Home / Resources / Greening Synagogues- Synagogue Grounds

Greening Synagogues- Synagogue Grounds


  • Grounds
  • Pesticides
  • Native Plants
  • Creating a Habitat
  • Parking
  • Compost
  • Gardens
  • Lawn Equipment

“When you come into the land, plant all manner of trees…” — Leviticus 19:23

“The Holy Blessed One said to the people of Israel: ‘Even though you will find the land bountiful, do not decide to sit and not sow. Rather, be very diligent in planting. Just as you found planting done by others when you arrived, so, too, you are to plant for future generations.’” — Midrash Tanchuma, Kedoshim 8

Most of the land that synagogues and other Jewish communities hold in trust, besides a few dense urban areas where buildings fill entire plots, is not built upon – but our synagogue grounds are walked upon, paved and driven over, played on, planted, and admired, reviled, or ignored. Are we being good stewards of this gift of good land?

The choices that synagogues make about landscaping carry many serious implications:

Budgetary: native plantings need less water, maintenance, and artificial treatments to thrive, and are better for the local environment. Creative use of topography, building site, drainage, etc. can save on water bills, and potentially displace other expenditures on retention ponds, re-grading, basement repairs, and more.

Health: the fewer chemicals put on the grounds – pesticides and herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and the like – the more comfortable we can be about letting our children play there.

Environmental: as more and more of our metropolitan areas get made over in people’s image, we can use synagogue grounds to create pockets of native habitat for the grasses and trees, flowers and ferns, birds and butterflies which once were all over our area.

Educational: mini-gardens are great places to teach about the Jewish agricultural laws and traditions, which are at the core of our tradition; they can also showcase biblical species, or be used for season- and holiday-specific planting projects. Composting can be an object lesson in the life cycle. And choices made by synagogues are always educational, since they model what members can do in their homes, offices, schools, and lives.

Aesthetic: “Wild” landscaping, with just a bit of creative human intervention, can be breathtakingly beautiful! We need sacrifice nothing to be good stewards of the land.

Pesticides, Herbicides, etc.: Don’t poison your land! Learn how to avoid the worst chemicals here.

Native Plants: Make sure your landscaping plan takes into account what naturally grows best in your region – and what’s most needed. While you’re at it, turn your synagogue grounds into a real refuge using the resources of the National Wildlife Foundation  – where your synagogue grounds can even get accredited as a sustainable backyard habitat!

Parking Lot, and Parking Alternatives: Many synagogues cover more land with asphalt for driveways and parking, than with the building itself. Learn strategies for minimizing the environmental impact of your parking lot – along with ideas for carpooling, ridesharing, and other alternatives to driving to shul in the first place (not to mention good old walking!). 

Composting: The cycles of life and death, decay and rebirth, are nowhere clearer than in a compost heap. Prevent hundreds of pounds of yard waste, trimmings, and food leftovers from wasting away in a landfill; instead, turn that into the richest, sweetest, healthiest soil you can imagine. It’s much easier than you think; kids will really get into it; and if you’re ambitious, members can “contribute” to the heap as well!

Mishnah Gardens: Since so much of our tradition is agricultural, and the entire first of six orders of the Mishnah is called Z’ra’im (Seeds), use a chunk of your land to practice sustainable agriculture! Feed yourselves, and those in need, while learning learning hands-on about vital aspects of our tradition. While you’re at it, check out some exciting new initiatives in Jewish sustainable agriculture, like the Adamah program at Connecticut’s Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, or Farmer D’s Atlanta-based Gan Chaim project.

Lawn Equipment: Few things pollute as much as a typical lawnmower, weed-whacker, or other gas-powered lawn implement. The short answer is to avoid two-stroke motors or any other small gas engine, and to use electric or rechargeable equipment wherever possible. Find out more here.

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The fewer chemicals, the better. That’s the bottom line of lawns. Only a handful of common pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers have been fully tested for human safety (even fewer for children’s safety), and studies simply can’t be done on all the possible multiple interactions and cross-effects of the some 130,000 synthetic compounds now in commercial use. And humans, as a relatively large organism, have a somewhat higher tolerance for chemicals than do our smaller friends — frogs, birds, insects, butterflies, and other visitors or residents on our synagogue grounds. So for our safety and for that of our mini-ecosystem, drop the chemicals.

Luckily, alternatives are in place. We recommend Beyond Pesticides (formerly the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides) for information on challenges and alternatives, along with the Pesticide Action Network, Washington Toxics Coalition, and other fine groups. Beyond Pesticides says this about lawn care:

Lawn Care: Pesticide Hazards and Alternatives

Public concern over the potential hazards associated with chemical lawn care products and services has been on a steady rise. And with good reason. Annually, 67 million pounds of lawn pesticides are used in and around homes and gardens, and in industrial, commercial and government settings. Alarmingly, suburban lawns and gardens receive far heavier pesticide applications per acre than most other land areas in the U.S., including agricultural areas.

Worse yet, these hazardous chemicals that are continually applied to our lawns and gardens have been found tracked into our homes. One recent study found residues of the toxic herbicide 2,4-D contaminating indoor air and surfaces, exposing children at levels ten times higher than preapplication levels.

Such widespread use and exposure is alarming considering that of the 36 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 14 are probable or possible carcinogens. Additionally, 15 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 24 with neurotoxicity, 22 with liver or kidney damage, and 34 are sensitizers and/or irritants.

Beyond Pesticides is working to halt such senseless exposure and encourage use of least toxic and non-toxic lawn care practices. Activists play an extremely important role in lawn pesticide reform, and Beyond Pesticides continually provides resources to educate the public on the hazards of these chemicals and on existing alternatives to them. These resources include testimony, fact sheets, studies and GAO reports.

For consumers, in addition to the wealth of information on alternatives, Beyond Pesticides has put together a growing directory of companies that are interested in providing the least-toxic services that are currently in demand. The Safety Source for Pest Management can be used for pest problems in homes, commercial sites, schools, parks, golf courses, and more. This is our free service to people interested in managing their pests without poisoning themselves, their families or environment, and to the pest management companies that give them this option.

Another idea comes from the COEJL Program Bank:
Return to Eden: Lawn and Garden Care – The Low-Impact Way

Native Plants

Whether or not your synagogue seeks certification as “backyard habitat,” for more information on planting native species on your grounds, start with the National Wildlife Federation. They, and other secular organizations, have all the information you’ll need to make your synagogue grounds as sustainable as possible. Just remember that what you’re doing as rooted in Jewish values — the propagation of species “after their kind” (Gen. 1:11ff), the law of not wasting (bal tashchit), and the preservation of the “order of creation” (seder beresheet). 

Whatever you do, avoid the one-species carpet of “ChemLawn” grass, which depends entirely on chemical inputs — such lawns can be as bad for children’s health and for synagogue finances as they are for the water, soil, plants, and animals near the synagogue. One COEJL-connected activist, Dena Wild, wrote the following on the COEJL Kol-Chai list-serv (June 2004):

“…consider reducing the size of the lawn or removing it entirely. Trying to achieve or maintain the ideal lush green lawn requires abundance of water, multiple applications of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, not to mention all the hard work. Much has already been discussed about the precious commodity of water which becomes even more precious during the summer drought conditions. Chemical run off from lawns affecting water quality is a well documented problem.

There are alternatives to the lush green weed-less lawns. Use native ground covers in lieu of grass. Be more tolerant of weeds; they are green too and many of them are eatable herbs.

If you must have a lawn, the at least learn the proper grass species for your locale and correct installation and maintenance procedures by contacting your local County Extension Office. Correct installation and maintenance will save money and the environment. As a Master Gardener in Boulder County, Colorado and now in Orange County, Florida, I have seen too often the costly effects of the wrong type of grass, poor installation too much water, etc.

Removing or reducing the size of your lawn is a small step, but the impact on the local environment can be significant.”


Internal combustion engines, while helping us get from point A to point B in reasonable time, nonetheless emit carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, benzene, and other pollutants which are toxic to humans and other creatures. These are the primary source of urban smog, and a major contribution to such public health and ‘environmental justice’ challenges as childhood asthma and respiratory problems among the elderly. Renewable or ‘alternative’ fuels, such as methanol / ethanol (either of which offsets just a fraction of the total pollutant load) and water (which, when energy is applied to it via electrolysis, can be the source of portable hydrogen which burns cleanly in small engines), may one day provide the energy necessary to propel modern society. But for now, progress is measured in small yet meaningful increments, with hybrid vehicles marking a good start…

Walking and Biking
Walking and biking improve the health of our environment as well as the individual. Installing bike racks, storage lockers, and showers can help considerably. Be creative with funding by involving local bike shops and other small businesses. For example, the public bike racks in Princeton, New Jersey, were donated by a local bike shop.

Mass Transit
Most metropolitan areas have the benefit of a broad bus system, and often of a well-developed light-rail system as well. Your institution can be a resource for people interested in using these systems, as well as an advocate for their expansion and their affordability (often through interfaith coalitions such as the Industrial Areas Foundation, Gamaliel, DART, and PICO). Meanwhile, learn what subway / light rail / Metro station and bus routes are closest to your facility and to your population centers — and always have bus schedules available for callers and visitors. Most mass transit systems offer additional services for citizens with disabilities, or the elderly; familiarize yourself with the local options. Increasingly, various locations in the U.S. offer FlexCar and ZipCar programs for short term (hourly use) driving needs, often connected to the bus / subway system. 

High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes were developed to encourage people to carpool, with employers adding other incentives such as reduced-rate parking and “up-front” spaces for carpool vehicles. Other benefits of carpooling include less driving (work) per person, monetary savings from using less fuel, less damage to air quality, and the joy of a more social experience on the way to work or school. Religious institutions can encourage carpooling to share trips to the place of worship and religious school. Those synagogues and other facilities located in denser neighborhoods, or where overflow parking is a sore spot with neighbors, might consider “HOP” — High Occupancy Parking — where the nearest few rows of spots are “reserved for vehicles carrying two (three?!) or more people.”

Vehicle Maintenance
This applies directly to any vans or cars the synagogue might own, but is also here as the basis for projects the youth group, sisterhood, men’s club, or social action committee might sponsor, along the lines of “clean it up, all the way from home to shul and back.” First, read your owner’s manual. It outlines recommended maintenance intervals, product specifications, and operating procedures, and also explains the emission control system’s warranty. Contact the manufacturer or a local dealer to obtain a copy of the manual if you do not have one. Some items need regular checkups and periodic replacement: air filter, vacuum and coolant hoses, oil, oil filter, fluids, belts, etc. Keep tires inflated to the recommended pressure to minimize tire wear and maximize fuel economy (this alone can make a difference of one to three miles per gallon). To find out about the savings associated with fuel-efficient vehicle use, visit the Fuel Cost Calculator.

New Resources
Texas Transportation Institute Urban Mobility Study
National Transit Database Annual Report
EPA Small Engine Emission Standards
EPA Green Vehicles Guide
EPA Transportation and Fuels
DOT National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
EPA/DOT Best Workplaces for Commuters

Greener Transportation
U.S. transportation sector emissions are one of the most significant contributors to the growth of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere (the cause of global warming) as well as local air pollution. Lessening our driving can be an important component of a synagogue greening strategy. Options include:

Carpooling: Carpooling sites include AlterNet rides and Carpool World. Also a new group called Space Share has begun working with synagogues on carpooling for the High Holy Days and other high-traffic times.

Car cooperatives

Use of more efficient vehicles: hybrid vehicles and other innovations. Write to the automakers telling them that as a matter of conscience and of faith, you want to be able to choose more fuel-efficient vehicles than are now on the lot.

Alternative Transportation: bicycle, walking, mass transit – you can even advocate as a shul for better bus service in the neighborhood near the synagogue, and elsewhere.


Adapted from resources assembled for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, November 2002:

Composting / Gardening
Composting is a vital part of sustainability – it diverts organic waste from the waste-stream (landfills or incineration), and converts it into healthy soil. Composting can be incorporated into the synagogue setting fairly easily. The Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia uses the dirt produced by their composting to plant an Israel garden on the grounds of the synagogue. Gardening can also be an important way to connect the synagogue to its environment. Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Pittsburgh has one of the country’s most extensive Biblical gardens. Additional resources for composting include:

The U.S. Composting Council, a trade and professional organization promoting compost.
Earth 911, an organization dedicated to providing information on backyard composting
Mastercomposter, a web site that gives information on bins, tools and many other issues. It can connect you to the master compost program nearest you and answer your questions via its message board.
EPA’s composting web page provides additional background information on regulations, educational web sites, and publications.
Adapted from COEJL Program Bank, “To There It Returns: Compost” (a 45-minute interactive, educational program for all ages)

1) Collecting “trash” —15 minutes

Take the children outdoors. With gloves or small plastic bags on their hands for safety reasons, have them collect items that have been used before (candy wrappers, leaves, apple cores, “garbage”). Ask them to also collect some soil and leaves or grass clippings. When you return to class, have the children talk about what they have collected and how these things have been used by people, plants, or animals in the past, before becoming “garbage.”

2) Studying cycles — 15 minutes

Read the following verse from Ecclesiastes:

“All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place from which the water flows, there it returns.” (Ecclesiastes 1:7)

Ask participants to discuss briefly what it means for the water, or for other organic material, to return from where it came. Take a look at the recycling symbol; why was it chosen?

Discuss some of the following points:

What is “garbage?” Is it good for anything?

Discuss what “biodegradable” and “compost” mean. (Biodegradable: human-made material that can break down into small, organic parts with the aid of natural weathering processes and bacteria. Compost [noun]: the rich organic material created when materials such as leaves grasses, manure, and food, are broken down by bacteria; can be used as garden fertilizer; [verb]: to prepare material so that it will become compost)

What parts of our garbage could be “naturally recycled” (composted) and returned directly to the soil (leftover food, clippings, other organic materials)? What parts need to be sorted out and recycled in other ways (aluminum, glass, plastic, paper)?

What happens to garbage that doesn’t decompose and isn’t or can’t be recycled? (It can remain garbage for millions of years!)

3) Making the compost — 15 minutes

Cut the tops off the plastic bottles and punch a few holes in the sides to let the contents breathe. Make two sorts of bottles. In one, layer the bottle with the soil, the food, leaves, and more soil. In the second, put non-biodegradable trash, such as candy wrappers, metal, etc. Stir the contents of each bottle, and set the bottle on a tray to catch the water that drains out. Date the bottles and place them in a warm place. Label which bottle has what type of “garbage” in it. You can have the children draw the recycled symbol and place it on the bottle.

Ask the children what they think will happen in the bottles. Check the bottles periodically over the next weeks and months. After about two months, the contents of the bottle with food should turn into a rich compost that can be used as fertilizer in a garden.

4) Next steps — ongoing

This composting experiment can be used to start an ongoing composting and recycling program in the synagogue, or to kick-off the planting of a synagogue garden. See the other programs in this section for more details. Most gardening stores and many local nature centers will be glad to help you learn how to compost on a larger scale. Vermiculture (worm keeping) is another option. Worms are clean, don’t smell, easy to contain and highly portable.


Adapted from the COEJL Program Bank:
“Starting an Urban Garden:
Peah Gardens / Corner Plots”

The two parts to this program — (1) the actual setting up of a synagogue garden and (2) advocating, through the synagogue, for urban gardening in your area — are basically independent of each other, although a synagogue with its own garden tends to be a more effective advocate for urban gardening. (Note: A nearby church or other institution might be interested in doing this project cooperatively, thus easing the burden on both groups.)

In either case, the tradition, from Leviticus (19:9-10), of leaving the corners of fields unharvested to that the poor can gather fresh food in dignity is in important underlying motivation for a synagogue’s involvement in gardening. You may wish to study this text, or Mishnah Peah, before starting on a gardening project, and a sign with a quote from Leviticus designating your gaden as a “Peah Garden” is a wonderful way to publicize your garden.

1) Starting a Synagogue Garden

If your synagogue owns any unpaved land, you have all you need to start a synagogue garden. Before planting, you should plan on how food harvested from the garden will be distributed. Will synagogue members carry the harvest to a local food pantry? Is the synagogue located centrally enough so that you can invite poorer members of your community to harvest what they need directly? Does the synagogue run its own food pantry or have plans for starting one in the near future?

Next, access your human power resources. Will students from your schools be involved in a regular basis? (Make sure they study the text from Leviticus!) Is there any teacher or other staff person willing to supervise the students’ gardening efforts? Do you have any gardening experts in your congregation?

Finally, draw up a realistic budget. How much will you be able to spend on seed? Soil? Fertilizer? Mulch? Garden equipment? Water? A representative from a local gardening store will most likely be happy to come out and speak with your gardening committee to recommend appropriate plants and equipment.

Once your planning is complete, you should have a reasonable idea of the size of garden you want to start with and the difficulty of crops you want to grow. (Remember that you can always expand next year if your garden is a success!) Try to emphasize organic pest control (e.g., using ladybugs) and, whenever possible, tie the garden into synagogue composting efforts (see ”Compost” program).

When you are ready to harvest and distribute the food from your garden, you might think about contacting the local Jewish and secular press – synagogue gardens typically receive very positive coverage. Assess your successes and failures.

2) Promoting Urban Gardening

As satisfying as a synagogue garden can be, it is sometimes even more satisfying to be part of an effort to promote urban gardening in your area. In an urban garden, a city, some other governmental entity, or a private donor lets interested people, typically poor residents, use a plot in a designated piece of land to garden. Urban gardens typically turn the eyesores of vacant lots into sources of neighborhood pride, even as they help poor families improve their nutrition and save money.

To promote urban gardening in your area, first find out what efforts are already under way. If an effective coalition of civic groups and local government representatives is already in place, you may simply want to join in. If no such coalition exists, you may want to find allies, such as churches in predominantly poor African-American or Hispanic-American neighborhoods. Environmental Justice groups also may join your cause.

To be truly effective, the designated piece of land must first of all be easily accessible to its target audience. It must be large enough to give small plots to all, or at least many, interested people. The land should be appropriate for gardening; it should receive proper amounts of sun and shade, and the soil itself needs to be relatively free of toxins found in some urban soils. Finally, there must be some relatively easy way to water the plots.

Some urban gardens have faced theft problems. Again, the Levitical tradition can help. Many gardens put up a fence around the plots of the gardeners. Some land lies outside the fence; everyone who has a plot has to donate some time to working this communal land. A sign is posted on the communal land explaining the tradition of leaving the corners unharvested and inviting all who are in need to take what they need from the communal land.

Lawn Equipment

As of 1997, the US Environmental Protection Agency had implemented a regulation that establishes emission standards for small spark-ignition engines of 25 horsepower (19 kW) or less. These newer engines will cut emissions by two-thirds or more — but that’s still not enough. If your synagogue grounds absolutely require gas-powered equipment, make sure it’s a four-stroke motor, rather than the woefully inefficient two-stroke (which mixes gas for power with oil for lubricant, burning neither one well or cleanly).

Best of all, you can employ electric alternatives, both cordless-rechargeable and corded (electricity coming through the grid, though still causing considerable pollution, is vastly more efficient than trying to power portable equipment through a tiny motor). This is an absolute must for leaf-blowers, trimmers, and other light equipment. Electric push-mowers are both cost-competitive and effective for smaller lawns; for larger lawns, new golf-course style riding-mowers are pricier, but worth it.

Make your synagogue a good neighbor, and a good citizen of Earth, by going electric for all your lawn care needs.

A conventional lawn mower pollutes as much in an hour as 40 late model cars.
— source:
Air Quality Management Division, Los Angeles & Orange Counties, CA

“On the links, zero-emission riding mowers are making it possible for some Southland golfers to tee off earlier. Ransomes Cushman Ryan, a Lincoln, Nebraska-based manufacturer, has developed an emission-free, battery-powered riding mower to trim golf course greens. The electric mower runs for up to three hours on one charge, enough to trim 18 greens. Because they are quiet like electric cars, course operators can run them before dawn without disturbing neighbors. This allows avid golfers to begin play at sunrise and local golf course business owners to improve their bottom line with additional greens fees for that early morning use.”
Air Quality Management Division, Los Angeles & Orange Counties, CA

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