Greenfield property owner quashes Jewish tenant's holiday

Matthew Santoni
| Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 11:54 p.m.

As the sun set on Wednesday, Jewish families around Pittsburgh shared meals and prayed in their sukkot — temporary huts made of wood, cloth and tree branches built for the fall harvest festival of the same name.

But Malki Zirkind, his family and neighbors were unsure where they would fulfill their religious obligation for the holiday after their landlord had them tear down the sukkah Zirkind had built in the driveway of the house he rents on Mirror Street in Greenfield.

The property owner said the hut was unsafe and was a liability issue, but Zirkind believes his religious freedoms are being restricted.

“Our holiday starts tonight at sundown,” Zirkind, 25, said Wednesday afternoon. “(The property manager) said he doesn't want it on the property. I guess I could put it back up if he's already intent on evicting us.”

The owner of the property, Baldwin Borough resident Kim Schwartz, said a neighbor complained that the sukkah appeared unsafe, and she worried children in the neighborhood might be hurt playing in or around it. She said setting up the structure, even temporarily, was against the terms of Zirkind's lease.

“He didn't get permission for that,” Schwartz said. “You can't just have all these different pieces of wood up; it's not going to stay up on its own.”

The holiday, which ends Sept. 25, is also known as the Feast of Booths. During the eight days and seven nights of sukkot, Jews traditionally sleep and eat in the temporary dwellings, recalling the huts the Jewish people lived in while wandering the desert for 40 years during the Exodus from Egypt.

Zirkind said he and a Jewish neighbor started building the sukkah out of wooden panels and two-by-fours Tuesday night in the driveway in front of Zirkind's house. Five panels formed a rectangle with an opening on one side, though he had not yet put on the traditional branches or foliage for the roof.

John McGovern, who manages Zirkind's property for Schwartz and lives nearby, told Zirkind it had to be dismantled. Zirkind said McGovern bent one side of the unfinished structure inward, damaging it. Zirkind called police, and McGovern threatened Zirkind with eviction if the sukkah was not removed.

Police returned to the property on Wednesday, Zirkind said, and told him to remove the sukkah.

Police at the Zone 4 station in Squirrel Hill could not comment on the call, saying no one had filed a report regarding the dispute.

“He's illegally putting stuff up,” said McGovern, who said he has had no problems with Zirkind before and declined further comment.

Marissa Doyle, spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office, said that neither the city's 311 line nor its Bureau of Building Inspection has fielded complaints or cited any code violations related to sukkot, likely recognizing that the huts are temporary.

Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of the Orthodox Shaare Torah Congregation in Squirrel Hill said he'd never heard of congregants having problems or getting complaints about unsafe sukkot.

“You can build a bicycle so it's unsafe; you can build a picnic table so it's unsafe,” Wasserman said. “Assuming the people who built it are relatively competent, it's an uninformed notion to say that a sukkah is unsafe.”

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or

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