By Evonne Marzouk
Our synagogues are places of worship, community and social action — but, unfortunately, they also often waste significant amounts of energy and other resources. Implementing energy saving campaigns in our synagogues is an important step we can make in helping to protect the environment. In addition to technology improvements, there is also an opportunity for changing attitudes and behaviors within your Jewish community.
You can use Jewish holidays, and Hanukkah in particular, to teach your fellow congregants about the connections between energy use and Jewish tradition. Many Jewish holidays present themes that can allow us to explore our responsibility to protect the environment. During these times of the year, Jewish communities can organize programs and learning opportunities to help participants connect more deeply to the environmental themes within our tradition. For example, the holiday of Sukkot includes a strong water theme, and the time period of counting the Omer, between Passover and Shavuot, includes connections to the land of Israel. Of course, the holiday of Tu B’shvat is filled with meaning about trees, their fruit, and the abundance of blessing in the world for which we can be grateful.
The holiday of Hanukkah is another opportunity to reflect upon Jewish wisdom as it relates to our natural resources, energy in particular. Hanukkah revolves in large part around a miracle related to olive oil. In biblical and Talmudic times, olive oil — used for light, heat, fuel and food — was a very important renewable resource for energy. The limitations on this resource often posed problems in ancient times, just as modern limits on availability of energy resources pose a problem today.
The traditional Jewish relationship to olive oil can teach us much about how we can relate to energy. For example, it’s interesting to reflect that the reason Hanukkah lasts eight days was because that was how long it took to create a pure batch of renewable olive oil. One of the miracles of Hanukkah — the energy that lasted longer than expected — can remind us of the need to conserve our own energy resources.
Synagogues and schools can use the opportunity of Hanukkah to organize programs that highlight the precious nature of energy, the importance of protecting it, the environmental consequences of our energy use, and the Jewish mitzvah of bal taschit — not wasting.
For example, this topic can be playfully but meaningfully introduced at a children’s Hanukkah party with a song. Judy Sheer of the Riverdale Jewish Center has developed a delightful children’s song about energy to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus”: When we go into the room, we turn the light on, turn the light on, turn the light on. When we leave the room, we turn the light off, that’s how we save the lights.
Children also can be encouraged to make homemade signs to hang on light switches to remind us all to turn off the lights.
For adults, synagogues can organize learning opportunities on Jewish teachings about energy, panel sessions including energy conservation experts, or action opportunities, such as a joint purchase of compact fluorescent light bulbs, or an energy audit of the community building. Saving energy is a great opportunity for every community, because it is good for the environment and also saves money.
Hanukkah is a resource intensive time in our society, and we can also take this opportunity to reduce the consumption during the holiday season. Jewish environmental leader Jessica Haller has developed an idea called “Fresh Exchange,” in which adults of the community participate in a swap of gently used toys. Children use these toys instead of parents buying new ones. Hanukkah is also a great time to speak with children about charity and to arrange to give old toys and clothing to children in need.
Jewish teachings expound upon the need to avoid waste and an appreciation for all of our resources — an appreciation we must reclaim if we are to live sustainably in the land once again. You can use Hanukkah and other holidays to help your community learn Jewish wisdom and act to protect the environment.
Evonne Marzouk is the founder and executive director of Canfei Nesharim. She has spoken worldwide on the Torah-environment connection, and also leads Maayan Olam, a Torah-environment committee serving three synagogues in Silver Spring, Md. Marzouk also works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where she has served on its policy coordination team for the U.N.’s World Summit on Sustainable Development. She previously worked as a legislative assistant for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and she also has served on the executive board of Shomrei Adamah. A co-founder of Jewcology.com, Marzouk was selected as one of The Jewish Week’s “36 under 36” young Jewish leaders.
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.