According to the Mishnah, in the hour when the Holy One created the first human being, God took Adam before all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “See my works, how fine and excellent they are! Now all that I created, for you I created. Think upon this, and do not corrupt and desolate my world; for if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28).
Faced as we are today with global warming and other environmental perils, we must ask ourselves: How can we make environmentally sound choices that preserve life? And what can we learn from Reform Jews, Reform congregations, and the Union for Reform Judaism about sustaining the planet for future generations?
Doing Green Environmentalist Martin Westerman, otherwise known as “Eco-Guy” at his synagogue, Congregation Kol HaNeshamah in Seattle, has written two books on greening, teaches businesses how to become greener, and says some unexpected things about how to conserve energy in our world. While, for example, most of us think that being green in the kitchen is using ceramic coffee mugs, Westerman points out that “on a lifecycle basis, the energy and greenhouse gas output embedded in using ceramic crockery (mining, manufacture, distribution, water, cleansers, storage, etc.) outweigh the lifecycle energy and greenhouse gas output of biodegradable paper goods, which, ideally, get returned to the organic waste stream and become soil to grow the pulp materials for more plates.”
Before “Eco-Guy” came to the rescue, Kol HaNeshamah’s food events, including weekly Shabbat potluck dinners, ended with food, paper goods, and plastic flatware dumped right into the trash. Now, making use of Seattle’s program to collect yard and food waste for composting, Westerman and others have arranged for the composting of nearly all food-related leftovers. Biodegradable dishes, cups, and napkins—made from corn syrup rather than petroleum, all available at competitive prices—go into the composter. Bottles and cans that can’t be composted are recycled. The end result is not only a much smaller carbon footprint but a financial windfall too—garbage output and associated costs have been cut by 50%. In addition, the congregation’s events are vegetarian, eliminating the greenhouse gas byproducts of meat processing.
The key to implementing eco-change, Westerman says, is to move people gradually away from their habits of overconsumption, with a minimum of personal discomfort. Make subtle changes first, he suggests, such as turning off the car engine if you’ll be idling for more than 30 seconds, replacing single-pane windows with double panes, and bringing your own grocery bags to the checkout stand. Hopefully, Westerman says, we will build an infrastructure in which preserving our world becomes “just the way we do things.”
Building Green Challenged by several failed attempts to purchase building sites, an unexpected rabbinic transition, finances, and more, it took Congregation Beth David in San Luis Obispo, California 25 years to construct a new building—but what a building it is! For decades, temple leaders had queried members about what to build and repeatedly heard the message: make it natural, with solar power and wind power. Today, Congregation Beth David sits on 92 pristine acres just outside the city limits and is the very first synagogue to be awarded Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
The facility’s overall design is much like a bagel, with a central interior courtyard as the “hole”—an ideal setting for outdoor activities on the windy site. Roof-mounted photovoltaic panels generate 50% of the building’s electricity; some walls are constructed with rice straw (the straw bales are reinforced with wire mesh and covered with cement and stucco to render them structurally sound); and recycled newspaper (pretreated to retard fire and resist mold) serves as insulation. Many windows, skylights, and natural daylighting account for nearly 100% of the building’s light, significantly reducing electricity use. Temperature sensors in each room and a customized computer program that automatically operates motorized windows ventilate the building naturally, without air conditioners. Both heat (which comes from gas fireplaces and wall-mounted room heaters) and air flow can be programmed independently. Outside, the grounds are landscaped with native plants.
“Going green is a real impetus to getting people engaged and involved, and a great source of pride to the entire congregation,” says Mike Blum, a past temple president who served as the site and building chair during the planning and construction period. The congregation now has a Green Shalom committee that promotes carpooling for temple events, recycling, paperless synagogue newsletters, and such green products as reusable grocery bags and water bottles (both of which are sold at the synagogue). Members of the congregation’s Green Havurah, Blum says, “have used sustainable concepts from our new building in remodeling their own houses.”
Many Models The greening of Reform congregations is a coast-to-coast phenomenon. According to a 2008 National Association of Temple Administrators survey, nearly 95% of Reform congregations in North America have investigated or initiated some form of greening their facilities; and of those that have engaged in major construction recently, 64% attempted to use sustainable materials. Here are just a few examples:
In New York City, Congregation Rodeph Sholom’s building systems have been transformed to conserve energy, fuel, and water. Congregants are repeatedly encouraged to follow suit through the “green” tips published in each temple newsletter, refrigerator magnets highlighting energy conservation tips distributed at 2007/5768 High Holiday services, reusable shopping bags disbursed at 2008/5769 High Holiday services, and environmental programming as part of the temple’s Mitzvah Weekend.
In Washington, DC, Temple Sinai’s “Environmental Committee” created a brochure, "Ten Things To Do This Summer To Help the Earth"(PDF), which offers congregants conservation tips such as “get regular [car] tune-ups (these can cut gas usage by 4%), properly inflate tires (3%), and avoid jack-rabbit starts and speeding (7–33%).”
In Tampa, Florida, Congregation Schaarai Zedek’s “Limud Zedek—Teaching Righteousness Committee” partnered with nearly every Jewish organization in Tampa as well as environmental organizations to host a Global Warming Forum designed to educate and inspire the Jewish community to take action on key energy issues. Its handout, “What You Can Do To Reduce City-Wide Global Warming and Support the Environment,” recommends “turn[ing] off and/or unplug[ging] electronics from the wall when they’re not being used. Even when turned off, hair dryers, cell phone chargers, and televisions use energy. In fact, the energy used to keep display clocks lit and memory chips working accounts for 5% of total energy consumption.”
In Rye, New York, Community Synagogue’s “Green Team” purchases eco-friendly cleaning supplies as well as paper towels and toilet paper made from recycled waste. Tuesday is “no energy” night, during which no functions or meetings are held. And a new organic flower garden on synagogue grounds will supply flowers for synagogue functions. All the while, explain “Green Team” co-chairs Frances Ginsberg and Lisa Sandler, “We endeavor to teach our community not just what we can do as stewards of the earth, but why we need to do it, both as Jews and as citizens of the world.”
In Kensington, Maryland, Temple Emanuel published a “Green Shalom Action Guide” featuring ecologically responsible actions to make members’ homes more environmentally friendly, supports reforestation projects that reduce CO2 emissions and benefit ecosystems, and composts waste from the temple’s on-site gardens.
In Austin, Texas, Congregation Beth Israel maintains a paper-recycling dumpster in the parking lot which is also used by the larger community.
In Erie, Pennsylvania, Temple Anshe Hesed is set to become a carbon neutral facility in 2009—and, when the initiative is complete, it will be the first carbon neutral synagogue in the United States. According to Eric Pallant, the congregation’s treasurer and a professor of environmental science at Allegheny College, to offset Anshe Hesed’s carbon footprint (36.5 tons in 2007, to be offset at $85.50 per ton of CO2, a total cost to the congregation of approximately $6,200), the temple installed compact fluorescent light bulbs, retrofit portions of its energy system, and acquired solar panels for a dormitory roof from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel (with which the temple has an ongoing relationship). The panels, which are set to be installed this spring, will offset carbon emissions in amounts equal to Anshe Hesed’s unavoidable carbon emissions.
In Short Hills, New Jersey, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun initiated a comprehensive greening program that included posting “No Idling” signs by the car pool line to reduce vehicular emissions.
In Los Gatos, California, Congregation Shir Hadash’s installation of a solar photovoltaic power system has reduced electricity use by 45% and reduced carbon emissions by the equivalent of driving a passenger car approximately 32,000 miles.
And in Beverly Hills, California, Temple Emanuel has retrofitted its fluorescent lighting with more efficient bulbs, saving the congregation $1,500 in lighting per month.
Green Camping Each of the Union for Reform Judaism’s 12 North American camps is also moving toward renewable energy. At the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute’s new aquatic center in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, solar panels to be installed later this spring will help heat the pool water, and solar blankets will conserve the heat overnight. In Bruceville, Texas, Greene Family Camp’s solar hot-water heaters work in conjunction with electrical heating systems in all residential facilities. Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California is collecting and storing rainwater for irrigation and installing photovoltaic systems aiming for “net zero” energy use in future buildings. Partnering with Faiths United for Sustainable Energy (FUSE), the camps are also engaged in recycling, teaching campers about energy conservation, and more. “In the years to come,” says Greene Family Camp director Loui Dobin, “these seemingly small steps will have a tremendous impact on the children and grandchildren of today’s campers.”
Eating Green—A Reform Jew’s Journey About 12 years ago, David Crohn, a longtime member of Temple Beth El in Riverside, California and an associate professor of environmental sciences at UC Riverside, became a vegan—a way for him to observe kashrut in light of Jewish tradition’s concern for animals, to protect the earth, and to support his own personal health. “Judaism is very food-oriented, and what you eat is intensely meaningful and personal,” he says. “Plus, animal agriculture is thought to be the single greatest contributor to the anthropogenic greenhouse gases that affect global warming. In the United States, too, it is usually much less efficient to grow food and give it to animals as feed than it is to grow other foods that can be eaten directly by humans.”
Crohn encourages other Jews to consider adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. There “will be things you miss,” he says, “and if you need to have something, eat it—it’s not a big deal. Take your time, cutting back gradually, and find good vegan and vegetarian cookbooks to help you along the way.”
Green Resources for Home & Temple In 1991, the Union for Reform Judaism’s General Assembly passed a historic resolution calling upon the Reform Movement to provide specific environmental guidance to congregations and congregants to preserve the planet. Here are some of the ways the Movement can now help you make environmentally sound choices.
The Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and the Department of Synagogue Management’s website "Greening Reform Judaism" serves as the Union for Reform Judaism’s green point of entry. You’ll find backgrounders on climate change; text studies for educators and lay leaders (including lessons on climate change and conserving energy from the CHAI Learning for Jewish Life curriculum); green “best practices,” including a room-by-room greening guide for synagogues; congregation case studies; an architecture guide; funding sources; environmental audit guidelines designed for small congregations; and more. Seasonally, you’ll discover a Chanukah-related guide to green your lifestyle from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a cofounder of the premier Jewish environmental organization Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life; and the Association of Reform Zionists of America / Kibbutz Lotan’s joint resource packet, “Make Sukkot a Truly Green Holiday,” which features guidelines for hosting an eco-friendly Sukkot dinner.
When it comes to preserving and protecting the earth, our most sacred inheritance, we all have a role to play. Using cloth grocery bags in the market, carpooling to and from work, recycling, installing solar panels, composting…in all these ways and others we ensure that we, and, in turn, our children and our children’s children, can choose life.
Jane E. Herman is a writer and assistant to Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.