Constructing Sacred Community


This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, is one of those portions that can be the bane of every Bar or Bat Mizvah kid: a seemingly endless litany of picayune details regarding the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). What on earth can we possibly learn from this parade of dolphin skins, acacia wood, crimson yarns, loops and clasps?

If we understand the constructions of the Mishkan as a metaphor for creating sacred community, the lesson is should be obvious: details matter.

I’ve been acutely aware of this lesson as JRC constructs its new synagogue building. In addition to the many details that come with a construction project of this magnitude (e.g., fund raising, location, budget, design, zoning, etc.) our board made one important decision early in the building process: that we would build our building in the most environmentally sustainable manner possible. Guided by the sacred Jewish value of Bal Tashchit , we have now begun construction on what we intend to be the first certified “Green Synagogue” in the world.

Specifically, this means our congregation is participating in a process known as LEED certification – a system designed by the US Green Building Council. LEED stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” and it is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings.

mishkan-day-view.jpgLEED certification is based on a grading system, with points awarded for commitment to five key areas: sustainable site development, water savings, materials selection, indoor environmental quality, and energy efficiency. Buildings that garner 52 to 69 points achieve the highest level, or Platinum status. The next level, Gold, is awarded to buildings that achieve 39 to 51 points. (I am proud to report that JRC is currently well on track to achieve Gold status).

Much like the “checklist” for the ancient Mishkan, the list of LEED items in our new synagogue building is substantial and exhaustive:

– A white, reflective roof, which will help our air conditioning system to work more efficiently, especially during peak usage hours.

A tight, energy conserving shell, with thicker walls and more insulation that retains more cool air in the summer and more heat in the winter.

– Windows made of special glass that lets in more natural light and less heat from the outside.

– An HVAC system will be computerized and divided into zones, designed to only cool or heat those areas that are actually in use.

– A sanctuary calibrated to heat or cool from the floor to about seven feet up, so as not to waste energy in the upper levels of the room.

– A ventilation system that will use motion and CO2 sensors to let in the requisite amount of oxygen for ventilation at any given time.

– Recycled concrete from 100% of our old building’s façade and front steps, which was ground up and reused in our new building’s foundation.

– 100% reclaimed cypress wood to be used on the building’s exterior, insuring that no new trees will be cut down.

– 20% of the overall building materials to be manufactured locally, and 50% of the interior wood in our facility to come from certified sustainable forests (i.e., forests that do not engage in the practice of clear cutting.)

As JRC now knows all too well, details do matter. During the planning for our new building, we have fought hard for every item on the list above – and many, many more besides. In so doing, we have come to understand that sacred space is not defined by the physical building per se, but the process by which it is built. As Terumah teaches, a sacred community is ultimately defined not just by what it does, but how it does it.

After all, even though the ancient tabernacle does not exist any more, the process of building the Mishkan remains very much alive in our collective Jewish imagination. The rabbis teach that the description of building the Mishkan, in fact, is symbolic of the Ma’aseh Bereshit – the sacred work of Creation. In constructing the Tabernacle, the Israelites were invited to reenact the creative process by which God created the Universe itself.

In the end, the imperative of Terumah echoes the classical Zionist slogan “Livnot U’lehibanot” – “To Build and be Built.” Through the process of creating our new building, we are discovering the true meaning of sacred community.

5 thoughts on “Constructing Sacred Community

  1. Robert

    Hey Brant,
    This brings to mind the saying that it is not the destination but the journey that is what really matters. I think that often we focus on the goal, the “when will we get there” from the back seat, and forget that the process is what causes us focus on the details and to grow, learn and become wiser. Any good chef will tell you that it take longer to plan and create the meal that it takes to eat it. I think the same proves true here. We have leaned so much as a community through this process that even if we were never able to build our new space, the work and learning that has taken place would be a wonderful reward. The fact that we also get a new space is the icing.

  2. Carol HB

    Hey, go easy on Parsha Terumah, Rabbi Brant!! It is only sometimes a bane to b’nai mitzvah kids. In our family’s collective memory it will forever be Sammy M’s parsha. Remember how he artfully reconstructed the mishkan? (Don’t worry–no dolphins were harmed in the creatiion!) We watched in awe as he demonstrated his own interpretation of the mishkan and evolved into a mentsch all in one morning. Next year this incredible kid, as quirky as most of them raised at JRC, enters a prestigious engineering program!! Was it his dance with Torah that lit that fire or vice versa?? It is a process, of course!

    It is also vital to think about process in creating community. Though the old building was only concrete and steel, an adopted orphan with need for much repair, I was amazed at the attachment so many of us felt and expressed in our closing days. The void I experienced driving up and down Dodge Ave as an empty lot replaced the shul where our children toddled to pre-school,where we buried loved ones, where we made incredible friends, became bar/bat mitzvah and where we all davened was quite unexpected. It was just a building after all, with a horrid kitchen, subterranean classrooms and mice invading youth committee meetings–UGH! Happily, those emotions have been replaced by anticipation and thrill watching our collective dreams take shape as the girders have gone up!

    Undertaking this within the context of community has made it all the sweeter. The excitement of fundraising, planning, moving and even being boarders at ST has touched many of us. My concern is for those who have not made the jump, either emotionally or financially, and have not engaged in the process at all. If people have disengaged from the building AND the current focus of our communtily, what is the impact on their investment in JRC’s future? How does this impact our community?
    Shabbat Shalom,

  3. Shirley Gould

    Carol picked up a little of what I was thinking. Everything you and others said about the process we have been going through is accurate. I’m thinking about how we’ll act and adapt once we actually get inside. It will all be new but strange, and we owe it to ourselves and one another to reinvent and continue the process of community building, and attach ourselves to our new surroundings. This work will never be finished.

  4. Don Wade

    What you are doing is a great idea. In addition, you may also be able to achieve Platinum Status by thinking “outside” the building, not just inside. Take a look at using pervious concrete as a pavement. If designed correctly, you can achieve many more points toward your goal. Take a look at our web site for more information. Good luck on your project, and let me know if you have any questions about the “dual-use” system. Don


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s