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The Jewish Greening Fellowship

By Dr. Mirele Goldsmith

In 2008, UJA-Federation of New York was just beginning to think about sustainability.

Green changes were under consideration as the organization remodeled its headquarters. Adam Berman, then-executive director of Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, was invited to speak about climate change to the Federation and Agency Executives Committee.


In order for UJA-Federation to implement a “meaningful, Jewish response to global climate change,” it was essential to involve its beneficiary agencies. After Berman spoke, the agency executives agreed that it was time to respond to climate change. Rabbi Deborah Joselow, managing director of UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, sketched the outlines of a program on a napkin and handed it to Berman. He turned to Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield, then on the staff of the Riverdale YM-YWHA and a green champion. They filled in the details to design what became the Jewish Greening Fellowship.

UJA-Federation made a $630,000 two-year grant to Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center to fund the program in 2008, just before the recession began. If the proposal had been considered just a few months later, it might not have been approved. Just as the Jewish Greening Fellowship began recruiting agencies to participate, most were facing reduced budgets and staff layoffs. It seemed to be the worst possible time to ask the agencies to take on new responsibilities. What would motivate executive directors to take on this new agenda? How would executive directors be persuaded to devote staff time to greening? Where would agencies find the expertise needed to upgrade their facilities and develop new educational programs?


The decision was made to start by engaging community centers and summer camps as they would be able to model best practices in their own facilities as well as to educate their constituents both informally and through direct educational programming. The program was structured as a fellowship to insure that each agency would have to appoint a staff member to take responsibility for the effort. The fellow would function as a green champion and in-house expert. The term of the fellowship was set for 18 months — enough time for the fellow to get up to speed, engage other critical staff, identify opportunities for greening appropriate to their agency, and begin to implement changes in operations and programs. By participating in a cohort, fellows would benefit from peer support and collaboration.

The Jewish Greening Fellowship was designed, implemented and directed by Jacoby Rosenfield. A key decision was made to provide funding directly to each agency to defray the expense of the staff time devoted to the fellowship. By supporting the salary of the fellow, the fellowship was able to insist that every fellow spend four to six hours per week on greening activities. Agencies in the fellowship also could apply for additional matching funds to help them meet the requirements of the fellowship. All together, agencies received between $15,000 and $20,000 each.

Participating agencies were expected to set goals to be accomplished during the period of the fellowship. Although there was plenty of room for the agencies to tailor the goals to their own situations, expectations were high. Every agency was required to complete an energy audit. Each agency also set goals in seven required categories: implement facility energy efficiency upgrades, improve sustainable operations, create educational programming, inspire cultural and behavioral change, facilitate youth involvement, heighten community engagement, and build community partnerships.

Twenty-four agencies applied to participate in the fellowship’s first cohort. Twenty agencies were accepted and the fellowship was launched in March 2009 with a retreat for the fellows. Fellows participated in 14 days of training, carefully planned to build their skills as leaders and to give them the knowledge they needed to serve as in-house experts on sustainability. Topics included climate change and energy use, purchasing and disposal of materials, food and transportation, faith-based programming, and communication. One highlight was an environmental justice and innovation tour in the Bronx and East Harlem. The fellows were introduced to many local resources with the potential to benefit their agencies.

Jacoby Rosenfield stayed in close touch with the agency executive directors, including making site visits, to insure that each agency was making adequate progress and to troubleshoot. The biggest issue to emerge was turnover in staff, which resulted in some fellows leaving the fellowship. All of the 20 agencies were able to find a way to move forward with the fellowship except for one, leaving 19 in the cohort.


The fellows and their agencies achieved results beyond the expectations of UJA-Federation and the agency executive directors. Individual agencies implemented significant projects:

  • Surprise Lake Camp installed a 20-kilowatt solar array on the roof of its gymnasium.
  • Ramapo for Children installed an interpretive nature trail and launched a new environmental educational program for school groups.
  • YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood eliminated disposables from the daily lunch program for 200 seniors.
  • Central Queens Y forged new community partnerships that brought 500 people to an Earth Day fair.
  • Joan and Alan Bernikow Jewish Community Center of Staten Island worked with local legislators to obtain $98,800 from New York State for a solar thermal hot water system and $200,000 from the federal government for a solar energy system.

Collectively, the 19 agencies that completed the Jewish Greening Fellowship achieved the following results:

  • 6 solar energy systems installed.
  • 13 switches to green cleaning regimen.
  • 15 energy audits.
  • 17 launched or upgraded recycling and composting programs.
  • 19 Green Teams formed.
  • 98 new environmental education programs.
  • 1,750 energy efficient light bulbs installed.
  • $50,000 in annual saved costs from energy efficiency improvements.
  • $850,300 in new funding, excluding UJA-Federation’s funding.

Across the agencies, executive directors reported that the Jewish Greening Fellowship developed the fellows’ leadership skills, inspired and engaged employees, built new partnerships with other organizations, enabled the agencies to connect with new constituencies and attracted new volunteer leadership. As one executive director said, “The fellows have total buy-in from the staff. I’m somewhat surprised because everyone is busy and when someone asks for something new, you expect resistance. This has been an interesting learning experience about how to change the culture of the agency about anything.”

The members of UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Renewal, which made the grant to fund the Jewish Greening Fellowship, were very pleased with the results.

“Although we cared about environmental stewardship, at the end of the day that is not really our mission,” said Joselow. “We thought perhaps greening could catalyze caring, connection and inspiration. And we were right!”

Follow-up online: Jewish Greening Fellowship


Dr. Mirele Goldsmith is the director of the Jewish Greening Fellowship, an initiative of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, and principal of Green Strides Consulting. Her clients have included UJA-Federation of New York, BBYO International, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Supportive Housing Network of New York’s Green Housing Initiative. She is a Strategic Sustainability Consulting-certified Green Auditor, and she serves on the boards of Hazon and the American Friends of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership. Goldsmith is also the lead organizer of Jews Against Hydrofracking. She completed her doctorate in environmental psychology at the City University of New York.

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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