Penn Students Design Sukkahs as Part of JLIC ‘Sukkathon’ Competition

01 Oct 2013


By Michael Orbach

The “Canvas and Blackboard Sukkah,” part of Penn JLIC’s Sukkathon Competition, was designed to play on Penn’s course management computer systems, Blackboard and Canvas. The inside of the sukkah is a blackboard and the outside is canvas.

This decoration was hung inside the “Hunger Sukkah,” a sukkah created dedicated to raising awareness about social justice issues at the 2013 Sukkathon competition.

There was no shortage of sukkahs at the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia this year. The Sukkot Festival marked the second year of the Sukkathon competition run by the Orthodox Union’s Seif Jewish Learning Initiative (JLIC) program at Penn. As part of the competition, teams of undergraduate students were tasked with building kosher sukkahs according to a design and theme of their choice. The competition was partially inspired by the Sukkah City competition held in New York in 2010 and also by Penn JLIC Director Rabbi Jonathan Shulman’s homesickness for Israel.

JLIC, found at 20 universities in 16 campus and communal settings in the United States and Canada, places rabbinic couples to serve as Torah Educators at secular universities, providing a support system and vehicle for Jewish growth for day school graduates and other affiliated students. Rabbi Jonathan and Jenny Shulman are the Penn campus couple.

“When you move from Israel, this is the first holiday you really feel a huge difference,” Rabbi Shulman explained. Part of the remedy, he felt, was to make Sukkot come alive on campus.

Ten teams led by captains came up with an idea over the summer and built their sukkah on September 15, just after Yom Kippur. Sukkah designs included a one-person Beat Box Sukkah with fiberglass walls and a pair of headphones playing the song “Dancing with Myself” on a loop; a Homeland Sukkah dedicated to Israel; a Writing Hut; an It’s a Tarp Sukkah (which played on an internet meme from Star Wars); a tie-dyed Hunger Sukkah dedicated to social justice; a Canvas and Blackboard Sukkah made to mimic Penn’s new student course management computer systems and a Shake Shack Sukkah whose walls were attached by bungee cords.

Joe Step, team captain for the Shake Shack Sukkah, showed off his Sukkathon t-shirt.

“Some of these students wouldn’t have anything to do with Sukkot and now they’re building their own sukkahs,” explained Rebecca Spirgel, a student at Penn and co-director of the Sukkathon competition. Galit Krifcher, who along with Alex Levy built the Homeland Sukkah, said they tapped into their sorority’s love of Israel. “The idea was to have a hub on campus to publicize Israel’s activities,” she said.

As per the rules of the competition, each sukkah had to be halachically kosher with at least three walls, bamboo on top and the strength to withstand an ordinary wind. Some teams even took the competition a step further by incorporating wires and boards using the halachic principle of lavud, in which an open space can be considered a full wall. The Homeland Sukkah used this to great effect by building a Magen David into its wall. (Last year, an even more ambitious team created a sukkah solely out of wire in the shape of a heart. The sukkah’s name? The Luvod Shack.)

According to Naomi Hachen, co-director of the Sukkathon competition, the contest showed “what students on campus had to say about their Judaism.” This year, the college didn’t allow the majority of the sukkahs to be placed on the main lawn, which according to Rabbi Shulman, had an unintended benefit. “You see these great interactions all over campus with students and professors, Jews and non-Jews, talking about what the sukkah is,” he said. Or as Shake Shack Sukkah captain Joe Step explained: “Everywhere you were you had the opportunity to eat in the sukkah.”

An additional component of the competition was that each team had to hold an event in the sukkah to celebrate the holiday. The Shake Shack Sukkah offered milkshakes while the Homeland Sukkah offered hummus and pita as well as a Hookah in the Sukkah event. The Writer’s Hut became one of the best-attended sukkahs with students by holding several poetry readings.

The competition closed with a Chinese banquet in the larger Penn Hillel sukkah. The Writer’s Hut was selected as the best overall entry and the team won meal vouchers for the Penn Hillel cafeteria. This tied into another goal of the competition: to introduce unaffiliated Jewish students to the Jewish programs at Penn. “Now that we know you, you’re going to come back to eat with us,” explained Rebecca Spirgel.

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