Moral imperatives and new building projects aren’t usually spoken of at the same time.
But for Richard Jacobs, senior rabbi at Scarsdale’s Westchester Reform Temple, and his congregants, the decision to expand in an environmentally sustainable way was precisely that.
“There was serious debate at the board level,’ said Rabbi Jacobs on a recent tour through the building. “The argument I made was that the synagogue has to be built and we have to be a model. We have to do the right thing, and inspire the community. It’s an important symbolic act.”
The building that emerged from those discussions reflects that commitment in symbolic and tangible ways. Working with Rogers Marvel Architects, the temple has applied for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and is one of the first synagogues in the country to build along these standards.
As Lemle observed, “From the glue in the pews to the carpet, we’re totally compliant. We’ve all believed this is something important. This is going to become the standard, how everyone will be building.”
The project was first discussed about seven years ago, when there were about 900 families using a synagogue originally designed for 700 families. Currently there are 1,200 member families.
Thoughtfulness and mindfulness about every aspect of the building — and worshipers’ experience of the space — are everywhere. Entering the serene, restrained sanctuary, there’s a sense that the building modestly withdraws to allow worshipers to directly experience God.
Although the sanctuary can comfortably seat 400, it has the intimate feel of a chapel, enhanced by the subtle cedar bands that surround the sanctuary. The cascading wall of louvered glass at the east wall dissolves the boundaries between the outdoor landscape and the inner sanctuary, allowing the changing spectacle of the natural world and its seasons to offer a contemporary take on the concept of “stained glass.”
There is a state-of-the-art sound system, for the benefit of hearing-impaired congregants and visitors. The bima is accessible from the sides of the sanctuary, for those with physical limitations or disabilities. Even the ner tamid, the eternal light, is powered by solar energy (with backup from an emergency generator, if needed) For tikkun olam projects, the donation bins are discreetly tucked away in flush drawers in the hall leading to the social hall and sanctuary.
To encourage congregants to walk or ride bikes to services, there’s even a shower on the premises. And for those who drive hybrids, there are plugs for electric cars.
The construction and renovation process also focused on how to do the job in the most sustainable way possible. “We recycled everything,” said Rabbi Jacobs. For example, the wooden pews from the old beit midrash went to a church in South Carolina. And as much as possible, products used were from within a 500-mile radius of the temple.
Given that many of the congregants are already committed to sustainable practices in their own homes, scaling those practices to the synagogue wasn’t such a hard sell.
“We felt it was a moral imperative,” said Amy Lemle, who was president of Westchester Reform Temple when the new sanctuary and social hall construction was initially proposed. “The up-front costs are greater, but there are long-term savings.”
With so many details, Lemle said, “It might take someone 20 times in the building before they notice everything. We don’t expect everybody to get it all at once. Everything has meaning — every stone, every piece of glass was thoughtfully considered. It’s like reading the Talmud. The more you read, the more you glean from it.”
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