A homemade structure resembling a small booth with curtain walls, a bamboo roof, and ornaments spread out along the ceiling, the sukkah went up every year to commemorate the Feast of Sukkot, a week-long Jewish holiday that kicks off five days after Yom Kippur, the holy day of atonement. This year, Sukkot began Wednesday (Oct. 12) and will conclude on Oct. 19.
Berman, an energetic 81-year-old with a background in construction, said he began the tradition 11 years ago and has done it every year since as a way to honor his faith and foster an atmosphere of peace.
"The whole intention of the sukkah is to make other people come in and share in the experience," Berman said.
This year, this custom has come to an end. The Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit organization that manages 20 affordable-housing properties throughout the city, informed Berman last year that he is no longer allowed to erect the structure in the common area of the 57-unit building.
The prohibition has forced Berman into an uncomfortable conflict with building management, who he believes is unfairly keeping him from practicing his religion. Earlier this month, he informed Georgina Mascarenhas, the director of property management at the Housing Corporation, that he planned to erect the sukkah again this year and included newspaper clips of sukkahs going up in other public areas, including in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Once again, permission was denied.
Berman said the Housing Corporation's prohibition surprised him. The building's common areas, he noted, often feature religious symbols — most notably the Christmas tree that goes up every year in the dining area on the ground floor of the sprawling building. Berman said he enjoys seeing the tree and occasionally participates, along with other tenants, in decorating it with ornaments.
But when Berman brought up the Christmas tree example to Housing Corporation officials, he said they told him that they would no longer allow Christmas trees — an answer that rankled him even more than the nonprofit's stance on his sukkah. The last thing he wanted to do, Berman said, is prevent other people in his building and at other buildings managed by the company from celebrating their religious holidays. He was disappointed to learn that his attempt to celebrate the holy feast may end up hindering future holiday celebrations at all other properties.
Mascarenhas said management's decision to keep the sukkah from going up had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with storing private property in common areas. Last year, when management noticed the sukkah at the patio, Mascarenhas sent Berman a letter citing the rule ("No household or other property may be stored in the patio area, balcony, deck, landing, or anywhere outside the unit") and asking him to "please remove this immediately." When she learned that Berman planned to erect a sukkah again this year, Mascarenhas responded by explaining that he does not have permission to do so in any common area at the complex.
"It's not that we're prohibiting or banning the sukkah," Mascarenhas told the Weekly. "The issue is that residents are not allowed to put up anything personal in the common area. Whatever they do within their apartments is fine, and we certainly don't question that at all.
"We have this rule to avoid having to say to one person that they can put something up and saying to another that they can't."
Mascarenhas said the previous building manager at Sheridan Apartments violated the rules by allowing Berman to erect his sukkah year after year. The manager was replaced last year.
Berman said managers suggested that he put up the sukkah in the private balcony that juts out of his second-story apartment. This, he said, is impossible because the sukkah, by Jewish law, has to allow the occupant to see the sky. His balcony, however, stands under an eave that would block the view of the sky.
For awhile, both sides in the dispute looked for a compromise. Mascarenhas told Berman that housing officials could consider allowing him to erect a sukkah this year in exchange for a promise not to do it in the future. But after learning that the Housing Corporation is now considering banning Christmas trees, Berman decided he would not sign any papers that would link him to this ban.
"To use my little, tiny sukkah, a temporary, seven-day installation, to change the rules — in my head I knew I cannot do that," Berman told the Weekly. "I'd rather not have it if you'll use it to keep the Christmas tree from going up. You cannot use my sukkah as a reason to prevent someone from celebrating their religion."
Seeking an amicable resolution, Berman reached out to the offices of U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo and Santa Clara Supervisor Liz Kniss to explain his dilemma. Kniss' office directed him to the city's Human Relations Commission, which oversees issues of social justice and disputes.
Claude Ezran, who chairs the commission, then spoke to both Berman and Housing Corporation officials. He said he was informed by housing officials that management would not be putting up Christmas trees anymore — a gesture that he said was undertaken as "excessive precaution" after consultation with an attorney.
"The Christmas tree is a borderline case," Ezran told the Weekly. "Some view them as religious symbols, and others see them as a commercial symbol of the holidays.
"It's a case where there's no right answer."
On Tuesday, Ezran met with officials from Project Sentinel, a nonprofit that specializes in mediation between tenants and landlords, in hopes of finding an amicable resolution. Project Sentinel staff said they would contact Berman and the Housing Corporation.
But Mascarenhas said it's unlikely that the Housing Corporation will reverse its ban on the sukkah in the common area. She noted that housing officials have not yet made any final decisions about banning Christmas trees at its properties. But she confirmed that the organization began considering the ban after consulting its attorney.
"We were told that you can call it a 'Holiday Tree' and put up general decorations," she said. "However, if someone complains and says it's religious, it could be viewed as one religion versus another.
"We're working through that and thinking that maybe we won't put up the tree at all."
The proposed rule change has brought little comfort to Berman, who is without his sukkah for the first time in more than a decade. He said he accepted the Housing Corporation's decision to end his tradition and will comply with it. But what bothers him the most, he said, is the fact that his annual tradition — which he intended as a gesture of peace and inclusiveness — could end up inadvertently tarnishing the holiday season for other families in his apartment complex and others throughout the city.
"I'm not here to disturb anybody or to violate any rules," Berman said. "I'm just trying to create a 'house of peace' — that's all I want to do."
Talk about it
Do you think it's appropriate (or fair) for the Palo Alto Housing Corporation to ban all religious symbols from public areas?