I had the opportunity to pass through both Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological seminary as the two institutions completed their respective Sukkahs.
At YU, the Sukkah is relatively small (though, to be fair, students are off for Sukkot) and awkward. Built on a wide portion of sidewalk outside of the Beit Midrash on Amsterdam Ave. and 186th street, it looks more like the plywood enclosures built around construction sites than a space for celebrating a holiday. And of course, since it’s built on the sidewalk, it interferes with regular pedestrian traffic. Basically, the Sukkah looks and feels like an afterthought.
JTS has a much nice physical plant than YU to begin with, so perhaps this comparison is doomed from the start, but it was not just the aesthetic appeal of the JTS Sukkah that was so impressive. For starters, JTS built two large Sukkot (no, not one for men and one for women!) in its central courtyard. Each of these is easily larger than the single YU Sukkah. Moreover, the Sukkahs were well-planned and executed. Each Sukkah was built on a large wooden platform, sure to provide a solid, level floor, as well as excellent drainage in case of rain.
Speaking of rain, these Sukkahs are well-prepared. Rising above the schach of each Sukkah is a series of triangular wooden frames, forming the skeleton of a roof. Perched at the peak of this roof, and bound up in rope, is a large, rolled tarp. It appeared that with a yank on the right cord, the trap would unroll down both sides of the frame-roof, quickly covering the Sukkah and protecting it from the rain. Ingenious!
Yet even this was not the most impressive thing about the Sukkahs. What struck me most was that at JTS, outside of each Sukkah was an industrial-size fire extinguisher. That touch spoke of foresight, planning, and concern for health, safety, and municipal codes. It spoke to me of what it means to be a a good host, and a mensch. For all the Orthodox tzaddikim who will spend hundreds on their etrogim, and will build Sukkot with windows, space-heaters, and plumbing, it’s worth remembering that a fire extinguisher is no less a religious duty, and no less a fulfillment of our responsibilities towards God and towards one another than arba minim or eating in the Sukkah.
Are fire extinguishers incompatible with Orthodoxy? Of course not. But when your focus on improving your service to God is expressed through the halachic lens of hiddur, beautification, it is easy to lose sight of concerns that are far more basic, and which go neglected far too often.