Gates Of Green

January 30, 2009

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


In the 1980’s I regularly attended meetings of our Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Committee. We tackled a number of significant issues:  Soviet Jewry, Anti-Semitism, abortion law, David Duke and more. But there was always one participant, Myron Katz, who was talking about the environment. We politely listened and then discussed the real issues. I had moved on from that issue by attending Earth Day at College, or so I thought.

It is not polite to speak badly of a classmate and colleague, but I have to tell you, I always considered Rabbi Warren Stone a bit of a nut. If he was not a “nut,” then he was a fanatic. Now I understand; he was a visionary. He was talking about the environment, ecology, energy preservation, and resource management, long before these topics were chic. To his credit, he has led his congregation, Temple Emanuel in Kensington, MD to be at the forefront of environmental activism and awareness. Even their web site is green ink! Through their programs and as they built their building, they did so with the environment in mind. As a result they have won numerous awards, including:

  • Caring for Creation Award of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment
  • “Green Menorah” Environmental Award
  • EPA Energy Star Congregation
  • National awards for Solar, Wind and Environmental Policies

They have also been featured on the Today Show after they rebuilt their synagogue making their sanctuary all natural with wood and other products, so that you feel as if you are in a tropical rain forest. Their Ner Tamid is powered by solar energy.

We can learn from Temple Emanuel by what they have already done and policies they have established. This includes: using thermostats more wisely and judiciously, dispensing fluorescent light bulbs to congregants, having a bike rack available for those who choose an alternative form of transportation to come to synaggoue, using flatware and biodegradable paper plates for Oneg Shabbatot, creating lessons for the religious school about the environment and our Jewish responsibilities, as well as programs for all the congregation. In addition, the Board of the synagogue has established a number of policies so that this is more than just changing light bulbs:

  1. Schedule an updated energy audit of the Temple’s facilities, seek regular audits every five years, and implement further energy conservation recommendations where feasible.
  2. Develop and implement a comprehensive landscaping plan for the Temple that takes advantage of native plant materials, avoids harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides, conserves water, and provides aesthetic and environmental benefits.
  3. Complete and maintain a small biblically-inspired garden on the Temple grounds, and develop an educational experience relating the plantings to major Jewish holidays. Use native plants as substitutes wherever possible.
  4. Work with the various Jewish and interfaith organizations to promote environmental stewardship at the local, regional, and national levels.
  5. Review and evaluate Temple recycling programs and improve/expand recycling where feasible, including the use of high recycled content paper in the Temple Offices and Religious School.
  6. Inventory and evaluate the cleaning products being used by the Temple, eliminate toxic cleaners, and substitute environmentally-friendly products where practical.
  7. Explore the possibility of using “greening” strategies in the selection of food and the disposal of waste.
  8. Working with the Rabbi and their Green Committee, to promote environmental awareness and education for all Temple members by:
    1. Conducting an annual Shabbat service with an environmental theme, and a Tu B’Shevat service with a focus on environmental appreciation and healthful foods.
    2. Arranging periodic service-related environmental readings at Shabbat services.
    3. Providing environmental study opportunities through adult education courses, coffeehouse programs, book reviews, speakers, etc.
    4. Incorporating the Jewish dimension of environmental stewardship into the religious school curricula, including lectures, field trips, readings, discussion, etc.
    5. Conducting a periodic workshop on Judaism and the environment for religious school teachers.
    6. Promoting carpooling and other transportation alternatives that improve air quality and reduce congestion and parking problems.
    7. Working with the Rabbi and the Social Justice Task Force, to pursue opportunities for environmental advocacy.

Of course we need to ask ourselves, what is the Jewish angle on environmentalism? All of this falls under the category of what we call Tikun Olam, repairing our world. I am not going to go into the debate over global warming and shrinkage of the ozone layer. I will not pretend to understand the science involved, though many others do.

There are more obvious concerns to address: depletion of natural resources, dependence upon fossil fuels, chemicals which are hurting our environment, landfills that are overflowing, the so-called carbon imprint that each of us makes on the world around us and I could go on.

There is also an ongoing theme in Jewish tradition that starts with the Book of Genesis (2:15). When God teaches us that we have the earth to “till and tend it,” the rabbis then teach that God said to Adam: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Everything that I created, I created for you. Take care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterwards.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7) Clearly caring for the world around us is a Jewish concern.

I’m pleased to say that our Gates of Green Committee, under the enthusiastic leadership of Susan Levin, who is out of town tonight or otherwise she would be with us, has begun moving our congregation in a similar direction. Many of the old adages still apply: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Specifically, we have ceased using Styrofoam cups, which most contend is non-biodegradable and instead we are using the ceramic cups leftover from last year’s gala, which have been sitting in boxes and gathering dust. Newspaper recycling is available by depositing newspapers only in the container in our parking lot. We are also being much more conscious of the kinds of plates, plastics and papers that we have in the building and when we choose to use them. This past summer we held an evening of Environmental awareness and the relation between God and God’s creation is part of our religious school curriculum. You will also note that in each monthly bulletin, there will be a helpful “green” hint.

I am looking forward to beginning recycling of paper, plastic and glass through the services of Phoenix Recycling. This will include all the junk mail, magazines, letters and envelopes that I regularly trash. We will have special receptacles throughout the building. It will cost us initially to retain the service, but there is the possibility that by reducing our waste, it will result in a lower cost for garbage removal. The goal however is Tikun Olam. Thus, if it costs a little more, so be it. Sadly, this recycling is only for what happens in the building. You cannot bring your paper, cans and plastics here.

Many of the items that Temple Emanuel is doing will be on our agenda for consideration. This includes an audit sub-committee, which will be working with our Temple Administrator Louis Geiger to evaluate energy consumption and product utilization throughout the building. If it is feasible, I would love to see us explore the possibility of solar energy to augment what we consume from Entergy. In all future projects, we will take into account the environmental impact of our actions. How about a bike rack?

This is just the beginning of what we will be doing at 4000 West Esplanade Ave., but what about in our homes? If you have not already replaced your old light bulbs with the new energy savers, by all means do so. The higher cost of the bulb is made up quickly with the amount of energy that you save.

We can lobby for the Parish to restart recycling, but in the meantime Phoenix recycling can come to your home every two weeks. It has truly bothered me to not be recycling since Katrina. I have felt guilty. $15 a month is a low price to assuage that guilt. I have also personally been conscious of my water consumption in the morning, when I brush my teeth and when I shave. The faucet really does not need to be running the whole time. You just have to adopt a different pattern. Let us be more conscious of how we use our cars and not allow the lower price of gasoline to blind us to the reality. We can walk more often or ride bikes. I know oil helps to fuel the Louisiana economy, but at least let us wean ourselves from dependence on foreign oil. Disconnect items like phone chargers from the wall when you are not using them; they are consuming energy for no purpose. Our parents were right all along; turn off the lights when you do not need them. Contrary to the myth, turning them back on does not require more energy, though I believe that it did have an impact on the filament of the old style of bulbs. As we purchase our next car or new appliances, let energy efficiency be one of the variables we consider. There are thousands of possibilities. It is simply a matter of educating ourselves and establishing a mindset that says, “I care about the world around me and I need to do my part to repair it.”

There is a classic Jewish folktale of two people fighting over a piece of land. Each claimed ownership. Finally they brought the dispute to the learned rabbi, who sat and listened, but could not render an opinion. Finally the rabbi said, “Since I cannot decide to whom the land belongs, let’s ask the land.” The rabbi put an ear to the ground, and after a moment stood up. “My friends, the land said it belongs to neither of you- but that you belong to it.”

And so, as we tackle this overwhelming subject, let us play our role in repairing the world. This is not an all or nothing proposition. Rather we should do as much as we can within reason. We are only limited by our creativity and commitment. For our rabbis teach, “It is not up to us to complete the whole task, but neither are we free to desist from fulfilling our share.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *