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Engaging Teens in St. Louis

By Gail Wechsler

Israel isn’t the only place where Jews can plant trees. Every year, members of the Jewish Environmental Initiative, a committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, plant trees here in St. Louis. Over the years, we have planted hundreds of trees, often partnering with groups from other faiths and engaging community members of all ages. In 2011, we joined with the First Baptist Church of Elmwood Park to plant trees in memory of Alfred Kahn, a Jewish environmental leader who co-founded the Jewish Environmental Initiative, and Ida Scott, an African-American community leader from the Elmwood Park neighborhood.

Launched in 1999 with an initial focus on planting trees, the Jewish Environmental Initiative today addresses energy efficiency, climate change and the local food movement. One of our group’s major activities is “Project Noah: A Week for the Environment.” It’s held every autumn during the week that the story of Noah and the flood is read from the Torah. We send materials to area congregations and day schools and encourage them to engage in environmentally themed programs during the week. We also organize a community event — such as visiting a green certified building and touring a family owned organic farm — and a how-to workshop, such as how to bike in and around St. Louis, and how to buy or make environmentally friendly cleaning products.

From May through October, the Jewish Environmental Initiative is a partner of Hazon’s local community supported agriculture (CSA) program, whose members pre-purchase a share of produce from a local, organic farm and receive seasonal vegetables from the farm every week.

In 2009 we started a teen group for students in grades 8 to 12. The teens select their own projects and research and implement them. One of the teens’ first activities was to develop a PowerPoint presentation called “Greening Your Synagogue,” presenting their findings — which included reducing paper use, increasing recycling and eliminating Styrofoam use — to synagogues.

“Having the teens talk to us reinvigorated us,” said Bev Fogelman, chair of Congregation Brith Sholom Kenesth Israel’s Social Action Committee. “Because the teens offered specific solutions to issues that had come up in the past, we were able to do a little follow-up research on our own and now we are completely Styrofoam free.”

And after the teens’ presentation, Central Reform Congregation introduced single stream recycling — all types of recycling are intermingled in one container and sorted at the waste disposal facility. The ease of eliminating on-site sorting leads to higher recycling rates. As a result of the teens’ research, the synagogue discovered that it could convert to single stream recycling using its same trash hauler and without any increases in cost.

In 2010, the teens added to their presentation a focus on the importance of growing native plants and using rain barrels to save water from roof gutters. The Jewish Environmental Initiative teens also launched an annual event to sell native plants and raffle rain barrels.

“I joined JEI because I believe that it’s our responsibility not only as people but as Jews to work to protect the Earth,” said Jenny Koshner, who graduated from the teen program last year. “I hope the JEI can help the Jewish community to understand exactly why it is so important to care about the environment.”

Follow-up online:
Jewish Environmental Initiative
JEI’s Planet Jewish blog

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Gail Wechsler is director of domestic issues and social justice at the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, and a staffer of the council’s St. Louis Jewish Environmental Initiative. She also staffs the interfaith Community Against Poverty Coalition and the Jewish Fund for Human Needs, which provides grants to non-Jewish agencies that help at-risk populations. Wechsler has a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, a law degree from New York University and a master’s of library science degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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.

The Jewish Energy Guide is part of COEJL’s Jewish Energy Network, a collaborative effort with Jewcology’s Year of Action to engage Jews in energy action and advocacy. The guide was created in partnership with the Green Zionist Alliance.

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