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New Building, Same Vision

ATLANTA, Georgia, February 25, 2015 – Turning principles into action. Every organization strives to do this, but only the truly great ones succeed in doing so.

Turning principles into reality has been a mantra of the Young Israel of Toco Hills (YITH) since it first opened its doors in 1994. Whether it is the pursuit of spiritual and intellectual growth on the part of its members or its unwavering commitment to the State of Israel and the observance of its national holidays (Yom Ha’atzmaut, Yom Yerushalayim, Yom Hazikaron), the synagogue and its leaders have always understood the importance of “practicing what you preach.”

Some ten years ago, the synagogue faced what was both a unique challenge and a unique opportunity. The time had come to plan for and design a new building. The congregation even then was in need of more space, not just for communal prayers but also for classrooms and children’s activities.

Some questions were easily answered, such as how much money would be needed for the project and where the new building should be located. And so, committees were formed; money was raised; properties were purchased. However, the bigger question remained. How to design and build a space that would serve as the physical embodiment of our communal and religious values?

These were the questions Rabbi Adam Starr put before his board, and these were the ones he knew needed to be answered before any architect could put pen to paper. “For me, as community leader, it was critical that our building encompass not only the halakhic requirements of “ba’al tashchit,” that is, of not destroying or wasting, but also that it communicates to our neighbors and to the Jewish community throughout Atlanta the fact that we see ourselves as being fully engaged in a broad community of people and ideas. This meant efficient use of natural resources, smart building technologies, and appreciating the link between environmental and human health. For a Modern Orthodox shul, in particular, I felt that this was a charge worth pursuing vigorously.”

The shul’s Board of Trustees recognized the complexities involved in meeting such a mandate and soon turned to Kerri Snow to head its Building Committee. Kerri brought just the right mix of vision and experience needed for the project. She had designed and overseen the construction of numerous outlets for the high-end stereo and audio chain she and her husband Jeffrey had owned many years ago. More importantly, she had previously chaired the committee tasked with designing and building a new synagogue for Congregation Beth Tefillah in the late 1990s.

“It was clear that the Rabbi and the Board were not interested in ‘just another pretty building’,” said Kerri. “My committee therefore needed to figure out a way to craft a shul that ‘fit’ organically into neighborhood and that would be a source of pride not only for our members but for the entire Toco Hills neighborhood, Jews and non-Jews, observant and unaffiliated. In other words, it was very important to demonstrate our engagement with issues of broad concern, not only of parochial concerns to Orthodox Jews in Toco Hills.”

Or as Rabbi Starr summed it up, “we needed a building that reflected an ‘engaged Orthodoxy’ rather than a ‘cloistered Orthodoxy’.”

This notion of an engaged Orthodoxy had particular relevance for the YITH leadership, and after much thought and discussions with many members of the entire congregation, it was clear that it was time for a new type of building, one that reflected its values as a Modern Orthodox synagogue. In other words, what YITH needed and wanted was a green shul.

“The idea of a green shul truly resonated with us,” agreed Rabbi Starr and Kerri. Only a handful of new synagogues throughout the US have been built over the past decade with environmental sustainability certifications, with several receiving certification through the established Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program. Most of these congregations were denominationally affiliated as non-traditional (Reform, Reconstructionist) or Conservative; none have been Orthodox.

With the direction set for the project, the Building Committee turned to Kyle Epstein, AIA, a principal at Warren Epstein & Associates to design the new YITH synagogue and Gay Construction to build it. Both Kyle and Gay Construction had significant experience in building environmentally-certified buildings. “While the programmatic aims of this synagogue are decidedly intrinsic in addressing religious ritual, education and community programming for all ages,” Kyle noted, “the YITH leadership identified very early in the planning process that their new building should reflect values that intertwine religious principles with the exploration of intellectual and philosophical pursuits of the secular world. In defining that further, it was established that the project would adhere to teachings expressing the need to guard the Earth and addressing humanity's critical role in this endeavor. I was proud to help facilitate their vision throughout the design and construction of the new building.”

To supervise and certify this process, the YITH Building Committee chose to work with a non-profit organization based in Atlanta, Southface, that focuses on sustainable new and retrofit construction projects throughout the southeastern US. The Southface program, called EarthCraft, is similar to LEED and works according to a points-based system through which applicants qualify for certification by reaching a project-specific point total. An aspect of the EarthCraft program that was particularly appealing was its regional focus within the southeastern US and requirements that Southface engineers and architects work together with the YITH building team during planning, design and construction phases of the project and not just be there at the end to tally points and award certification. Although Southface has supervised 42 projects since 2009, the YITH project was their first house of worship. YITH was a unique project, according to Bill Abballe, manager of EarthCraft’s Light Commercial program and a trained architect who worked with the YITH building team. According to Bill, “their architect and contractor understood the sustainable goals of the project and worked together to achieve EarthCraft Light Commercial Gold. Only a few projects in the program have been able to achieve this level and YITH is only the house of worship to reach this level.”

Without question, all who have been to the finished project on Lavista Road will attest to the beauty and elegance of Epstein’s design. What they may not notice, at least without some prompting by a proud Rabbi and board members, include the following:

  • Highly energy-efficient HVAC systems that are supported, in part, from a grant we were awarded from the Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, a non-profit that provide material and informational resources to various communities of worship to implement greater energy efficiency in their congregations.
  • Reduced number of parking spaces on the premises to preserve a larger 'green footprint' on the property and encourage our congregants to walk. This required going before DeKalb County’s Planning, Zoning and Building Department and getting a variance approved. In order to do, Rabbi Starr met with the Pastor of the Intown Community Church and worked out a “parking lot sharing” agreement by which YITH members have access to space at the Church on all days, except Sunday. This reduction in parking made great sense because of the difference days of rest observed by the two communities and by the fact that YITH members, as part of an Orthodox congregation, live within walking distance of the synagogue.
  • Electric car charging stations
  • Highly efficient windows with special glazing to prevent indoor heat or cooling loss throughout the building
  • Increased use of locally-sourced building materials
  • Modifications to the physical structure of the roof to accommodate future installment of solar paneling.   
  • Click here for a complete list of points achieved to receive EarthCraft Gold-level certification from Southface

“What’s worth noting,” Kerri added, “was that doing the right thing and building a green shul did not cost much more than building a less-green design. In fact, in the long-run, our green design will save money.” And while the YITH leadership and its member are proud to be the world’s first environmentally-certified Orthodox synagogue, many of its members stress that the construction of a green shul is only the first step. For example, in December 2014, the YITH Board of Trustees approved the creation of a Vice President of Environmental Sustainability and Building Operations position for the incoming Board slate, and this individual will be charged with continuing the vision of promoting a range of new environmental initiatives.

The Young Israel of Toco Hills is an Orthodox congregation in Atlanta, Georgia founded in 1994 upon the ideology of rigorous modern Orthodox principles. Based on the normative halachic philosophy adhered to by many Orthodox Jews in America, and one that is particularly common among the students of The Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, the essential hashkafa of the Young Israel of Toco Hills focuses on three central values: robust, proactive involvement in the secular world, the religious significance of the State of Israel, and the pursuit by all members of the congregation of spiritual growth as manifested by the striving for increasing performance of mitzvot and the study of Torah.

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