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The Environmental Pecking Order

April 22, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Emma Dudnick and her mom, Anna Herman, with one of their chickens

On a quiet, tree-lined street in West Mount Airy, historic multilevel houses are the norm. Many of these massive, three- and four-story structures were built around the turn of the last century, when gas was cheap and electricity was on the rise.

But one among this string of impressive structures -- with its typical long driveway and wrap-around porch -- is deceptive: It may be made of heavy, dark stones, but it's actually green, inside and out.

Like a solid number of other families in the area, Anna Herman and her family have switched most of their lights to utilize compact fluorescent bulbs, or CFLs; old commodes have been exchanged for low-flow toilets; and their old appliances have been swapped for more energy-efficient models. What little food shopping the family actually does takes place not at the Acme, but at the Weavers Way Co-Op -- just walking distance from home -- which focuses on local, sustainably produced goods.

Most of their food, though, is about as local as it gets.

"Our yard is full of all sorts of things so that we can go outside and figure out what's for dinner just from the garden," said Herman, 50, whose backyard and community garden plot nearby are filled with raspberries, carrots, potatoes, peaches and more, along with a sprinkling of herbs.

Taking the Idea to Heart
April 22 marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and many families in the region have taken the day's message to heart in their daily lives. But while participants 40 years ago were just on the cusp of the green movement, folks today seem keyed in to the idea that simple, small steps may be the best way to proceed along the path to greater greenness.

Among the innovations are a family that has taken to communal living and a college student who has spurred her family to become more environmentally friendly in the bathroom.

Herman, who has written food stories for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Martha Stewart Living, among other publications, said that her family's environmental focus is more about eating than energy.

Much of her emphasis on edibles, she said, stems from her childhood experiences, when her mother was into health food.

"A lot of the time, it was just gross," said this member of Germantown Jewish Centre member, who's also involved in the synagogue's "Green Mezuzah" havurah. "Healthy isn't good enough; virtuous isn't good enough. It has to also be delicious, which is why I make organic brownies."

When the family needs fresh eggs, they simply pay a visit to the chicken coup behind the house, where a trio of hens lay them daily. Come Rosh Hashanah, there's fresh honey from the beehive out back; last year, the first in which they've hosted bees, they only had a few jars' worth; this year, they expect to harvest at least 60 pounds, she said. Goats are in their future plans as well, so they can have some fresh milk.

Herman said that her kids -- Harry, 13, and Emma, 10 -- by and large don't mind the way that the family goes about things; for them, it's business as usual.

Emma, who gets down in the dirt to feed the chickens and pull rhubarb from the garden, said that in her world, "some of my friends just go to Acme" for groceries, though plenty of others also have their own family gardens.

Still, now that they're getting older, Herman and her husband, Robert Dudnick, have noticed that the kids are beginning to push back, albeit in food-oriented ways.

"That's their idea of rebellion -- they buy Honey Nut Cheerios and Go-Gurt," said Herman, adding that not long ago, the family discovered that Emma had been hiding a secret stash of contraband -- Coca-Cola.

"Closet Coke drinkers, my children," joked Herman.

She added that they've tried to impress upon their kids that healthy and local are almost always better choices, but admitted that they've been honest about the fact that "we all sort of stray and then come back" from time to time.

Learning to Share the Space
Julie Cristol and her West Philadelphia family have also taken steps to be greener. Rather than driving her 1988 Subaru, she bikes to her job as a nurse-midwife; they do composting and grow their own food in the garden; they buy recycled toilet paper and environmentally friendly laundry detergent.

But rather than own their own home, for the last 18 years, she and her husband, Temple University professor T. L. Hill -- and now their two sons -- have shared one with another family, including two adults and two children.

"A lot of people live like that in their 20s and 30s, and then they get married, and they have kids and move out," said Cristol, 50. "But it worked really well for us. The idea of having a big extended community to help with parenting was really appealing."

The family and their housemates live in a land-trust that she says is a vestige of the late 1970s West Philadelphia-based Movement for a New Society, which trained people in nonviolent civil disobedience. The project was essentially dead by the time the two couples moved in together in 1992, but all four shared common values like tax resistance and nonviolence, "so we moved in, and luckily, that's just worked," said Cristol.

The family belongs to Kol Tzedek, a progressive Reconstructionist congregation in West Philadelphia. Their son Sam, 15, did a Bar Mitzvah project on reducing the synagogue's carbon footprint.

One point he took away from his presentation was that the family could reduce its own carbon output if they stopped using the clothes dryer.

"It actually requires doing small amounts of laundry all week long, rather than just letting it pile up until the weekend, which is not always easy," said Cristol. "I think it was kind of an eye-opener for everyone."

Cristol, who said she grew up in a family of nature-lovers, which helped put her on the path to living a greener life, acknowledged that the family still opts for the dryer occasionally, but more often, they carry the wet clothes up several flights of stairs and hang it on wooden racks to dry.

The household also installed an exhaust fan in the attic, which allowed them to free the house of air-conditioning last summer.

But what about the kids? Don't a preteen and a teenager get irritated by all this "good living" and long for a more "normal" way of life?

"It's normal for them," said Cristol. "They've certainly had it drummed into them how important it is to fight global warming, but they're kids, so they're much more involved in, like, 'Can we go see "Avatar"?' "

But it's not always parents pushing the environmental message. Sometimes, it's the younger generation that has to drag the rest of the family down the road to a greener household.

Such was the case with Becky Zarkh of Elkins Park, a Temple University sophomore who returned from a summer volunteer program in Canada committed to environmental change. In the time since then, she's built a garden in the backyard, begun composting and buys more clothes at thrift shops.

But Zarkh, 20, also pushed her family -- including an older sister, her stepfather and mother, Elena Zarkh, the cantor at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am -- to do simple things on their own.

When the family drinks coffee now, they drink fair-trade coffee; everyone has his or her own water bottle to carry around, rather than purchasing bottled water; and Zarkh has tried to get the family to eat more locally grown foods, including lots from the nearby Glenside Farmers' Market.

But she's also gotten a bit more personal, and has pushed the family to go green even in the bathroom.

"I used to flush the toilet all the time, and now we don't," said Zarkh. "We have a policy of when it's yellow, you let it mellow, and when it's brown, you flush it down."

Not everybody in the household is wild about that practice, but when flushing does happen, there's a little less water utilized, thanks to a "do-it-yourself" toilet dam the environmental-studies major made by filling a one-liter plastic bottle with rocks. That artificially raises the water level in the tank, explained Zarkh, saving about a liter of water with each flush.

"I'm not trying to enforce any kind of policy, but I do think it's easy to make certain steps," said the college student. "Little things add up, and that's all you can do."

Mike Weilbacher, a local environmentalist who has been marking Earth Day since its inception in 1970, said that although the holiday has evolved from a radical, hippie, left-wing occasion to a more mainstream one, going green is still not a large-scale trend.

"There's been a change in attitude; now we need a change in behavior," he said.

Weilbacher, who recently transitioned from the Lower Merion Conservancy to his new post as executive director of the Briar Bush Nature Center in Abington, noted that the first Earth Day spawned the Endangered Species list, the Environmental Protection Agency and more.

But while many are interested in helping the planet, most people's green "is actually a very pale shade" of the intended hue, he said.

Still, for many people, it may just be easier to take baby steps.

For example, Elena Zarkh, the cantor, whose synagogue, Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, just so happens to be having a "Green Fair" on Sunday, April 25, compared environmental efforts to a basic element of Judaism.

"It's like kashrut," she said. "You make a conscious choice to observe a certain way of life, and this is the same thing. It just takes a little bit of thinking before you do anything."
 

Farm School Awarded Sizable Grant

The Philadelphia-based Jewish Farm School, which strives to infuse Jewish values into sustainable agriculture practices, has been awarded a Joshua Venture fellowship worth $100,000 over the next two years.

Despite its Philly roots, the Farm School doesn't currently have much in the way of useable space in the city, though director Nati Passow said that he hopes to use the grant money, along with funds applied for from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, to change that.

"I'd like to use the money to really turn more of my focus into what we're doing here in Philadelphia and expand the focus of what we're doing" locally, he said.

With these combined funds, Passow said that he and associate director Simcha Schwartz hope to not only bring on another full-time staffer, but create an urban-sustainability center in the city, which will focus on growing food and teaching practical gardening skills, composting and perhaps even some cooking classes.

He explained that much of the group's work since its inception in 2006 has been done elsewhere, including four "alternative spring break" trips in March for college students, taking them to farms all over the country. Participants worked the land during the day, then attended evening sessions on Judaism, sustainable justice and similar topics.

Additionally, said Passow, the group has partnered with Eden Village in Putnam Valley, N.Y., to create a new summer camp with a focus on environmentalism, social justice and spirituality. About 120 campers have enrolled for this summer's sessions.  

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