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The Mean, Green, Institutional Machine

June 16, 2005 By:
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Environmental projects have become more popular in schools and at home. Photo courtesy of JNF
In the 1940s and '50s in the United States, being "green," in an environmental sense, meant putting some money regularly - and especially before Shabbat - in the blue-and-white pushka from the Jewish National Fund. Buying trees in Israel was the principle way that American Jews contributed to making the desert bloom; indeed, the many groves and forests they helped fund had a profound effect on Israel's ecosystem.

Then along came the 1960s, and environmentalism throughout the world got a good shaking-up. Society discovered what pesticides were doing to silent springs, and that auto emissions were blackening the sky - and perhaps human organs.

"Greening" the environment became a mass movement, and effectuating change now meant more than making small contributions to albeit committed organizations.

Priorities changed, forcing groups to make adjustments. Over time, even JNF changed its focus, continuing its work in forestry but also encouraging water conservation and addressing issues of aridity in Israel. Here in the United States, secular Jews, for the most part, staked out claims at the forefront in the environmental movement, leading some of the more religious in the community to investigate what the ancient texts had to say about protecting the Earth to better guide people's decision-making skills.

More than 30 years of such thinking have now stimulated individuals and organizations to get involved in grass-roots, hands-on types of projects to better the world. To that end, local synagogues have taken up initiatives to ensure that their buildings are environmentally sound, and that green issues remain on the agenda - and sometimes, in the rabbi's sermons.

Take, for example, Germantown Jewish Centre. While recently planning the renovation of their large building perched high above West Ellet Street, members became aware of Earth-friendly heating and air-conditioning systems. However, like most green options, the machines proved to be far more expensive than the energy-guzzling ones, and the synagogue found itself in a quandary.

"So we made a decision to establish a green fund, and to ask a committee to give us a pot of money to bridge the gap between the less environmentally friendly option," explained Rabbi Leonard Gordon. "This was a way to turn what had been a problem into a way people can make a difference in a small way."

To continue living by the tenets of tikkun olam - "repairing the world" - one of the synagogue's three minyans also made a commitment to avoid using disposable-paper products for the weekly kiddush. Eight volunteers now rotate "dish duty," and wash plates and glasses to reuse for the next week.

Many other individuals and institutions throughout the Philadelphia area are also doing their part to make the world a safer place to live in - initiating specific green projects, holding Earth Day events, and dedicating large parts of their lives to educating themselves and others about the importance of the resources on the planet.

Faced with renovations of the late-19th-century building they moved into three years ago, members of Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Manayunk put their heads together to make the old building environmentally friendly. Led by Dr. Dan Wolk, a member and a committed environmentalist since reading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring back in the '60s, the synagogue obtained grant money from a fund that provides low-interest loans to buy energy-efficient windows and compact florescent lighting.

Most notably, explained Wolk - who spurred on recycling at the synagogue before it had an official program by personally picking up separated garbage, and taking those bottles, cans and paper to the processing center himself - the synagogue installed two solar-powered eternal lights last October. The fixtures were obtained from another synagogue that was closing, which in itself is a form of recycling.

How Much Is Too Much?
Still, some in the community say that activists and environmentalists may be going too far.

"Of course, it's nicer to use china instead of plastic," said Rabbi Yossi Kaplan of the Chabad Lubavitch of Chester County Jewish Center, referring to the efforts at Germantown Jewish Centre. "But what about the electricity and hot water being used?"

Kaplan says that a lot of people are immediately reactive, rather than stopping to think about other resources that are affected.

"We should use mind over heart," said Kaplan in Hebrew, translating the phrase into English. "Judaism says to preserve and not to harm. A tree is put here for our sake, and we should not hurt or wantonly destroy it, but we still should realize the purpose of the Earth - to use."

Germantown Jewish Centre congregant Betsy Platkin Teutsch answered the criticism by saying that her reason for choosing china over plastic, which is made with petroleum, had not only environmental implications but political ones as well.

"Greed for oil is fueling the war in Iraq, which isn't good for Israel," she said. "It's important that we send out a message and set a standard."

Teutsch also noted that this year's Purim baskets at her synagogue included reusable mesh bags to bring produce home from the grocery store, in addition to insulated bags to bring home frozen foods.

But issues facing environmentalists these days - problems that may not come to mind when first thinking of Earth-related issues - go beyond saving trees, natural resources and endangered species, as the 12th-graders at Akiba Hebrew Academy recently learned.

Politicians, scientists and environmentalists have been debating how to control global overpopulation and limited resources for many decades now, to no accepted conclusion.

Tara Morales, the 12th-grade environmental-science teacher at the school, thought she would devise an exercise posed to show her students the complexity of the issue - and just what exactly we are facing worldwide.

So Morales and her students held a World Hunger Banquet in March for the 350 students and faculty at the school.

As Morales explained it, each participant was handed a card that read "upper class," "middle class" or "lower class," and they gathered in groups accordingly. The "uppers" were seated at a table and served soda, and given silverware to use with their three-course meal. The "middles" sat on chairs, and were served rice and beans with only a spoon to eat their meals and a cup of water to wash them down. The "lowers" sat on the floor, ate a tiny cup of rice with no utensils, and had a cup of water for every three students. Cards were also handed out in proportion to the number of people in the world considered to be part of each social class.

"All of a sudden, the students were exposed to this and they saw the numbers," said Morales. "There were so few that had so much, and so many that had so little."

It was a valuable, visceral kind of lesson, she added.

At the Smallest Level
Even some of the youngest members of the Philadelphia Jewish community are being exposed to green issues. The 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds at the Mary Beth Gutman Early Learning Center in Melrose Park are becoming little farmers to understand what it means to steward the Earth.

Just last week, the preschoolers planted flowers and vegetables in the school's award-winning garden, which comes complete with an irrigation system. They hope to sell their wares, once harvested, Friday afternoons to parents and friends.

"The garden serves to help the children understand that vegetables don't just come in cans or the frozen-food department," said Helen Victor Turk, the center's senior director. "They learn that they grow from the Earth, and that we should be grateful to God for allowing us to utilize the planet this way."

"One value of Judaism is to respect the Earth, and be thankful for it and its animals," said Adele Fisher, director of the Lassin Early Learning Center in Northeast Philadelphia, another school that's part of the network of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's early-childhood services.

At Lassin, the kids learned about the rainforest and its endangered species. This year, they raised money to purchase monkey ropes, which allow primates in the Costa Rican rainforest to cross roads and jump to another group of trees when their habitat is being destroyed.

The teachers also stressed the value of insects, the conservation of trees and the importance of recycling.

The goal, according to Fisher, is to inform them of the impact their actions can have on the world.

"Children need to learn at an early age that other life is sharing the planet with them, and what people can do to help keep everyone here," she said. "It's part of Judaism to take care of the Earth and feel blessed by it." u

 

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