At a busy crossroad, a temporary retreat


The exterior of the Bryant Park sukka, as it attracts the light, just before the busy lunch rush.

The exterior of the Bryant Park sukka, as it attracts the light, just before the busy lunch rush. Photo: Rachel Delia Benaim.

A midtown synagogue secured city permits, built and opened a temporary religious structure known as a sukka last month in Bryant Park, drawing thousands of visitors for communal meals and festivities to mark the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

The Bryant Park sukka, the largest public structure of its kind outside Israel, was the brainchild of Rabbi Joshua Metzger of Chabad Midtown, a synagogue affiliated with Chabad-Lubavic, an international Hassidic Jewish sect. Now in its seventeenth year, the sukka requires city-approved carpenters because of its location on public parkland “The permits!” said Metzger. “We have to get them from the parks department, City Hall, Bryant Park, the Department of Buildings. It’s a massive production in terms of logistics.” Chabad files for permits as early as summertime. “It’s a big struggle every year,” Metzger said.

Every fall, practicing Jews celebrate Sukkot, which marks the harvest season and God’s protection of the Hebrews after the biblical exodus from Egypt. This year, Sukkot lasted from sundown Sept. 18 until Sept. 27. For eight days, practicing Jews “dwell in the sukka,” as the Bible commands, which is generally interpreted as eating and spending a generous amount of time there.

While some build personal sukkas, constructing a temporary religious structure in Manhattan can be logistically challenging. Some turn to local synagogues to help fulfill the mitzvah, or positive commandment.

With the permits in hand, a team of four licensed contractors from Balfour Construction gathered last month with wood, ladders, nails, power drills, and saws to erect the sukka, which houses approximately 5,000 people over the course of the weeklong Sukkot holiday. It took two days, but the men made sure it was done in time. If any problems arose with the structure, the carpenters would come back and fix them, said contractor Sol Carrillo. “We’re on call the entire holiday.”

The final sukka had four wooden walls and a roof made of cedar leaves and red berries. It was decorated with an array of greenery and pink and orange flowers, matching those that grow in the Park.

Between the construction, the food and the decorations, Chabad’s sukka costs “north of $75,000,” said Metzger, much of it from donations. Even at rabbinical school, Metzger “thought outside the box,” his former classmate Rabbi Moishe Denburg of Boca Raton, Fla., said. Metzger always tried “to reach out to Jews in a new trendy way.”

Metzger and his wife, Brocha, hosted catered festival meals in the sukka on the first and last days of the holiday, serving wine, challah, salads, brisket, chicken, kugels and desserts such as babka, cookies, and fruit, all of it kosher. “Boruch Hashem, there is no shortage,” Brocha Metzger said, using Hebrew words to express her gratitude to God.

Munching on their lunch, more than eighty people pack into the sukka on a bustling Monday afternoon in Manhattan. Photo: Rachel Delia Benaim

Munching on their lunch, more than eighty people pack the sukka on a bustling Monday afternoon in Manhattan. Photo: Rachel Delia Benaim.

The sukka’s permits are the same as those needed in Zuccotti Park by Occupy movement, though the sukka requires more paperwork than the protests, said Everton Harris a spokesman for the Department of Buildings. But the sukka drew young and old, men and women, religious and unaffiliated, the 1% and the other 99%, seating about 100 at a time. “Everybody is welcome, everybody come!” said Metzger.

During the business lunch rush on a Monday, 200 people lined up for a seat. Hudi Grunwald, who works in midtown and brought pizza for herself and her brother and sister, said the sukka created a holiday feeling on a workday, “even though we’re in the middle of Manhattan.” J.P. Morgan employee Zach Biennefeld, a regular visitor during the lunch rush, wore a dark suit and green and ate a homemade cream-cheese sandwich. He called it “heimish,” which means homey and welcoming in Yiddish. Alan Markowitz and Barry Konner, two businessmen, waved to the rabbi while enjoying their lunch. Around the sukka’s table, they talked baseball and politics. “Did you see the highlights from the game?” Markowitz asked Konner while munching on his chicken wrap.

Outside the sukka, Yoel Kosberg, a local jazz street performer and Chabad congregant, said that he “helps people celebrate,” by playing wordless melodies, known in Yiddish as niggunim, on his trumpet.

Though attaining permits for the sukka can be a headache, Chabad serves the needs of Manhattan Jews looking for a sukka, Metzger said.“It’s the most beautiful thing we do every year.”