Designers reimagine Jewish traditions at Leichtag property


Typically, sukkahs are basic dwellings made from sticks and leaves that commemorate Sukkot, a Jewish agricultural festival. But architects recently updated the tradition with cutting-edge designs at the Leichtag Foundation site.

Out of a pool of 17 applicants from California, Washington, D.C., and New York, judges last month chose three finalists to participate in the “Sukkot at the Ranch” Design Competition.

With the help of volunteers, the finalists worked tirelessly Oct. 5 to bring three sukkah concepts to life on a grass field at the 67-acre Leichtag Foundation property, off Saxony Road.

The structures will come down later this month. But until Oct. 12, Jewish custom calls for participants to share meals, entertain and rejoice within them.

Married couple Chris and Sasha Varone, both architects, said their largely wooden sukkah represents a plant bursting from the ground.

“The idea is that the base is heavier and rooted to the earth,” Sasha Varone said on Oct. 6. “As you get to the top, it’s lighter and opens up toward the sun, kind of like the leaves of a plant.”

After finishing the sukkah, Chris Varone said he was so sore he could barely lift his arms above his head, but he appreciated his home and family that much more.

“That’s the whole idea of building and spending a week in this, without cable TV or other distractions,” he said. “By reflecting on what you have, you come to appreciate your friends, family and shelter. This was our first time building a sukkah, and that’s something we learned.”

Although the sukkahs drew upon modern architecture, the designers followed Jewish tradition that says the dwellings should: have 2 1/2 walls; fit a person as well as a table; and have a roof made of organic materials that provides shade by day and a view of the stars by night.

Sasha Varone said the guidelines, though challenging to meet, encourage self-reflection.

“When you’re in here, you’re not as distracted from the outside world,” she said. “You can see a little bit through the slats, including the stars. But you can’t view everything, giving you time for self-reflection.”

Sukkahs are usually constructed at private homes or places of worship. However, communitywide sukkah competitions have become increasingly popular in large cities in recent years, inspiring the Leichtag Foundation event.

Compared with last fall, this year’s sukkah event is more competitive, said Andy Kastner, Leichtag Foundation director of the Jewish Food Justice Fellowship program, which aims to support nonprofits dedicated to food security.

“We invited people locally in the Leichtag network to come build the sukkahs last year,” Kastner said. “This year, we created a theme revolving around competition, and we invited more to apply.”

Online voters can select their favorite sukkah; the winner will be announced later this week and go home with $3,600.

Along with the three competition sukkahs, a member of the Leichtag Foundation fellowship program built a separate sukkah on a new one-acre farm that’s a stone’s throw away.

The trees that make up the wall of this sukkah will be planted in an edible “food forest” along the northern edge of the Leichtag Foundation property. Fruits and vegetables from the forest, according to plans in the works, would go to food banks and those in need.

“The sukkah in the farm connects the present state of the property to its future,” Kastner said. “Over the next year we’ll be staging and designing the food forest.”

And the Leichtag Foundation, a Jewish-philanthropic organization that bought the Ecke Ranch site two years ago, has other agricultural ideas.

However, Kastner said that Leichtag Foundation officials are holding off on planting for now, because the once-every-seventh-year practice of shmita recently started. During shmita, religious Jews refrain from various forms of agriculture activity for a year.

Shmita served as this year’s theme for the sukkah design competition.

Yoshi Silverstein, another designer, said “shmita” translates to “release,” an idea he incorporated into his sukkah.

“My sukkah is called ‘Tension and Release,’” Silverstein said. “You can’t have release without tension. So for six years we’re building, we’re working, we’re creating. In the seventh year, we release the land and have that spiritual release as well.”

Silverstein represented tension in his sukkah with bamboo poles strung with hemp cords to a reclaimed bicycle wheel.

“Building sukkahs requires abiding by a lot of rules,” said Silverstein. “Yet there’s a lot of room for interpretation.”