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.
LEED 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.