Sukkot and Architecture: How to Build Your Building and Your Community at the Same Time

by Michael Hauptman, AIA

For American Jews, the festival of Sukkot is a celebration of the fall harvest, of family traditions centered on constructing a backyard sukkah, decorating it with autumn vegetables and having family meals inside. Besides the Thanksgiving aspect of the holiday, Sukkot reminds us of our forty years spent wandering the desert after we left Egypt, when we slept in huts and looked at the stars through the spaces between the branches and leaves that made up the roof. Tradition calls for us to invite friends and even strangers to join us in the sukkah, making the holiday about welcoming, hospitality and sharing our abundance with those who have less.

For many synagogues, building the congregational sukkah has becomean important and popular annual event. Designing, constructing anddecorating the structure has become as much of a community-buildingevent as the week-long celebration that follows. The results of a day ofhard work designing and creating a space for worship, learning andsocializing are invaluable: we gain a shared experience with friends,get to know new people and build stronger connections to the synagoguecommunity.


As architects who specialize in designing synagogues and churches,my firm has incorporated this type of collaborative effort into ourdesign methodology in the form of a Design “Charrette.” This somewhatunfamiliar French word has morphed from its architecture schoolconnotation of pulling an “all-nighter” to meet an impending deadlineto a more upbeat and intensive group workshop that results in acongregational vision and shared design solutions.

The Design Charrette is an exciting design tool. It should be opento anyone who is a stakeholder in the finished project: congregants,staff, clergy and perhaps even those outside the congregation who mayhave a role in the process. It is an all-day event, usually held on aSunday, and there should be plenty of food and snacks.

A successful Charrette is a carefully organized event requiring muchforethought and preparation. In order to have a cogent, useful result,the issues that the participants will be addressing should be tailoredspecifically to the individual project and to the personality of thecongregation. As the organizers, we bring drawings, tracing paper,markers, architects’ scales and workbooks with information about zoningregulations, sun angles, sustainable design and anything else that mayinform the decisions that will be made during the session. While themorning is about education and presenting background information, theafternoon focuses on hands-on problem solving, small group idea-sharingand presentations by the breakout groups to the larger group as awhole.


The Charrette is productive, collaborative, energizing andinclusive. It helps to ensure that all voices are heard, all optionsare discussed and that there is buy-in on many levels. The participantscome away feeling that they have contributed to the process and thatthey have a stake in the results. Even those who are not totallysatisfied with the outcome feel that at least they understand how thefinal plan came to be. The result, while still very conceptual, forms asolid basis for the more detailed work to come.

After a successful day of building a sukkah with old and newfriends, the meal we have inside it that evening tastes that muchbetter. Think of how it will feel to attend the first service in a newbuilding that the whole congregation has helped to design.

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Michael Hauptman, AIA, is a principle in the Philadelphia-based architecture firm, Brawer Hauptman, Architects LLC.He is an officer at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia,Pennsylvania, where he chairs the Membership Committee, and is activeon the Building Task Force and the Visioning Task Force. Mike became aSchindler Membership Fellow in 2007.

Meet Mike at the URJ Biennial for his learning session, “The Design Charrette: How to Build your Building and your Community at the Same Time” (Block F).

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One Response to “Sukkot and Architecture: How to Build Your Building and Your Community at the Same Time”

  1. avatar

    Question for the readers:
    Do you build a sukkah on your own property?

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