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Baltimore’s Green Federation

By Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin

The stars aligned over Baltimore in 2006 when three serendipitous efforts, launched independently, eventually coalesced into one green network for Baltimore’s Jewish community.

The Associated’s Sustainability Department

The first project began when the local Jewish Federation, The Associated, assembled a cross-departmental committee to examine how to green its practices and operations. The green committee, made up of lay and professional leaders and headed by Rachel Siegal, an Associated vice president at the time, started by switching the building’s conventional bulbs to compact fluorescents and moved on to eliminate plastic water bottles. When it came time for The Associated to construct a new housing assistance building in 2010, the committee ensured that the new building would meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, leading to the building’s LEED certification.

And in 2011, The Associated became the first Federation in the country to develop a sustainability department, which will guide the community through the steps of creating and meeting specific sustainability goals and priorities.

Kayam Farm at Pearlstone

The second project started when The Associated’s Pearlstone Center, located just outside of Baltimore, hired a young farming couple. Jakir and Netsitsah Manela were alumni of the environmental education-focused Teva Learning Alliance and Adamah, the environmental and farming fellowship. The Manelas established Kayam Farm, which has become the most active Jewish community farm in America today, attracting more than 4,000 visitors annually.

Kayam’s programs, particularly its conferences on Jewish agricultural text study, attract people locally and from across the country. Kayam also hosts a community supported agriculture program that provides fresh produce to the community, as well as a summer long kollel — a group of people who learn together and discuss important questions — focused on Jewish agricultural laws.

Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network

The third project, the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network (BJEN), began as a group effort at Baltimore’s first Jewish environmental conference. As part of Pearlstone, BJEN became the umbrella organization of 14 environmentally minded congregations. BJEN member groups have committed to pursue specific steps toward sustainability and have partnered with The Associated, the local JCC and other agencies that are promoting and pursuing green behaviors, learning and advocacy. Jewish organizations seeking to green their operations now look to BJEN for guidance.

Passion, patience and persistence

Each project was born from a passion for positive change and a stubborn commitment to make that change possible. And each had a leader who invited others to join in the work. We presented visions of what could be, built grassroots organizational structures that could refine and pursue those visions, and plowed ahead without knowing how our efforts would be supported financially. Each effort took years to take root, attract funding and attain the technical knowledge needed to build a solid foundation. But patience, persistence and advocacy paid off.

While these are three discrete efforts, each grounded in its own domain and organizational structure, they are all stitched together, working with and for each other.

This happy confluence of initiatives, which began serendipitously, has merged into an intentional, strategic and holistic community wide approach. Our agencies and institutions are adopting new ways of operating that are more efficient, produce less waste and save money. There is a renewed sense of energy and engagement across all generations: From the JCC’s kindergarten to The Associated’s senior housing, people are planting gardens and restoring an appreciation of our dependence on the soil. Reconnecting to the Earth and the food it offers also reconnects individuals to each other and to the deeper strands of Judaism that bind them through and across the generations.

Our work is also taking us beyond the Jewish community by:

  • Working with local green builders to showcase green building efficiencies;
  • Advancing the city’s sustainability goals with Baltimore’s municipal sustainability office;
  • Partnering with local universities in research and application projects;
  • Joining with interfaith organizations to improve our country’s food system;
  • Working with the power company for energy retrofits and efficiency upgrades;
  • Improving water management and quality by dealing with local watershed and neighborhood associations;
  • Providing advice to businesses to make green consumer practices more affordable; and
  • Improving our recycling and composting performance, by consulting with waste disposal services.

In each of these arenas, novel partnerships are being forged. And Jews who never before found a home for themselves in the Jewish community are attracted by our efforts, coming forward and saying, “We want to help.”

There is still much to do, but much already has begun. It took dedicated leaders, committed financial supporters, persistent passion and creativity. And if there is anything the Jewish community has in abundance, it is all of these.


Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is the founder of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, which works to green synagogues and educate the wider Jewish community on environmental issues. Cardin was editor and chair of the editorial committee of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, and formerly served as director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore. She is the author of several books, including The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holiday and Life-Cycle Events, and Rediscovering the Jewish Holidays: Tradition in a Modern Voice. She received her ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The Jewish Energy Guide presents a comprehensive Jewish approach to the challenges of energy security and climate change and offers a blueprint for the Jewish community to achieve a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by September of 2014, which is the next Shmittah, or sabbatical, year in the Jewish calendar.

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