Minnesota’s Largest Synagogue Gets Rare Energy Certification

There are nearly 200,000 projects worldwide that are certified by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a program of the U.S. Green Building Council. One of the newest LEED Gold-certified projects in Minnesota isn’t a fancy new building, but a renovation of a nearly century-old building. 

Temple Israel’s Emerson Campus was awarded the LEED certification, the first synagogue globally to earn that certification for an existing building, accomplishing part of the synagogue’s strategic plan that was adopted in 2018. Temple will celebrate the achievement at a dedication and Shabbat Service on Friday, April 12 at 5:45 p.m.

“It’s not all that hard to get a new building LEED certified; but less than 10% of LEED-certified buildings are existing buildings, and a lot of people don’t know that you can LEED-certify an existing building.” said Melissa Rappaport Schifman, a LEED accredited professional who was on the Temple Israel board during the strategic plan and stayed on as a LEED mentor through the process. “So if you look at an existing building, you are starting to measure everything that you do.”

Rappaport Schifman has a finance background, and as someone who has LEED-certified existing buildings in the area, has seen the financial statements of businesses before and after the certification.

“All of them have paid for themselves because you’re looking at how you’re operating the building,” she said. “There’s always opportunity for energy conservation, always opportunity for water conservation, and all you have to do is implement it.  And you get to benefit financially from saving these resources year after year.”

Rappaport Schifman said that what Temple implemented to improve efficiency cost less than $80,000 in engineering and upgrade costs over five years, and has led to annual savings of at least $40,000 per year on gas and electric bills. The project has paid for itself in less than two years. 

LEED is the most widely used green building rating system for buildings, homes, and communities which are designed, constructed, maintained, and operated for improved environmental and human health performance. Temple Israel was accepted as a USGBC Legacy Project, a program designed to support projects that will have a lasting impact on a community.

Rappaport Schifman said that LEED was started because of the impact buildings have on our health and the environment.

“Buildings are responsible for about 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions; electricity and gas to heat and cool and ventilate,” she said. “If you think about the purchasing and all of the stuff that comes in and out of buildings, the waste that is generated. 

“People tend to work and sleep and be indoors, and indoor air quality can be three to five times worse than outdoor air quality.” 

Years in the making

When Temple’s board approved the 2018 plan, it included what Rappaport Schifman said were “pretty aspirational sustainability goals”: Integrate sustainability, its practice across all of Temple Israel’s facilities programming, education, planning and operations, and to continue to upgrade Temple Israel’s facilities using a sustainability lens, including Camp TEKO. The next year she brought forward the ideas of getting to net zero carbon emissions and net zero waste by 2030, getting the Emerson Avenue campus LEED certified, and making Camp TEKO a sustainable camp.

The latter was accomplished when last October, Temple hosted an open house to show off the renovated Camp TEKO, which included significant ecological improvements, including solar panels on the new Discovery Center, 10 miles of underground piping for geothermal heating and cooling, and special gardens that collect runoff and clean the water before it flows back into Lake Minnetonka.

The solar panels are on louvers, which means they are adjustable. In the summer, they can be angled upwards to take advantage of the higher sun angle while also letting light into the Discovery Center. In the winter, they can be closed to capture sun that is at a lower angle while also helping to insulate the building.

A small solar panel array was added to the roof of the Emerson Campus building which powers the Ner Tamid at the synagogue.

The LEED certification process of the Emerson campus started after the idea was brought to the board, and that process was significantly hampered when the building closed in March 2020 because of COVID-19.

“We were on the path. [But you need] a full year’s worth of energy and water and waste data, and when the building shut down, we didn’t finish in time,” Rappaport Schifman said. “You can’t LEED-certify unoccupied buildings.”

Temple’s study period restarted in the summer of 2022 through 2023. After some back and forth with the U.S. Green Building Council, the certification was granted at the end of November.

The LEED scorecard awarded Temple 67 points out of 100. Facilities are awarded points in various categories including water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, material and resources, and indoor environmental quality. Temple earned 12 out of 14 points for “transportation performance” which promotes the use of alternative transportation methods.

Rabbi Marcia A. Zimmerman, Temple Israel’s senior rabbi, said this is another example of the congregation’s long-standing commitment to interpreting an ancient tradition in a way that has present-day impacts. 

“Judaism teaches us that God created human beings to be mindful stewards of our planet, not careless consumers,” Zimmerman said. “Working to achieve LEED Gold Certification was truly holy work, and our highest expression of Jewish values.”