By Jen Singer
It was my love of the environment and dedication to living life as an observant Jew that led me to start the Green Committee at Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. From modest beginnings, after just a few years, we already have made a big impact. This year, our synagogue became the first in the country to be recognized for energy efficiency with Energy Star certification from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
We started out small, with a group of a few congregants meeting on a monthly basis. In 2008, we implemented a recycling program to collect paper from staff offices, and bottles and cans from our weekly Shabbat lunch. Children helped gather and sort the recyclables.
A year later, we joined Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, a branch of the national faith based nonprofit offering basic energy audits for houses of worship. We swapped out many incandescent light bulbs in favor of more energy efficient compact fluorescents, and we hung signs reminding congregants to turn off lights when not in use.
While we received a warm response from the synagogue leadership and board for our efforts, we faced great challenges motivating congregants to join our endeavor. We countered their apathy with education. In 2010, I led a Tu B’shvat seder with our youth director, Sarah Shapiro, to teach about the value of eating fruits in their seasons and how our food, sustenance and protection are dependent on changes in nature. We also ran an eco arts and crafts booth at our annual Purim carnival, where kids assembled mishloach manot baskets of food for families and friends using reusable containers collected by synagogue families. With our education initiative underway, we returned to our original focus of greening the physical space of our synagogue.
We launched an initiative to improve the energy efficiency of our synagogue. By collecting 12 monthly utility bills and inputting them into the EPA’s Energy Star portfolio manager tool, we created a baseline of energy consumption and energy performance for our building. To improve, we changed our remaining bulbs, replaced the bulbs in exit signs with LED bulbs, and switched incandescent menorah lights in both the chapel and the main sanctuary to compact fluorescents. The summation of these small changes was enough for our building to earn the Energy Star certification.
While we are proud of our accomplishments, we aren’t finished improving. We began a procurement policy that includes a switch to environmentally safe and family friendly green cleaners. We replaced Styrofoam disposables with compostable and post-consumer recycled products. We hope to bring in an energy service company for an audit of our lighting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. And we are exploring the possibility of installing energy generating solar panels or temperature insulating sod on our building’s roof.
Simultaneously, we are helping our greater community by starting a greening group of neighboring congregations to collaborate together on efforts to improve our local environment.
Ohev Sholom has spent the past four years developing an environmental policy and bringing sustainability into the lives of the community. By considering the environment, and the health and wellness of our community in the decisions we make on a daily basis, we are taking the law of bal taschit — the prohibition against waste — very seriously. We at Ohev Shalom are proof that traditional Judaism can go hand in hand with protecting the environment. It’s our responsibility to protect our environment not just through prayer, but through action as well.
Jen Singer is founder and chair of the Green Committee at Washington’s Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue. She works as an environmental consultant and she completed her master’s in urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University.
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.