On Beacon, NY’s Main Street, a sukkah turns townhall

Even the mayor is holding office hours in the Beacon Sukkah Project, a blend of Jewish tradition and open-air democracy

Beacon Sukkah Project (Greg Scruggs/The Times of Israel)
Beacon Sukkah Project (Greg Scruggs/The Times of Israel)

BEACON, New York — With “green” and “sustainable” hot buzzwords in popular culture, trendy Jewish communities across the United States are adopting Sukkot as a celebration of environmental activism.

But in the funky Hudson River town of Beacon, 60 miles north of New York City, a Jewish community in partnership with local arts organizations is taking a different approach this Sukkot. Spearheaded by Rabbi Brent Spodek of the Beacon Hebrew Alliance, Open to the Sky: The Beacon Sukkah Project is an inaugural effort in blending Jewish tradition with the small town’s democratic impulse.

With the help of dedicated volunteers and a grant from the Irving and Gloria Scholssberg Family Fund of the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley, a small plaza at the foot of Main Street, the town’s commercial corridor, is the eight-day home of a community sukkah featuring eclectic programming with both a Jewish and secular bent from a mix of leading luminaries and community residents. Along the way, it has introduced the holiday tradition to curious onlookers and created a vital public forum in a growing town.

“I had never seen a sukkah before but it seemed like a way to harness the diverse energy in Beacon,” said Peggy Ross, an elected town councilperson. “I hope it’s a model for things to come because we don’t have enough good outlets for community forums.”

‘I had never seen a sukkah before but it seemed like a way to harness the diverse energy in Beacon’

Ross commented after a conversation led by Jonathan F.P. Rose turned into a 50-person civic dialogue on issues like zoning, density, affordable housing, small business development, and land use. Real estate developer Rose, president of Jonathan Rose Companies, a planning, and investment firm with a $1.5-billion portfolio, spoke on his vision of the “altruistic city” and holistic approaches to urban planning and development.

In recent years, Beacon, a bustling manufacturing town in the early 20th century, has received an influx of residents priced out of New York City. Although it has historically had a Jewish presence, the town saw many factories close in the post-war era and membership in its nearly century-old synagogue dwindle.

Lately, many industrial buildings have been repurposed into art studios and other creative uses, such as the Dia:Beacon museum, a world-class art collection. Beacon Hebrew Alliance, meanwhile, calls itself one of the fastest growing congregations in the country.

Beacon Hebrew Alliance calls itself one of the fastest growing congregations in the country

Main Street is lined with small businesses but at the sukkah talk, residents raised concerns about the arrival of chain stores as the town’s rising fortunes could make it a victim of its own success.

A model of open-air democracy, the sukkah became a de facto town hall this week and Beacon Mayor Randy Casale even held office hours there.

Businessman Rose heralded the experiment “a complete advance in the imagination of what a sukkah can be for a community.” Sukkah cosponser Dan Rigney, president of Beacon Arts, called it “a project so in line with a creative community [like Beacon] and the notion of community building through the arts.” (The Beacon Sukkah Project was also cosponsored by the 14th Street Y, LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture, and the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art.)

Given Beacon’s artistic reputation, the visual arts are a significant component of the sukkah, especially the gallery of tapestries designed by local artists that grace its walls.

Israeli artist Izhar Patkin (far left), curator David Ross and Rabbi Brent Spodek in conversation in the Beacon Sukkah Project. (Greg Scruggs/The Times of Israel)
Israeli artist Izhar Patkin (far left), curator David Ross and Rabbi Brent Spodek in conversation in the Beacon Sukkah Project. (Greg Scruggs/The Times of Israel)

On a classic fall sunny but crisp Sunday, curator David Ross and Israeli-born artist Izhar Patkin engaged in an upbeat and humorous dialogue on transience in modern art, a well-rehearsed exchange that the pair jokingly referred to from their picnic table podium as “two Jews walk into a bar.”

For Patkin, just coming off a nine-month show at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA), it was an opportunity to engage with fans who had seen the exhibit, about two hours from Beacon, as well as reflect on differing holiday dynamics between his birthplace and adopted home.

‘The sukkah is a control test for our sense of home’

“Growing up in Israel, the sukkah did not represent the temporality of the home but rather a Zionist story of wandering through the desert to build a new country,” he explained. “People were living in temporary homes at the time.”

Nowadays, “the sukkah is a control test for our sense of home,” Patkin said.

“The goal of this sukkah is to open up the authority seat,” said Beacon Sukkah Project visionary Spodek. “There is a real sense here of opening up the possibility of Torah. Everyone has the capacity to learn. I’m excited to have an internationally recognized artist and curator but also for community people leading what they’re passionate about.”

To that end, the slate of programming included a local historian recounting the chronicles of Jewish Beacon, a puppet-making workshop for children, DJs broadcasting from a sukkah sound system during the monthly Second Saturday when Main Street art galleries stay open late, and a live story slam.

Environmental themes were also present, though not overarching as in other Sukkot observances nationwide. The bamboo roof on the sukkah was locally sourced and the wall of ushpizin (ancestor guests) included the likes of Pete Seeger, the folk singer, environmental activist, and longtime Beacon resident who died in 2014. Andrew Revkin, author of the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, also led a talk on seeking a good path in the Anthropocene, “the age of us.”

Reflecting on several successful days of Sukkot activities at the Beacon Sukkah Project, Spodek said, “Jewish leadership has been preoccupied with questions of identity. We are very familiar with being outsiders at someone else’s Christmas party. This is not about that, it’s about the grammar of Judaism in a public space.”

He cited the example of a Presbyterian minister who sang in the sukkah as a sign of interfaith intentions and an overall tone of using Jewish ideas to encourage broader, non-sectarian conversations.

“Judaism,” Spodek concluded, “is too good to keep it to the Jews.”

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