After a successful debut last year, the Chicago Sukkah Design Festival is returning for a larger celebration of the harvest festival of Sukkot. It will involve a more expansive collaboration with community partners in North Lawndale, the base of the initiative.
The festival is the brainchild of local architect Joseph Altshuler, a professor of architecture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a cofounder of the Could Be Architecture design firm. This year, said Altschuler, there are twice as many partners. "We continue to build relationships that are long-term and sustainable," said Altshuler, who said he was inspired by the work of the late Dr. Irving Cutler--the preeminent maven and booster of Chicago Jewish history, who died this past July at 100.
Last year, three community partners, including the Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church--whose building once housed a large synagogue, the First Roumanian Congregation--worked with Chicago architecture firms to create durable, innovative sukkahs, huts that Jewish families traditionally construct for the Sukkot holiday.
Those participating in this year's initiative include Lawndale Christian Legal Center, an arm of Lawndale Christian Church, and Mishkan Chicago. Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, of Mishkan, said that her congregants are thrilled to work alongside members of the Lawndale center and church, with whom they've been developing a long-term relationship.
"The sukkah is a gathering space to invite memories of the past," said Heydemann, alluding to Lawndale's history as a hub of Jewish life in Chicago. It is also, she added, "a place for opening up the door…Everyone becomes part of your family when you open up your sukkah."
This year's sukkah project has received financial backing from JUF, which also helped to underwrite last year's venture.
Here are some of the many other participants:
Chana Haouzi, founder and principal of Architecture for Public Benefit; professor of architecture, University of Chicago
"How could I say no?" Haouzi said, when Altshuler approached her to take part. After all, she noted, she'd grown up in Montreal in a Mizrahi family--her parents' roots are Tunisian and Algerian--that built a sukkah every year, a tradition she is carrying forward with her two young children. "It's a nice reminder of the seasons and transitions," she added.
The sukkah project is also completely in alignment with her principles as an architect. "I founded [my firm] to make good design possible for everyone," said Haouzi. "Architecture is for the people and the public good. [The Festival] is a good fit."
Arnold and Carol Kanter, co-executive directors of Innovation 80, funders of the Chicago Sukkah Design Festival and other innovative art programs
"Joseph does great work," said the Kanters, of Altshuler. "He's a perfect grantee to work with. He's smart, he thinks things through, and he does what he says he'll do."
The Kanters feel assured of Altshuler because they attended last year's festival, where they became intrigued by the concept of "space literacy" and the role the architecture plays in "developing life skills." They also like the bridges that the festival is creating between the Black and Jewish communities--part of their tikkun olam approach, which they said was inculcated at their alma mater, Brandeis University.
Dereon Pyles, high school student, De La Salle High School, Chicago
Pyles became engaged in the sukkah project as a member of the Youth Advisory Council of One Lawndale Children's Discovery Center, itself a community partner in the sukkah project. The 16-year-old said that he was excited to participate, "because we have been given the opportunity to work with [professional] architects." It is also, he said, a chance to honor a collaboration between members of different faith communities. "Although I am not Jewish," Pyles said, "I have several mentors who are, and I definitely wanted to [participate]."
The second annual Chicago Sukkah Design Festival kicks off on Sunday, Oct. 1, at James Stone Freedom Square, 3615 West Douglas Boulevard. Programs will take place over the following two weeks. For more information, go to chicagosukkahfestival.org.
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in New York.