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Hillel Wins Wiesel Award for Sukkah

By Daniel C. Stevenson
Associate Night Editor

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel spoke at the presentation of an art award to MIT Hillel Tuesday afternoon. The group of MIT Jewish students received the Elie Wiesel Award for Jewish Arts and Culture for the design and construction of a new sukkah. A sukkah is a temporary structure used during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which occurs directly after the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Wiesel said he was pleased to see the amount of time and effort invested in the project. He also spoke of the religious history of Sukkot and the universality of the holiday. Wiesel, a world-renowned author and human rights activist, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He is currently the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University.

The award is presented annually by the International B'nai B'rith Hillel to recognize college projects that "promote and enhance Jewish arts and culture," according to MIT Hillel.

Miriam Rosenblum, acting director of MIT Hillel, said that winning the award was "very exciting news for us. After all the months and literally years of work, it was thrilling to be recognized on a national level for the project."

Arthur C. Smith, dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs, said at the award presentation, "I am always pleased when MIT students get recognition for things outside the narrow mold of the MIT stereotype."

Cara S. Engel '94, first vice president of MIT Hillel, said, "I think it's a great thing for MIT and for MIT Hillel to be recognized for the sukkah."

Old sukkah collapsed

The search for the new sukkah began just before the Sukkot holiday in October 1990, when the old structure, made of pipes and canvas, collapsed. Organizers were able to temporarily repair it, but "we realized that we couldn't go on like this," Rosenblum said.

During Independent Activities Period in 1991, Hillel sponsored a session to find a design for a new sukkah. According to Rosenblum, H. F. Tzviyah Rosenstock G and Avigail Shimshoni G emerged as the principal designers. The pair received help and instruction from architecture Professor Leon B. Groisser and guidance on the religious aspects of the sukkah from Hillel Rabbi Daniel R. Shevitz.

Four construction teams began work on the sukkah during IAP of 1992. While the work was at times hectic, according to Joseph M. Milner G, one of the construction coordinators, students also spent time "hanging out, drinking sodas and eating food, and listening to music."

Construction was finished in September 1992, and the sukkah was erected, with the help of the pledge class of Alpha Epsilon Pi in time for the 1992 Sukkot, according to Milner.

Teamwork was important

Jonathan M. Walton '94, another construction engineer, said, "It was really neat to see all the people coming together and working together." Rosenblum agreed, "This was a project that belonged to everybody."

"Everyone in Hillel is quite proud of this award," said Milner. "The sukkah is a beautiful example of what we can do ... we all worked hard, and this is our product."

Smith also praised the teamwork in the project. "This [teamwork] is one of the things the Institute is trying to teach."

Sukkot is the most universal of Jewish holidays, according to Wiesel, because it is a celebration of the harvest. Farmers gathering the fall crop and planting for the spring would sleep in the field in the sukkah. The emphasis on the harvest is shown in the MIT sukkah, according to Rosenblum, with the wooden spheres representing pomegranates and the natural material placed on the roof.

The sukkah is traditionally erected for the eight days of Sukkot for Jews to eat and sleep in; although at MIT, it is mainly used for dining and socializing.

(Todd J. Schwartzfarb contributed to the reporting of this story.)