Gerald Freeman

At right, Gerald Freeman, United Hebrew facilities manager, directs a group of eight Parkway West High School students as they erect a sukkah on Sept. 29, 2020 outside the synagogue. Photo: Eric Berger

High school students don’t get to gather much these days.

So what could be better for eight students at Parkway West than to hang out and build a sukkah at United Hebrew?

Given that none of the students was Jewish, one might think, perhaps, plenty.

But here the juniors and seniors were, smiling on a windy Tuesday afternoon outside the Reform congregation, erecting the temporary hut for the Jewish harvest festival.

“I really just like learning about other cultures,” said Maura Collins, a junior who was confirmed as a Catholic but does not associate with a particular faith. “I like asking a lot of different questions when I feel comfortable, and this seemed like a pretty good one because I had never heard of a sukkah before and it seemed like a great opportunity to learn.”

Jews typically begin to build the hut, which should have at least 2 ½ walls, after the end of Yom Kippur and before the start of Sukkot, which begins five days later, this year on Friday night, Oct. 2. The weeklong holiday celebrates the gathering of the harvest and God’s protection of Jews as they left Egypt.

Debra Klevens, a United Hebrew and Jewish Light board member and journalism teacher at Parkway West, facilitated the connection. Collins is a leader of National Honors Society and recruited students for the volunteering.

The students donned gloves and masks and worked screws and wrenches to connect the wooden walls.

Gerald Freeman, facility manager of the congregation, led the effort, telling the student that one of the walls needed to go “up just a hare.”

“There we go,” he said, which was met by “Yeahs!” from the students.

Gerald Freeman

Gerald Freeman, United Hebrew facilities manager, and Parkway West High School students build a sukkah on Sept. 29, 2020 at the congregation. Photo: Eric Berger

“I think it speaks volumes to the honor that faiths can give to other faiths,” said Freeman who has worked at the congregation for two years. “In my context, I happen to be Christian, but I honor the Jewish community and I respect the Jewish community, and so anything that I can do to be a blessing to them is an honor for me.”

The concept of walls was nothing new to the students. In fact, most students have spent plenty of staring at the same walls for the last six months amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think the experience of getting to interact and see so many other people who I might not have seen otherwise is an important and valuable experience and also being here with a community that isn’t my own but is so accepting I think is really good,” said Kayvon Rezaei, a junior who did not grow up affiliated with any religion.

Whether or not the students believed in God, they were reminded that there are often forces at work beyond their control. As they stood away from the partially assembled sukkah, a gust of wind knocked it over and one piece broke as it hit a fire hydrant.

Freeman assured the students not to worry about it, and he was able to finish the sukkah by Wednesday afternoon. He and students at the congregation's preschool then added greenery and burlap to the hut.

“Couldn’t believe it,” he said after the fall. “There is always risk involved when building in the wind, but fortunately no one was behind it, and it’s wood. We’ll put it back together.”