Tuesday, June 2, 2020 -
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Abraham and Sarah’s tent: Jewish green

ABRAHAM and Sarah’s tent by the oaks of Mamre (near Hebron) was open — on four sides, to guests and the elements alike. While Abraham is famous for welcoming three divine visitors in Genesis 18, a fourth — Mother Nature — is never mentioned, because she is assumed to be the couple’s continuous guest.

From a “green building” standpoint, their tent was a sophisticated piece of work, made of local, organic materials, fashioned into a sturdy, portable shelter and ideally suited to its function and climate.

The couple lived “off the grid” before there was a grid.

A warm climate is more conducive than a cold one to life in a fabric and wood-pole tent. But while Jews are welcoming in all climates, they’ve welcomed Mother Nature less and less in their movement from the land toward urban areas. Today, things have reached a point where humorist Fran Liebowitz says, “The outdoors is what I have to pass through to get from my apartment to the taxi.”

How did we get from an awestruck Balaam gushing, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob!” (Numbers 24:5) to my father-in-law asserting, “Anybody who camps in a tent when they can afford a hotel room is stupid!”?

While the Torah and Talmud cover arks and temples, neither mentions how to build them from mostly local resources, supplied by local energy and water, creating minimal waste — because until the Industrial Revolution, that’s how everyone built.

My father-in-law grew up in a rural Poland of locally-sourced wooden and brick buildings, horse-drawn carts, dirt roads, and no electricity.

IN the “developed” world now, however, we get building materials shipped from all over the globe, via petroleum-powered transport.

To build the swaths of roomy boxes that house us and our activities, and connect them by paved avenues, power, water and sewer lines, we first scrape away the very ecosystems that give us life — our oxygen, carbon sink, food, habitat, erosion control, and water filtration.

Then, we plug our creations into distantly-supplied, mostly fossil-fueled water and energy grids, and throw what’s left into landfills.

According to the current US Dept. of Energy’s Building Energy Databook, buildings alone consume 39% of our energy.

The UN Environment Program (UNEP) reports that buildings constructed before 1980 generally burn three times more energy than those built after 1980, and 20 times more than those built currently as “passive” structures, using well-designed, weather-sealed wall masses to contain heating and cooling energy.

The builders of the First and Second Temples used huge wall masses, but hadn’t the technology to “weatherize,” or seal them against airflows in and out.

Today’s temple builders have got the technology, but often don’t use it, even though 90% of buildinglifetime costs are decided in the design phase.

At a recent URJ conference, building committee members from several congregations told me that they lacked “green building” knowledge, feared it would cost too much or had gotten too far into the design process to make changes.

The Reconstructionist congregation in Evanston, Ill., spent $6.5 million to create America’s first LEED Gold-certified ‘green’ synagogue (see US Green Building Council (USGBC).

But, it is possible, for much less cost, to build or remodel a temple into a locally-sourced, resource-efficient, weatherized, insulated structure, illuminated by daylight, and free of harmful chemical materials. “Green” building is a matter of health, more than cost.

IF we can create buildings that use 95% less energy, keep people healthier, work better, cost less to maintain, last longer, sell faster on the market and hold tenants longer than standard structures, why aren’t we building everything that way?

If we’re concerned about fossil-fuel consumption, why aren’t we taking a page from Israel’s book, saving ourselves 100 million barrels of oil a year by requiring solar water heating on all southern US residential and small commercial buildings, from San Jose to Savannah, on-demand water heaters and solar and other natural electric energy options?

Members of the Technion Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning are moving in that direction with a residential building design that features a trellised, 10 x 10-foot greenhouse space for each apartment. It uses organic growing media such as coconut or peat, and a drip irrigation system supplied by recycled building water, and rainwater harvested from the rooftop.

In a way, building design is going “back to the future,” to create “living buildings” that bring Mother Nature back into our midst, along with our other guests. Fran Liebowitz speaks for many in asserting that she’s not the type who wants to get back to the land: “I’m the type who wants to get back to the hotel.”

And that’s our challenge: to make that hotel, and every other building as functional, natural, alive and welcoming as Abraham and Sarah’s tent.

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Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
Editor & Publisher

Shana R. Goldberg
Assistant Publisher