September 8, 2021

Sukkah Village Princeton Uses Design To Highlight Social Crises of Today

By Wendy Greenberg

Some three years ago Princeton architect Joshua Zinder viewed the film Sukkah City, the story of a New York City competition based on the creative design of a sukkah, a hut-like shelter made for the Jewish fall festival of Sukkot. The event was a means to draw attention to such issues as housing insecurity, homelessness, and hunger.

When Zinder brought the movie to The Jewish Center Princeton, it ignited the enthusiasm to hold a similar event in town. But fall 2019 was a busy time for the synagogue, celebrating its 75th anniversary, and by March 2020, COVID-19 canceled the plans.

“I’m not one who gives up so easily,” said Zinder, who is president of the AIA of New Jersey and managing partner of the Princeton integrated architecture and design firm JZA+D. “So this year we reinvigorated it.”

Sukkah Village Princeton 2021 is finally happening. The interfaith community program involves some 20 Princeton area religious and cultural groups bringing attention to affordable housing, hunger, homelessness, sustainability, and refugees, via architecture. Princeton’s Sukkah Village opens September 19 at noon and closes September 29 at 9 a.m.

“Even though Sukkot is a Jewish holiday,” said Zinder, “everyone can celebrate it. It brings awareness to critical issues in New Jersey.”

Sukkot is a weeklong Jewish holiday that celebrates the gathering of the harvest and commemorates the sheltering of the Israelites wandering for 40 years in the desert following the exodus from Egypt. The observance is marked by spending time in a sukkah, a recreation of the hut-like structures that housed the ancient Jews. As a temporary dwelling, Zinder explained, the sukkah symbolizes the fragility of human existence.

The public is welcome to tour 11 sukkahs on public sites around downtown Princeton. The structures are designed by prominent architecture and design firms and New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) student winners of an architecture school competition. Event sponsors are the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, the Arts Council of Princeton, AIA NJ, Princeton Hillel, and The Jewish Center Princeton.

With the main Sukkah Village at The Jewish Center, 435 Nassau Street, other display sites will be at YWCA Princeton, 59 Paul Robeson Place; Palmer Square at Hulfish Street; the Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street; Nassau Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street; and Trinity Church, 33 Mercer Street.

Each sukkah has a not-for-profit partner, so visitors to the sukkah will be learning about that nonprofit. The sukkahs will be auctioned off to raise money for an assigned charity, which will be displayed at the site. The auction will open September 19 on the Sukkah Village website at Profits will be evenly divided among all the nonprofit partners. Some are de-mountable for use next year, Zinder noted. “In my office we asked how do you create one that you can store on a couple of shelves?”

Participating architecture and design firms, in addition to two teams from NJIT, include Joshua Zinder Architecture and Design; KSS; Mills and Schnoering Architects, LLC; Michael Graves Architecture and Design; Michael Landau; Studio Hillier; HDR Inc.; and Seth A. Leeb, Architect.

To design and build their sukkah each team had to follow a rigorous set of guidelines, some set forth in the Bible, and some reflecting modern requirements for public safety.

Special programming throughout the 10-day event will include panel discussions, family-friendly arts and crafts, discussions, and walking tours. September 19 is the kick-off evening, at the Arts Council of Princeton, with designers and event partners and sponsors. It will also feature a screening of the short documentary Sukkah City, plus an interactive discussion. Registration is through the website.

Additional events include an informal walking tour on September 20; a talk on affordable housing on September 22; a talk on sustainability and climate change on September 23; a lunch and learn on food insecurity scheduled for September 24; and a “sukkah hop” and family activities on September 26. More details are listed on the Sukkah Village Facebook page, Sukkah Village Princeton 2021, or at

Community partners in Sukkah Village include Jewish Federation of Princeton, Mercer Bucks; HomeFront NJ; Arts Council of Princeton; Trenton Area Soup Kitchen; United Way of Greater Mercer County; Rescue Mission of Trenton; Send Hunger Packing; Princeton Community Housing; Arm In Arm; YWCA; Sustainable Princeton; The Jewish Center Princeton; Board of Rabbis, Princeton Mercer Bucks; Trinity Church; Nassau Presbyterian Church; Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton; Jewish Family & Children’s Services; Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton; Jewish Community Foundation; Princeton Senior Resource Center; Princeton Housing Authority; Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society; and TJC Interfaith Refugee Resettlement Committee.

The organizers hope Sukkah Village will show the power of design to address humanitarian issues that resonate thematically with the festival. One message, said Zinder, is that “design matters. You can create something that looks beautiful, that can also offer a message.”

The main message, said Zinder, is that the holiday of Sukkot speaks “to the fragility of shelter. We are able to have roofs over our heads, but we need to think about those who don’t. We were all once refugees wandering in the desert. There are so many in crisis, we can bring attention to them.

“Sukkah Village 2021 is a celebration of the power of design — and the power of each of us — to contribute to solutions to the challenges that face us.”