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Washington’s Green Shuls

By Joelle Novey

Every Jewish community I have visited strives to honor the words of the Torah. Physically, we adorn the scroll beautifully, carry it carefully, touch it lovingly and read from it publicly. Spiritually, we pray that our hearts will open to its teachings, we study its words and generations of commentary on its words, and we affirm in community that its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are paths of peace. To many Jews, the thought of a ripped or damaged Torah scroll is almost physically painful.

In the Tanya, a classic work of Hasidic philosophy, Rabbi Shneur Zalman writes that the actual words God used to create the world are present inside the elements of Creation, animating them. That means that nature — the mountains and oceans and forests and animals — is the living embodiment of the words of God, and the living embodiment of Torah. And it would mean that nature should be treated just as preciously as the Torah we kiss in synagogue. But while we honor the Torah of the synagogue, the Torah of parchment, we often fail to honor the Torah of nature, the Torah of the Earth.

Half of the electricity lighting our synagogues, protecting the Torah of parchment, is generated from burning coal, damaging the Torah of the Earth. Taking Rabbi Zalman’s lesson a step further, when mining companies blow off the tops of Appalachian mountains and dump the waste rock in streams, God’s mystical words with which those mountains and streams were created are being destroyed as well. Coal-fired power plants are making people sick, putting mercury in the water and giving children asthma — what if we knew that the divine speech that had created us as human beings was itself being harmed and disrespected?

And coal-fired power plants are our country’s single greatest source of the heat-trapping gasses that are causing global climate change, bringing stronger storms, devastating floods, and food scarcity for some of the world’s poorest people.

Perhaps our wasteful use of coal-powered electricity in the places we gather to read from the Torah are damaging something just as holy as the words of the Torah itself — the people around the world and in the future who depend on a stable climate.

Synagogues as Green Leaders

I work as the director of Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light, which supports hundreds of local congregations, including many Jewish communities, in saving energy, going green and responding to climate change. I have learned that every congregation has at least one person who feels in their kishkes — in their guts — that their congregation should be taking environmental issues seriously, but who may feel alone in rousing their rabbi or other community members.

If someone approaches you and pushes you to consider a new program or a change in practice, first honor the fact that his or her concern is not peripheral to your mission as a Jewish organization. Green efforts are not just of interest to the extent they save money, or engage “young professionals,” or serve some other purpose. Striving to honor the Torah of nature as fully as we honor the Torah of parchment isn’t a side project for people who are serious about Judaism. It is Judaism. When a Jewish community examines its impact on the natural world, it is doing something that is as core to its mission as teaching and learning Torah.

Second, learn. Look for ways to bring environmental teachings to every age group in your community. At Beth Sholom, an Orthodox congregation in Potomac, Md., the preschool and synagogue organized a family friendly “Yom Yarok” — a green expo of environmental organizations and green businesses, educational panels, and kids’ activities — on the Sunday following Tu B’Shvat. Congregations throughout our area have hired educators from the Teva Learning Alliance to bring environmental programming to youth in their synagogues. They also have led outings to Kayam Farm at Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown, Md., where Jewish agricultural teachings come to life.

Synagogues in this area are finding many other ways to incorporate environmental education into their activities. Am Kolel offered a high holiday sermon by Mike Tidwell, founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Kehila Chadasha invited Evonne Marzouk, founder of the Torah-based environmental organization Canfei Nesharim, to learn Jewish texts with them last spring. At my own havurah, Tikkun Leil Shabbat, members have heard messages from local environmental activists, including the Anacostia Watershed Society, 350.org, the Capitol Climate Action, the March on Blair Mountain and the Washington Area Bicyclists’ Association.

A Green Jewish Beltway

Synagogues also are looking to green their buildings operations. At Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Bethesda, Md., members of the green team rolled up their sleeves and assessed the contents of their trash bin, discovering that a very large component of their garbage was compostable food waste. They arranged for a composting service to pick up their food waste separately, and made polo shirts for the custodial staff with a custom logo to celebrate their role in greening the shul’s operations. Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, also in Bethesda, partnered with a solar services company that installed solar panels on the synagogue’s roof. The congregation then purchases the solar power from the company at below market rates.

Fabrangen havurah in Washington is one of many congregations to reduce waste by shifting kiddush from disposable plates and cutlery to reusable plates, cups, cutlery and cloth napkins, which a volunteer washes between each service. And Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah, an Orthodox congregation in Washington, undertook energy efficiency improvements to earn the EPA Energy Star for Congregations certification. Ohev is only one of many shuls across the area which have placed reminders on their light switch plates that read: “Lo tashchit: Don’t waste. Please remember to turn off this light.”

Additionally, synagogues are supporting congregants to take green steps in their own lives. The “Not By Power” initiative, which we launched at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington last spring, will bring workshops to local shuls over eight months, challenging Jewish homeowners to get their homes audited and weatherized before Hanukkah, the original holiday of energy efficiency. When couples and families meet with rabbis in our area to plan weddings and b’nei mitzvah celebrations, many distribute a Jews United for Justice booklet, “Green & Just Celebrations,” that offers practical advice for aligning simcha — celebration — purchases with Jewish values.

Tikvat Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Rockville, Md., and an urban havurah, DC Minyan, have both organized community supported agriculture programs that drop off local produce for pickup at the congregations. They connect Jewish communities more closely to their food and area farmers, and back it up with educational curriculum from Hazon.

A Green Jewish Voice

As Jews, we have a unique contribution to make to civic debates about energy and climate issues. As people who prioritize continuity across the generations, who affirm the dignity of all human beings, and who bless the natural world as the sacred source of our sustenance, we can bring powerful moral voices to our cities’ decisions. For example, members of Shirat HaNefesh, a minyan in Chevy Chase, Md., marched alongside a multifaith contingent at Appalachia Rising, a rally that called for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining. Members of Tikkun Leil Shabbat gathered after selichot services to sign postcards to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in support of stronger rules to protect communities from the dumping of toxic coal ash.

Rabbi Warren Stone, of Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Md., blew the shofar to sound the climate alarm at the opening of an Earth Day climate rally on the National Mall in Washington. At Temple Rodef Shalom, a Reform temple in Falls Church, Va., green team members have been particularly vocal in green advocacy issues. In 2010, they joined the local Jewish Community Relations Council in lobbying in the state capitol of Richmond for energy efficiency measures, and they have been reaching out to local congregations and to Reform temples around the country to join them in climate advocacy efforts.


A Green Lesson

So, on one foot: Look for ways to learn both Torah and environmental issues in your communities; green the operations of your building and congregants’ practices at home; and speak out about what you are learning by taking action locally. Most of all, remember what it means to truly live a Jewish life in our time — by honoring God’s revelation contained in the mountains and the sea and the people and animals as dearly as you treasure the words of the Torah itself.

Follow-up online:
Interfaith Power & Light
Green & Just Celebrations
Hazon’s CSA programs
COEJL’s green-shul resources


Joelle Novey is the director of Maryland & Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light. She is the co-author of Green and Just Celebrations: A Purchasing Guide for Washington’s Jewish Families. She prays with four communities in Washington: Tikkun Leil Shabbat, Minyan Segulah, Tifereth Israel and Fabrangen.

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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