Whether they've decided to use compact fluorescent light bulbs to save electricity, purchase their produce from local farms or create a "greener" infrastructure at their synagogues, local Jews have done plenty in the past year to assist the environment.
Last May, residents at the Philadelphian — a large apartment building with a sizable Jewish population, situated near the Philadelphia Museum of Art — decided to start using environmentally friendly light bulbs.
With that project under their belts, many of the residents at the 776-unit structure have taken further steps to lower their carbon footprint, said Sis Eisman, who chaired the initial campaign.
"We're very conscious of turning the lights off, closing the refrigerator, doing laundry less often and turning on the dishwasher less often," said Eisman.
At the start of the lighting campaign, some of the bulbs were donated by the Phillips Company to get people started. Now, residents can buy bulbs at the market right in the building –something that wasn't available earlier, said David Weisberg, who also helped organize the project.
Eisman did note that she knows of plenty of residents who changed back to regular bulbs because the new ones weren't giving off enough light, or because they didn't want to wait for the new bulbs to warm up to full capacity. Recent news reports have also questioned their safety.
"Some people said they threw out all their bulbs; there are mixed answers and responses," she admitted. But "we all agree it will make a difference, financially and electrically."
There is no way to know if the environmental steps taken have decreased the building's overall electrical usage; officials at the Philadelphian did not answer repeated calls for comment, and residents do not get individual electric bills.
Another environmentally friendly program that kicked off last year is Tuv Ha'Aretz at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park. Instituted in April, the congregants bought shares of the output from Lancaster Farm Fresh, an organic farmers' market in Lancaster County. In turn, the farm delivered fresh produce to the synagogue each week. For about $525 per member, a congregant received 22 weeks of produce during the growing season.
"We had a very successful first year," said Mark Kaplan, coordinator of the program, "much better enrollment than we hoped for."
People are already signing up for next year, said Kaplan, and he thinks membership could rise from 85 last year to as high as 120 people.
"It turned out to be a great community-building experience," he said. "Everybody looked forward to coming together at the synagogue and sharing recipes."
After the first year, the synagogue surveyed its participants. Kaplan said that 85 percent of those who had participated in the program said they were "really pleased" about what they'd accomplished and "would be interested in re-enrolling."
Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley kicked off another environmental program last year when organizers decided to switch the electricity to PECO Wind, which allows the synagogue to purchase blocks of wind energy, rather than depending on coal or nuclear energy that could potentially harm the environment.
Since the program costs $18 per day in addition to the regular electric bill, the shul asked congregants to "buy a day."
Several months into the project, it continues to go strong, according to John Harris, president of Beth Am, who mentioned that each week, the synagogue displays the names of those who have donated a day of wind energy during that particular week.
The program is so popular that the synagogue has already decided to do it again next year, he said, most likely starting on Earth Day.
A 'Greener' Synagogue
A number of area synagogues have worked with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life to improve their environmental standing. Through a project called "A Light Among the Nations," many shuls have started by switching to compact fluorescent bulbs.
Five local synagogues have worked with the organization on the lighting project, according to Liore Milgrom-Elcott, project manager at COEJL: Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne; Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia; Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City; Germantown Jewish Centre; and Mishkan Shalom in Manayunk.
While she had no data on how much electricity or money the Philadelphia synagogues have saved, Milgrom-Elcott did say that nationally, the organization helped change 70,000 light bulbs in synagogues and other Jewish communal buildings. That equates to more than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide that won't be emitted into the environment during the seven- or eight-year life of the bulbs, she explained.
At Beth David, the congregation hopes to go much further than just changing the light bulbs. The synagogue is now working toward a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification — a benchmark for the construction and operation of high-performance green buildings, which help reduce toxic carbon emissions.
The synagogue hopes to install, for example, a "bio roof" lined with grass and other vegetation.
"The roof is not just a place where there's runoff, but we might have a habitat for birds," said Rabbi Jim Egolf. "[We're] trying to allow the roof to be, not an absorber of heat, but a reflector of heat."
Milgrom-Elcott said that the reason so many Jews have connected the idea of environmentalism with their Jewish life or synagogue is because "people search for meaning in what they do."
"People want to have a spiritual and inspirational home," she said, "that is a source of environmental efficiency and education."