Designers of a synagogue building have many things to keep in mind. An ark to hold Torah scrolls. Pews that face east. Shelves to hold the prayerbooks. But those planning to build a Jewish house of worship today may have other considerations like motion-sensor lights, low-flow toilets and recycled or locally-sourced building materials.
A handful of synagogues across the country are building and renovating their facilities to be energy efficient and green-friendly, earning LEED and Energy Star certifications.
Just last month, the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale was awarded a LEED silver certification for its building completed last year. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a designation bestowed by the U.S. government for buildings that meet certain efficiency and environmental guidelines for specific elements and initiatives. Under the guidance of spiritual leader Rabbi Richard Jacobs, president-elect of the Union for Reform Judaism, the temple constructed its new building with recycled materials, utilizing natural light, eco-friendly carpet, and even a solar-powered ner tamid, eternal flame.
“Rabbi Jacobs pretty much thought that it was a moral imperative” to build an environmentally conscious building, said Amy Lemle, a past president of WRT, “and our synagogue should be a leader. The idea was this was pretty much going to be the standard in the future and we were ahead of the curve.”
And while building an eco-friendly facility required an extra investment of money, the synagogue is already seeing the payoff in its energy bills, according to executive director Yoel Maggid. Even though the new building is double the size of the synagogue’s old building, energy costs have only gone up “10-20 percent.”
For one Chicago-area synagogue, attention to environmental details during construction led to becoming the first, and currently only LEED platinum certified house of worship in the U.S. In 2008 the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill., opened the doors of its new 31,000-square-foot facility. Those doors are constructed from maple trees that had to be cut down on the synagogue’s property. The building is insulated with recycled fiberglass, and the lights go on and off with motion sensors.
When the need for a new building first arose in 2000, “we studied what our values are [concerning] environmentalism and the earth,” said Carole Caplan, a past president of JRC, “and we were able to begin to decide how to put that in to action.” And while the board “wrestled” with the decision and the costs, ultimately it “did vote unanimously to build as green as feasible.”
The synagogue also received a grant for $105,000 from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation toward the LEED commissioning. In addition to work on the building, JRC developed green living policies, offers docent-led tours of the facility to show others its practices and set up a lay-led environmental task force to work with the membership on living sustainably.
And though the synagogue leadership was happy to “connect to our values and traditions and have it all work sustainably,” said Caplan, “the bottom line is, ‘Are we going to spend too much? Or are we going to recoup it?” As it turned out, “We recouped those savings much quicker” than expected. The system proved even more efficient than the synagogue had realized, and that coupled with rising gas costs led to significant drops in energy and water bills.
But for one community, the high cost of building in an energy-efficient manner almost cost the synagogue its home. Congregation Beth David, a Reform temple in San Louis Obispo, Calif., was the first LEED-certified synagogue in the world when it completed its new building in late 2006. With solar heat, motion-detector lights, recycled insulation and 62 acres of open space agricultural land, the new synagogue was perfect for a community that “embraces tikkun olam,” said Gregg Loberstein, past president of the congregation.
With a plan to sell off three parcels of land on the property to repay the construction loan, the congregation was comfortable with the money spent on the synagogue. But there was “no sense of urgency,” said Loberstein, who explained that as the economy turned sour and the interest rates on the congregation’s loan skyrocketed, “we realized we’re going to run out of money.”
In January of this year, the synagogue received a foreclosure notice from the bank, and was given 90 days to fix the problem. In April, after failing to pay back any significant amount, they IT were told the building would be foreclosed on and auctioned off in May.
“We went to our local Jewish community, then the national community and international community” asking for funds, said Loberstein. The story gained media attention, and donations rolled in to cover over a million dollars in debt, saving the synagogue from foreclosure.
But even synagogues that don’t have the funds for major renovations or government certifications can take steps toward making an environmental impact. The interfaith organization GreenFaith partners with houses of worship to help them minimize their carbon footprint, educate their members and provide guidance on green issues.
“What we’re trying to do is to make environmental protection one of the central values” of synagogues and other religious institutions, said Rabbi Lawrence Troster, rabbinic scholar-in-residence of GreenFaith.
The organization, founded in 1992, works with thousands of congregations in the U.S., providing educational materials, speaking engagements and guidance.
There are 35 houses of worship — 15 of which are synagogues — enrolled in GreenFaith’s own certification program, where the communities center educational programming around the environment and “green” their buildings. Eight of them are Reform, four Conservative and three independent.
“LEED is only focused on facilities,” said Rabbi Troster, but for Greenfaith, “it has to be a holistic process.”
And as an interfaith organization, Troster says, communities who have little in common can work together, since “the environment is an issue which cuts across all ideological boundaries.” We’re “trying to change a whole community’s value system,” he said.
Washington’s historic Ohev Sholom synagogue, whose 125-year-old Orthodox congregation that has been housed in its current building since 1958, became environmentally savvy one small step at a time.
“We started with paper recycling in offices, then also comingled bottle and can collection,” said Jen Luftig Singer, founder and chair of the green committee at Ohev Sholom. The synagogue placed signs at light switches and air conditioning units asking people to turn them off when leaving the room, got kids to collect bottles from the tables after Shabbat lunch and switched the plasticware the synagogue used from styrofoam to corn-based.
The rabbi also moved the daily prayer services in to a smaller sanctuary, which had a “huge impact in reducing energy consumption,” said Luftig Singer.
“Energy efficiency sort of happened in spotty occurrences over time,” she said, noting that as incandescent light bulbs burned out they were replaced with fluorescent ones, and old “exit” signs were changed over to LEED versions.
Each of the changes the synagogue made was small, but together they made an impact, and in May the synagogue become the first in the nation to receive Energy Star certification from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“People were so happy that we were taking the first step,” said Luftig Singer, about the reaction among members of the shul. “They’re happy to see their synagogue now match what they’re seeing in other places in their lives.”
And the synagogue has many more steps to take, and initiatives members are working on more initiatives to improve the synagogue’s energy efficiency.
“The Energy Star label is good for one year,” said Luftig Singer. “You have to keep up and apply every year. We still need to be making improvements in order to earn this label in the future; there’s room to continue to grow.”