Has Environmentalism Gone Mainstream?


Tu ­B’Shevat — traditionally known as the new year of the trees — has become Judaism’s most environmentally focused holiday. But how much "greening" is going on?

For Congregation Ohev Shalom, 5773 is the year of sustainability.

The Conservative synagogue in Wallingford has created a sustainability committee, become part of a community-sponsored agriculture program, booked a noted Jewish environmentalist as a scholar in residence and, just last week, had members of GreenFaith — a New Jersey-based, interfaith environmental organization — perform a thorough “green audit” of the building.

“This is all very new for us,” Richard Kaplan, who sits on the synagogue’s sustainability committee, said, explaining that the synagogue’s rabbi, Jeremy Gerber, had really pushed for the whole effort.

“Green,” a catch-all word that includes everything from reducing the use of fossil fuels and driving hybrid cars to eating locally grown produce, may be new for Ohev Shalom, but not so much for the wider Jewish community.

A number of large suburban congregations have formed green committees, looked for ways to reduce energy waste and joined community-supported agriculture programs, known as CSAs. At the same time, Tu ­B’Shevat — traditionally known as the new year of the trees — has become Judaism’s most environmentally focused holiday. It starts on Jan. 25.

When the modern environmental movement came into being in the early 1960s, it was considered almost entirely a secular phenomenon. Before long, early pioneers like Philadelphia’s Rabbi Arthur Waskow began writing and teaching about the link between classical Jewish sources and environmentalism. Exactly 20 years ago, the first national Jewish organization on the issue was formed, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish life.

Environmentalism gained a new level of mainstream recognition in 2006 with the release of the highly influential film An Inconvenient Truth, which follows former Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to call attention to global warming.

The buzz from the film and the focus of politicians on the issue helped make climate change a topic of choice — even as naysayers still questioned the science on global warming. For a time, it seemed that nearly every week, synagogues were hosting green fairs or announcing new initiatives such as installing energy efficient light bulbs or encouraging members to buy organic, local produce.

But now, these types of programs don’t seem to be happening nearly as much.

Is that because the momentum for green initiatives in synagogues has run out? Or is it that environmental awareness has become so commonplace in the Jewish community that green efforts hardly warrant a news release anymore?

According to Nigel Savage, founder of Hazon, a 13-year-old New York-based organization dedicated to creating more sustainable Jewish communities, the answer is decidely mixed.

Savage, who, during the weekend of Feb. 10, will serve as scholar in residence at Ohev Shalom, said that, for most synagogues, taking green steps is “no longer newsworthy in a positive sense.”

But, to some degree, Savage acknowledged, the enthusiasm over combating climate change has dimmed.

That’s in part because no meaningful legislation related to curbing carbon emissions has been passed in Congress. President Barack Obama, however, may have given new hope to climate change activists by addressing the issue in his second inaugural address on Jan. 21.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”

Another factor that may have slowed things is that the more people learned about climate change, Savage said, the more they realized how difficult it is to combat. “Climate change is a terrible issue. We are so poorly designed to handle something like that,” because it is hard to define success and because there are no easily identifiable bad guys, Savage said.

Still, if anyone is capable of conceptualizing in millenia, and understanding that you have to start something even if you know you can’t see it through to the end, it’s the Jews, he said. Savage takes a talmudic approach to climate change: “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Sybil Sanchez, executive director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, said, “There is a certain amount of frustration that we haven’t been able to go farther in addressing these issues.”

“The whole environmental movement took a hit when climate change policy ­didn’t pass a couple of years ago,” she said, adding that doesn’t mean her organization has stopped pushing for policy changes or encouraging people to make meaningful changes in their own lives.

A number of synagogues have grappled with reducing their own carbon footprints and have made real strides. The recession might have prompted environmentally friendly moves to curb costs, such as keeping the building closed one or two days a week, but budget cuts also forced many synagogues to abandon more ambitious greening projects, like installing solar panels or low-flush toilets.

Back in 2008, Congregation M’kor Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Cherry Hill, N.J., took the carbon emissions issue head on by hosting two green fairs that were attended by hundreds of people. At the first of the fairs, the community signed a congregational pledge to reduce its carbon footprint within five years.

According to Carol Hupping, who has chaired the synagogue’s social action committee for years, the leadership has never been able to calculate if they successfully met the 50-percent reduction goal. But synagogue leaders keep an ongoing checklist and are constantly evaluating the steps they have taken to reduce waste by closely monitoring energy consumption, while also recycling, conserving water and purchasing biodegradables.

All in all, she said, the congregation has made progress. But the budget got in the way of some ideas, such as purchasing energy-efficient dishwashers and doing away with disposable plates and silverware, or installing solar panels.

“We have gone for what you would call the low-hanging fruit,” she said, mentioning everything from office staff using mugs instead of styrofoam cups to encouraging religious school parents to car pool. “We decided not to have any more green fairs. People just kind of get it. We don’t need to educate them. We just need to remind them.”

The sustainable food movement — a subset of environmentalism — has really taken off in the Jewish community, in some ways eclipsing the issue of climate change, said Savage. In Jewish terms, this movement is both about supporting locally grown food and eating all kinds of foods that were produced in an ethical manner. It also touches on issues of kashrut and the link between eating and spirituality.

As evidence of this focus, Feb. 12 will mark the next program of “What is Your Food Worth?” — billed as a two-year conversation about food, ethics, sustainability and eating Jewish. The program is being sponsored by Temple University’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History in partnership with the Gershman Y, the National Museum of American Jewish History and Congregation Rodeph Shalom (whatisyourfoodworth.com).

Rabbi Kevin Kleinman, an assistant rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park who has a background in environmental education, said, “Environmental sustainability has shifted away from pure sustainable toward the ethics of food. There is only so much to add about recycling bins and turning down the heat. It is not as exciting as cultivating the food that we eat.”

His synagogue’s greening program focuses not on carbon emissions — at least not directly — but on its mitzvah garden. Last year, members of the religious school and sisterhood grew 350 pounds of tomatoes, squash, carrots and eggplant, all of which is donated to the Klein JCC and distributed to homebound individuals.

According to Kleinman, such an approach combines environmentalism and social justice.

His synagogue has done the environmental audit and made decisions motivated as much by the desire to save money as reduce waste. For example, based on how much it costs to keep the lights on in the building for an evening, synagogue officials decided to keep the whole building dark one night a week. So nothing is ever scheduled on Wednesday nights.

Kleinman said that there is now nearly universal awareness about Jewish environmental ethics. “Now congregations have to figure out how much of this relates to their core values as an organization. Congregations where it was just a fad, it didn’t penetrate to the core.” l


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