Sacred structure's spiritual dimensions

Working for days under the leadership of famed timber framer Robert LaPorte of Eco-Nest, members of Temple Emek Shalom sawed, aligned and pounded giant timbers in place to serve as their sacred sukkah or humble hut in the desert.

The crew, including Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, sweated under a smoky sun Friday, raising the main walls and roof beams with a big coordinated heave-ho. Making timber-frame houses with mortise-and-tenon (pegs and slots) joinery is an ancient skill predating screws and nails by several thousand years, said Boettiger, who studied timber framing before donning vestments.

When the first wall went up, cheers also went up from a crowd of 40 parishioners, who had been serving food, fetching and hammering all week, swelling the sense of community, teamwork and sacred dedication heading into the Sukkot holiday.

“You’re actually building community by building a sacred space together,” says Boettiger. “The process is the gift. I feel just deeply joyful. It’s the most fun I’ve had since I don’t know when. I should be writing sermons for Rosh Hashana, but what better way to get ready for the High Holy Days?”

Videographer and Temple member Magic Powers, who is documenting the event, said, “I feel the beauty of everyone coming together. The sukkah is such a thing of hospitality and showing love for the community.”

Getting ready to heft a 6x10 roof beam of Port Orford cedar, Jonathan Shaw, a longtime student of LaPorte’s, said “I love it. I like to work on big things with other people — and I love the smell of this cedar.”

LaPorte adds, “It’s one of the strongest softwoods in the world and it’s from Myrtle Point, right here in Oregon.”

“It’s a dream come true and I feel such an amazing sense of community with it,” said builder Sharon Harris.

Pam Erwin observed, “Each day I come here, I do anything — schlep lumber, sweep sawdust. It’s such a fabulous learning opportunity. You can tell it’s Disneyland for the adults.”

The structure replaced a shabby one that was destroyed by rain and soaking, says worker Pete Jorgensen, but this one looks like it will last a few millennia. “It’s an amazing process,” he notes. “He even showed us how to sharpen a chisel till it’s sharper than a knife. It’s a wonderful building community here.”

When it’s done, the sukkah is adorned with cornstalks, branches, gourds and such autumnal things, which form its walls, says Boettiger. Many of temple members will sleep and eat in the structure, as dictated by ancient tradition of Sukkot, he adds, honoring the exodus of Jews from Egyptian captivity, as they survived and rebuilt community by building simple huts.

“It’s as much tradition as fact,” said temple photographer Mary Wallis. “It symbolizes there are no barriers and that we are building a community within our community.”

“It’s a harvest holiday, like Thanksgiving,” says Boettiger, “and it shows our essential vulnerability as human beings. It has a social justice element, that people who don’t want to are sleeping outside. It makes us aware of the plight of the homeless.”

Member (and project helper) Sasha Borenstein said the holiday “is to remind us of our ties to nature and how easily life can be swayed by the wind. It reminds us of the temporary dwelling that our ancestors lived in, in the desert.”

Living in the sukkah (she has one at home) “refines the soul,” she says, and reminds you not to dive back into mundane pursuits but to stay conscious.

The holiday has only one commandment, notes Borenstein and that’s “be joyous.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at

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