A view from the entrance to Kol Emeth's new sanctuary, looking straight at the Ark.
A view from the entrance to Kol Emeth's new sanctuary, looking straight at the Ark.

Palo Alto shul’s new building blends Biblical old and Silicon Valley new

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Congregation Kol Emeth’s new $30 million campus in Palo Alto is partially modeled on the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that God instructed the ancient Israelites to build in the desert.

Like that structure, it is twice as long as it is wide, and it includes a sanctuary and a courtyard.

Very much unlike the Mishkan, however, it has elevators, locked doors that open with keycards, security cameras and state-of-the-art video streaming equipment befitting a 21st-century synagogue in Silicon Valley. (Also, just to be clear, there is no sacrificial altar.)

Designed by Kol Emeth members Stan Field and son Jess of Field Architecture, the new-look synagogue includes striking concrete and glass structures that are supported by 12 pillars (representing the tribes of Israel) and covered in a wood lattice (milled from five species of Northern California trees). The lattice is meant to evoke the curtains inside the Mishkan and also serves as a “brise soleil,” deflecting sunlight and moderating the indoor temperature.

“Everywhere you look, you see some part of nature,” Stan Field, 77, said while leading a reporter on a tour of the campus, excitedly pointing out its unique characteristics like a proud father.

At the time, the synagogue was empty except for a single employee assembling mishloach manot (Purim gift bags) to be delivered to congregation members. Kol Emeth received its certificate of occupancy in March 2020, but the facility has not seen much use yet due to the pandemic. (“We want to have a huge, community-wide celebration when the time is right and it’s safe,” board president Marc Bader said.)

The exterior of Kol Emeth's new building features prominent landscaping and a wooden lattice along the building.
The exterior of Kol Emeth’s new building features prominent landscaping and a wooden lattice along the building.

Inside the light-filled sanctuary, Field explained that the dramatic, undulating ceiling was inspired by how a tallit looks atop a chuppah, while the black basalt wall tiles were cut to resemble the stones of the Western Wall. (During the 1980s, Field, a native of South Africa, served as the chief architect of Jerusalem.) The ark, he said, was constructed from a single piece of Italian limestone and had to be installed with a crane through a skylight.

“You’ll notice that there’s no art or words on the walls,” he noted. “That’s because I just wanted people to feel totally liberated in here.”

A Conservative synagogue with 600 member families, Kol Emeth was founded in 1957 and moved to its current location, on the border of Palo Alto and Los Altos, in 1965. As part of a strategic planning process that began a dozen years ago, the community decided to raze its entire campus and rebuild on the same spot. The project was financed through a capital campaign and grants.

Peter Wexler, a past president of the board and a member of the building project team, said the congregation had outgrown its old facility, which he compared to “a shtetl with little wooden buildings.”

“The original building was built at a time when they were just starting out as a young, Conservative synagogue in Silicon Valley, before it was even Silicon Valley,” Wexler said. “We grew by leaps and bounds, added more clergy and professional staff, and became something that deserved an upgrade.”

Architect Stan Field in Kol Emeth's new sanctuary. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Architect Stan Field in Kol Emeth’s new sanctuary. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

He credited Kol Emeth’s director of spiritual and lifelong learning, Sarah Miller, for the “minimal loss” of members during the two years the new facility was under construction. During this period (the community’s “diaspora years,” Miller said), the congregation gathered at other local synagogues — including Congregations Beth Am and Etz Chayim — at schools and at the Oshman Family JCC before going mostly virtual during the past year. (On Feb. 28, Kol Emeth will host a car-based scavenger hunt around Palo Alto in honor of Purim.)

In addition to the sanctuary, the new campus includes a social hall that seats up to 200, classrooms, offices, a kosher kitchen, a 120-car underground parking garage and a children’s playground built with guidance from the Magical Bridge Foundation, which designs accessible playgrounds for both children and adults of varying physical and cognitive abilities.

Rabbi David Booth, Kol Emeth’s senior rabbi, said the facility reflects the community’s values of inclusivity, humility — “we really intentionally picked the Mishkan story, not the Temple story” — and environmental responsibility: it’s energy efficient, LEED Platinum-certified and has a water reclamation system for irrigation.

Booth described the planning/building process as a positive one for the Kol Emeth community, despite the “diaspora” factor. “We used it as an opportunity to think about: Who have we been? And who are we now? And to begin to envision what’s possible for us, and think about new ways of reaching people,” he said.

Rabbi Sarah Graff, who has worked at Kol Emeth since 2001, praised the “community aspect of the architecture,” specifically the sanctuary’s seating in the round. “I love being able to see one another.” She hopes congregants will be “inspired by the natural beauty of the wood and sunlight and trees outside.”

Graff also is looking forward to Kol Emeth being able to host larger weddings and receptions than in the past. According to Risa Beckwith, the shul’s executive director, by opening glass doors that separate the sanctuary, courtyard and social hall, the spaces can be linked together to accommodate up to 1,000 people “during non-Covid times.”

At the end of the tour, after extolling the sanctuary’s acoustics and relating with no small amount of pride how he had rebuffed calls to install carpeting instead of the elegant white-oak flooring, Field looked across the empty seats and said, “When there are people sitting here, that’s what it’s all about. I can’t wait for that day to come.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.