November 07

Reimagining the Tabernacle: America’s First Green Synagogue

Maya Schenwar

Chicago’s Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC)—the synagogue of my youth—is about to become the first LEED-certified green synagogue in the United States. Needing new space, the congregation is building a structure out of reused and recycled materials that will employ solar-powered lighting and energy-efficient heating designed to reduce fossil fuel use.

And the JRC is not alone—the Conservative movement has partnered with the Coalition on the Environment in Jewish Life to implement a Green Sanctuaries program in southern California; four synagogues in New Jersey, one from each major movement, are participating in COEJL’s more extensive “Greening Synagogues” initiative ; and hundreds of others are taking part in initiatives like the Shalom Center’s Green Menorah campaign to reduce oil use.

I visited JRC and asked Rabbi Brant Rosen what had motivated the congregation to undertake the arduous (and expensive) process of building a green synagogue. “Place and space are important because they point to values that transcend those spaces,” Rosen told me as we sat in JRC’s temporary home. “I would say the same thing about building a synagogue. For too many congregational communities, the focus is on the structure itself, and not what the structure means to the community, or what it enables the community to do.” The green synagogue, imbued with the values of conservation, simplicity, and faith, not only accomplishes a very practical, physical mitzvah—doing as little harm to the environment as possible—but it also points to a reconceptualization of sacred space.

The Temporary Holy

The first Jewish sacred space was the Tabernacle. With its lovingingly detailed descriptions of acacia wood, silver rings, and dyed fabric, the Tabernacle hardly seems like the antidote to modern overconsumption. Yet, the quality that distinguishes the Tabernacle from any other place of worship, and the meaning of its Hebrew word, mishkan—is its temporariness. Not only is it portable, but it can be taken down and reassembled. The Tabernacle shows us that for all our veneration of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the city of Jerusalem, and even the land of Israel, a sacred space doesn’t have to be built to last—or even built with the expectation of lasting. God is eternal, but walls, ceilings, arks, and golden cherubim are not.

The Tabernacle is the first green shul.

Creating a green synagogue means building with a consciousness of temporality, with the knowledge that the structure will go back into the earth when the time comes. Permanence takes on a different meaning when a building is made of reclaimed wood from an old New York barn, as is the new JRC. The construction of such a building necessitates a recognition of the temporariness of everything tangible; not only wood and linoleum, but also human beings. In Leviticus, God reminds the Israelites, “The land is mine; you are but strangers resident with me” (25:23).

The recognition of our transience and our mobility deeply affects the ways in which we choose to take up space. Our status as passing strangers inhabiting permanent, God-given grounds impels us to work toward “greening” our ways of manipulating those grounds, in this time when we have so many options for building in a very un-guestlike manner.

The Idolatry of Place

Opposed to this eco-concept of the potential for divinity anywhere is the elitist idea of the chosenness of particular objects and spaces. Sometime before, after, or during the construction of the Tabernacle (the exact chronology is a matter of endless debate), came the embarrassing golden calf incident and the reinforcement of idolatry as one of the gravest of sins. It’s a confusing parallel: why was the golden calf an idol, while the Tabernacle was not one? How much we can invest in material things before our attachment becomes idolatrous?

In the case of the Tabernacle, the answers to these questions are embedded in the instructions for making it: God speaks of directly visiting the Tabernacle in a very specific place: “And there I will meet with you, and I will talk with you from above the cover, from between the two cherubim” (Exodus 26:22). In constructing a modern-day synagogue, the “coming” of God is usually a little more subtle. But the principle holds: if the material aspects of a synagogue become more important than their connection with the personal ethics and religious values of its congregants, then the problem of idolatry begins to creep in.

The Jewish-German-American philosopher Erich Fromm (in To Have or To Be) juxtaposes idolatrous materialism, which he terms the “have” mentality, with an “authentic relatedness to the world” (the “be” mentality). “God, originally a symbol for the highest value that we can experience within us, becomes, in the having mode, an idol,” Fromm writes. “While I can have the idol because it is a thing, by my submission to it, it, simultaneously has me.” Submitting to an idol is an ethics-free investment: since an idol can experience no personal connection and holds no inherent morals, horrible wrongs can be committed in the name of that idol. So, how to devote oneself to constructing something sacred without fixating on the thing and losing sight of the sacred? Perhaps the route to avoiding an idolatrous (and materialist, and consumerist) attachment to place is let our highest values guide the building process. Be the values of your temple, and build it accordingly, as opposed to building in it a values-free manner and then expecting it to house your faith.

In addition to its role as a holy space, the temple can also function as a vehicle for change. Religious theorists have often interpreted the temple as a microcosm of the universe at large; an imago mundi, in Mircea Eliade’s terms. Consequently, the goodness of the synagogue can foster good in the world—including ecological transformation. “It is by virtue of the temple that the world is resanctified in every part,” writes Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane. “However impure it may have become, the world is continually purified by the sanctity of sanctuaries.” Even if we don’t conceptualize the green synagogue as an imago mundi, we can still see the purification of the temple as a step toward the purification of the world—only it’s by way of example, not by fiat.

Reconstructing Simplicity

An emphasis on “being” over “having” is crucial for the environmental movement, since excessive materialism is the source of so many ecological problems. Before their brush with idolatry, the Israelites bumped up against the issue of materialism in their journey through the wilderness. When they were faced with starvation, God sent them manna, which miraculously fell from heaven each day. The miracle was in the manna’s existence, not its abundance. “The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little. Each one gathered as much as he needed” (Exodus 16:17-18). The lesson is clear: don’t hoard, don’t grab, gather food to nourish your continued being, as opposed to having more than those around you. Consume consciously, and you’ll maintain an equilibrium with the earth.

The less we exploit our resources, the less we fixate on our possessions and the more we focus on their meaning in relation to the cosmos, the more we are ourselves, and capable of doing right by the world.

However, the values of being instead of having, of simplicity over excess, are not always simple to abide by. “Let it be” is not the right motto for our time—“being” while consuming little is hard work these days. Rosen at the JRC knows all about this: the process of building is a synagogue is much slower and more arduous when you’re intent on making it green. “There’s the idea that somehow an environmental lifestyle or a ‘simplicity’ lifestyle is simpler and easier, and that’s not the case,” Rosen says. “A lot of issues come up: technological issues, values issues, economic issues that you have to master. You have to know a lot about a lot of things to commit to living this way.” Also, ironically, you’ve got to have some bank. God doesn’t toss down reclaimed cypress wood like manna. JRC had to fundraise like crazy to enable its green project. So in many contexts, you’ve got to already have enough—or more than enough—to adopt the privilege of a being lifestyle.

Does having more than enough entail certain environmental responsibilities beyond living in a green building? Probably. We must grapple with these issues while working to unite an ecological consciousness with both our religious values and our place within a capitalist, having-driven society.

Thus, the momentum of building a sacred space does not stop when the building is fully erected. There will be new issues to consider every year, as community values (not to mention the state of the world) grow and shift. Already, JRC members are debating whether congregation policies will change as they move into the new synagogue. Should they stop using paper plates and Styrofoam cups? Should the Hebrew school curriculum be altered to include environmental issues? Should balloons be forbidden at Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations? Just as the Tabernacle was taken down and reassembled, day by day and month, supplanted by one temple, and then by another, so this house of worship will grow and change, adapting to the needs of its community, the “strangers” who reside within its walls.


Images: The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in various stages of construction.


Maya Schenwar is a reporter for Truthout, and has been published in Punk Planet, In These Times, Bitch Magazine and The Nation, among others. She lives in Chicago.