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Making Your Synagogue a Green Holy Place

By Rabbi Lawrence Troster

One of Judaism’s most important concepts is that of kedusha — holiness. Kedusha is inherent in God, but also can be created by people in their actions. These actions are usually found in three categories — sacred time, sacred space and sacred life — and can be expressed in both ritual and ethical commandments, and sometimes in both at once, like the practice of Shabbat.

Individuals can and should strive to live a life of kedusha. In Jewish environmental ethics, one of the most important ways that a community can express the idea of kedusha is through the greening of their sacred space, the synagogue. Synagogues traditionally have been designed to reflect the structure and ethos of Creation. In a modern ecological context, we can continue to have our synagogue spaces reflect Creation by turning them into living, green, healthy buildings that support life rather than contributing to its destruction. The synagogue can truly be a symbol and center of kedusha and inspire everyone in the community to green their own homes, thus making them sacred spaces as well.

The benefits of greening your synagogue building include:

  • protecting ecosystems and biodiversity;
  • improving air and water quality;
  • reducing solid waste;
  • conserving natural resources;
  • reducing operating costs;
  • improving the air, thermal, and acoustic environments and enhancing the comfort and health for anyone using the facility; and
  • contributing to the overall quality of life of the community.

In order to green your synagogue, GreenFaith, after many years of helping religious communities green their congregations, recommends the following steps for any organization launching environmental efforts:

1. Form a Green Team

The first step is to form a Green Team — a group of leaders responsible for planning and overseeing your environmental initiatives. Members of the best Green Teams care about the environment and represent different areas of responsibility, such as worship, education, facility maintenance, finance and social outreach. Good Green Teams include respected leaders within your community who know how to get others involved. It is critical that the rabbi take an active role in the Green Team in order to make it a success. Forming a Green Team is the best way to get your synagogue’s environmental initiatives off to a strong start.

2. Take Quick Action and Communicate

In order to build momentum for your efforts, take a few quick actions. Here are some examples:

a. Hold a compact-fluorescent light bulb sale.
b. Invite your members to sign an environmental petition.
c. Sponsor an educational forum.

Taking quick actions allows you to identify supporters within your congregation, and build momentum for future efforts. But don’t stop once you’ve taken action. Successful institutions communicate actively about their accomplishments. They understand that by celebrating small victories, they lay the foundation for long-term success.

3. Have the Rabbi or a Guest Speaker Give a Green Sermon or Lecture, and Invite Members to Affirm their Religious-Environmental Values

A good way to build momentum is through a sermon focused on religion and the environment. Whether it’s offered by the rabbi or a guest speaker, a sermon or lecture raises awareness and moves your synagogue along its path to environmental action as it publicly establishes the values that the community is trying to express. After the sermon or program, get your members involved by providing them with the opportunity to sign a pledge or letter affirming their religious-environmental values. Post the letter or pledge in a prominent location for several weeks, giving your members the chance to embrace these values publicly. Once your members have stated their belief publicly, they’re more likely to support future environmental initiatives.

4. Conduct an Audit and Make a Plan

Assessing or auditing your synagogue’s current environmental activities provides an important foundation for future efforts. This audit should not only include the physical facility and its maintenance but also worship and liturgy, religious education and social justice-activities. It is very important that the Green Team invest the time and effort to complete this audit, or a comparable tool. Once you’ve conducted your audit, review its results and make an action plan for the coming year. Set specific, achievable goals within a two-year time period if possible. List the resources you’ll need to succeed. Good planning is an integral part of successful religious-environmental leadership. By creating the audit, you will also be able to calculate if you have achieved the 14 percent energy reduction-goal of the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign.

5. Work your Plan, and Be Persistent

It is often the case that many religious communities have an initial burst of environmental programming that is often followed by a long period of inactivity. While all institutions need time to rest after launching a new initiative, the religious institutions that enjoy the most environmental success are the ones that demonstrate persistence, and that are disciplined and intentional about working their environmental plan.

There are several things you can do to help your synagogue build environmental momentum. Your Green Team can set a regular meeting date every four to six weeks to identify new activities and assess your progress. You can provide an article or an eco-tip for your congregation’s newsletter. You can meet with environmental leaders from your area, building important relationships. Persistence pays off, so work hard and you will succeed.

Priority Areas

Priority #1: Use Fuel Efficient Transportation to Reduce Harmful Tailpipe Exhaust and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Many researchers have concluded that transportation represents the greatest negative environmental impact created by the average U.S. citizen. Encourage congregants to use mass transit, buy cars getting at least 30 miles per gallon, carpool, bike, and most importantly, walk wherever possible. Ask people to calculate their transportation related carbon footprint and reduce it by 14 percent. Some synagogues have instituted a regular carbon free Shabbat when members walk or bike to services.

Priority #2: Eat Less Meat and Fish to Reduce Toxic Contamination and Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and to Reduce Cruelty to Animals

Meat production is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and creates enormous amounts of toxic waste. Animals are treated with appalling cruelty on factory farms. Ocean fish populations are rapidly declining, and fish farming releases large amounts of pollution. Decrease the congregation’s use of meat, dairy and fish at communal meals and celebrations.

Priority #3: Conserve Energy to Fight Air Pollution and Climate Change

Conduct an energy audit of the synagogue and create a checklist of important areas to improve energy efficiency. For example, conserve energy by using a programmable thermostat, decreasing temperature when parts of the synagogue are not being used. Use energy efficient lighting such as compact florescent light bulbs. Create a campaign to make sure that lights, computers and other electronic equipment is turned off when not in use.

Improve insulation throughout the building. Plan future renovations to replace the building’s old boilers, furnaces and air conditioning units with modern energy efficient ones. Reduce the water temperature on water heaters to no more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Contact a local solar installer to see if the building can accommodate solar panels and check out if your state government provides subsidies or grants for solar installations and other energy improvements. If possible, buy the synagogue’s electrical power from a “Green-e” certified company that uses sustainable sources, such as wind and solar.

Priority #4: Make Your Synagogue a Toxic-Free Zone to Protect Human Health and the Environment

Studies have linked ingredients in many cleaning, pest management and lawn care products to cancer, reproductive disorders, respiratory problems and other ailments. It is important that the synagogue become a toxic free zone by using green cleaning products, organic lawn care and alternative pest management strategies. Make the commitment to purchase products with full ingredient lists and plant based ingredients.

Priority #5: Create Outdoor Community Programs to Strengthen the Bond with Creation

The average U.S. citizen spends more than 90 percent of his or her life indoors, which weakens our bond with Creation. Create regular synagogue services and programs that take the community outdoors and encourage congregants to spend some time outside each week. This healthy habit is the best way to deepen people’s motivation to green their lives and become environmental leaders.

Adapted from GreenFaith resources.

Follow-up online:
GreenFaith
Carbon footprint calculation
Green-e
Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices
Children & Nature Network

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Rabbi Lawrence Troster is the rabbinic director at J Street. An eco-theologian and environmental activist for more than 25 years, he previously worked as a rabbinic scholar-in-residence at GreenFaith, as a rabbinic advisor at Hazon, and as a rabbinic fellow at the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. Author of the book, Mekor Hayyim: A Source Book on Water and Judaism, Troster also co-chaired the U.N. Environment Programme’s Interfaith Partnership for the Environment.

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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