Israelites’ during the 40-year journey following their Exodus from Egypt.
This past Friday, four years after that project’s successful completion, Teva arrived in WesSukkah in the late morning. He was the second person to enter the bamboo hut in my eight-hour stakeout; he was preceded only by his lunch date, Michael Creager ’15, who was to lead that night’s Shabbat services held in the sukkah. Temples often hire Creager to conduct services and teach spiritual Judaism, but tonight, he said, was unlike the others.
“I’m doing it for free because I’m a student here, and I like people,” Creager said.
After Creager and Teva’s meeting, which took place at one far end of the folding table inside, Teva slid his bag down the table to where I was sitting, reading my psychology textbook and pretending not to eavesdrop.
I asked Teva what it felt like to walk into the sukkah.
“I love seeing people in here,” Teva said. “That was the point of it. It doesn’t belong to the Jewish community. I want to see people in here studying, reading, and hanging out.”
Teva also emphasized the importance of WesSukkah’s accessibility to all members of the community.
“Is it secular?” he asked. “Both yes and no. It’s possible to come in here, know what a sukkah is, and think, ‘This is not a sukkah!’ It’s possible to walk in here not knowing what a sukkah is and just enjoy the space. And it’s possible that someone would walk here knowing what a sukkah is and say, ‘Of course this is a sukkah!’ If it gives you comfort or a place to rest your weary legs or a place to be protected in nature, it’s fulfilling its function as a sukkah.”
In its first years, WesSukkah was perched on Foss Hill; it later moved to the Center for the Arts (CFA) before finding its most recent home in front of Olin Memorial Library.
“It was moved here based on a request,” Teva said. “We gave up the quiet of the CFA for a more high-traffic area.”
Although the area of Olin undeniably has higher traffic than the CFA—through the slits of the sukkah I watched people wander in and out of the library and lounge on its grassy lawn—only a handful of students actually entered the structure throughout my stakeout (from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Friday).
At around noon, Avi Stein ’17 walked in with headphones and opened a textbook. I struggled over whether or not to disturb him, but eventually asked him why he’d come in.
“It’s a really nice day,” he said. “It was shady in here, and I have reading to do.”
Stein also explained that he had gone to the Vespers prayer service and learned that the sukkah would be up for a week; he decided to take advantage of its impermanence.
The booklet attached to one of the sukkah’s entrances explains that it “should be an ephemeral temporary structure as opposed to a permanent building: ‘invitational permeability.’” It also points out that “[WesSukkah’s] impermanence might encourage someone to contemplate one’s existence and mortality.”
The afternoon dragged on without much activity. The sun was hot, and I changed locations about three times, migrating from the table to the grass and again to the table in order to avoid the sun’s glare. My laptop slowly ran out of battery, and I abandoned Internet-based homework in favor of reading. My mouth grew dry, but I was determined to stay put—I had, after all, been encouraged to contemplate my mortality.
At about 2:45 p.m., two students walked in tentatively. I asked one of the students, Sora Akiyoshi ’14, what had brought her to enter the structure.
“I’ve seen it a lot, just walking by, and I wanted to go through,” Akiyoshi said.
Fifteen minutes after they’d left, an older woman walked in slowly, as though in a trance.
“I’m just feeling it,” she whispered, running a hand along a stick of bamboo that makes up the sukkah’s walls.
At 3:30 p.m., a student came into the sukkah and took out her textbook. Again, I debated whether or not to bother her, and when I did, I found out that she was an exchange student from France. We conversed; my French was rusty, but there was no mistaking her enthusiasm.
“C’est très bien fait,” she said. “It’s very well done.”
The longest-lasting sukkah visitor was Armani White ’15, who came into the sukkah at 3:50 p.m. and left at about 5 p.m., leaving only once for a beverage break.
“Anyone can be in here, right?” White asked upon entering.
I confirmed and asked him why he’d decided to come in.
“It’s a nice day out,” he said, sounding like Stein. “There’s shade and tables. They should keep it up. But I guess it’ll get cold soon.”
As White was leaving, Siri McGuire ’17 entered. On her way to the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, in Allbritton, she’d decided to stop by WesSukkah to see what it was like. As the sun began to descend, we talked about her long-term goal of operating a ranch for people at risk—those recently released from prison, teens with eating disorders, or people with mental illnesses. Then McGuire left, and the sukkah was again empty.
The Friday night service preparations were underway by 5:45 p.m. Teva had returned, and there was a new, serious, imminence: Shabbat was approaching. Teva was shocked that I had not left since seeing him early that afternoon.
“Right here? All day?” he asked.
Finally leaving the sukkah felt vaguely liberating—I could drink some water! I could change my clothes!—but it was also a bit like being born: the outside world has its perks, surely, but little feels quite as comforting as a hut made from bamboo and steel, perched on a grassy lawn, and designed entirely for the purpose of shelter.