Ivy huts

Yale’s Joseph Slifka Center launches design competition to reimagine the sukkah

In the coming months, applicants will put together detailed plans for their submissions, which must be beautiful, meaningful and adhere to halacha

The Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University recently launched a competition to design a new sukkah for this coming Sukkot, a structure that would be beautiful, inspiring and in line with halachic precepts. Having started Slifka’s inaugural artist residency earlier this year, organizers Aviva Green and Rabbi Jason Rubenstein wanted to build on the center’s legacy of fostering Jewish creativity.

“We were talking about what it would look like to have this new sukkah be really focused and grounded in the arts, to not have it be just a functional system that follows all of the rules that it needs to comply with. It’s also an architectural project, an artistic and aesthetic add-on to the space and something that is both grounded in this artistic creative practice and also in sort of the more metaphorical themes that come about,” Green told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Rubenstein told eJP that this idea was inspired by the Sukkah City design competition held in 2010 in New York’s Union Square, which pushed the boundaries of what a sukkah could be, as well as the work of Joey Weisenberg’s Rising Song Institute, which brings together musicians looking for opportunities with communities needing musicians for their mutual benefit.

The project is funded by the Weiss family. The Slifka Center for Jewish Life was not able to disclose the amount of the donation or more information about the Weiss family. The competition has two stages: in the first, applicants submitted a conceptual design and in the second, beginning after June 1, selected finalists will receive $2,500 to produce a detailed design and implementation plan over three months. Sukkot begins on the evening of Sept. 29.

Judges will include Green, Rubenstein and a group of Yale students, sourced through an open call. “We always involve students in this because they will also be the benefactors of the final design,” said Green. 

After speaking with an architect, Green and Rubenstein decided to organize a learning session to provide prospective applicants with a clearer idea of potential concepts, mirroring the architectural design process.

This session consisted of a Zoom recording by Slifka’a associate chaplain, Rachel Leiken, who discussed four specific images from the Jewish tradition as a grounding for the questions Slifka wants designers to explore: the clouds of glory, the sukkat shalom (shelter of peace), the inversion of the ephemeral and permanent, and the harvest festival. 

“She talked a lot about the idea of Sukkot as a harvest holiday and what it means to have this temporary dwelling as a part of the harvest,” Green told eJP. “And she also talked about the different ideas of how this building is meant to be temporary. And this sort of like play between a permanent structure and a temporary structure and how that goes into the ways that … people dwell in it and also the way that it’s built.”

Applicants are invited to reflect on how one of these images can be translated into the sukkah structure.

“For example, in the sukkat shalom, the shelter of peace, what would it look like to translate this very sort of lofty and intangible idea of a place of dwelling that is made safe into an actual physical structure?” said Green. “We want people to be thinking about the balance between these kinds of conceptual ideas that go into Sukkot, in the ways that they’re thinking about how that can all get manifested in an actual, real, tangible building that people would be sitting and eating in on our terrace.”

Community members will have an opportunity to further engage with the process through a virtual question-and-answer session with selected finalists.

Entries will be judged on their feasibility – how quickly and easily the sukkah can be assembled and taken down, compliance with traditional sukkah rules and how the conceptual themes are incorporated into the structure.

The winner will need to travel to the Slifka Center in New Haven, Conn. in the fall to begin work on the structure, as the goal is to have it ready before this year’s Sukkot.

In Rubenstein’s view, this type of competition showcases how Slifka conceptualizes the role of a Jewish institution.

“If your definition of what a Hillel is, is an entity that puts on programs for students, you would probably never do anything like this,” he said. “When you start to actually take a step back, we’re stewards of a place… and part of our responsibility to the Jewish community is to actually create ways for artists to create beautiful things that people come to,” he said.

For Rubenstein, a crucial question in assessing the value of Slifka’s work is, “Have we really created the right circumstances in which we are creating a space for something beautiful and meaningful to be created and also finding people who have worked really hard their whole lives to have this talent to get the skills and experience to do that?”