Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Guest Blog for COEJL

Repairing the World through Green Synagogues

by Jen Singer, COEJL guest blogger

Growing up in a reform Jewish household, I was always committed to tikkun olam (repairing the world). I spent my years in college and graduate school pursuing environmental studies and doing what I could to improve the environment around me. From setting up a campus-wide recycling program at Brandeis to working with local communities in the Boston area on greenhouse gas emissions inventories and reduction plans, I have always viewed my responsibility to protect natural resources as an extension of my Judaism.

Since joining the Orthodox community in college, I have sought to apply my love of the environment to my Jewish halahic (legal) observance. In a world of strict adherence to the mitzvot (commandments), making the case for greening the planet has not always been an easy road.

It’s hard enough for families and individuals committed to a strictly kosher and shomer Shabbat lifestyle to find the time or the financial resources to buy organic or install state of the art technology to “go green.” But being environmentally conscious can also be both an investment in the health and wellbeing of your family, and fiscally beneficial in terms of offsetting healthcare costs and drastically reducing utility bills (even without installing solar panels and driving an electric car).

When I joined Ohev Sholom—The National Synagogue with my husband in 2007, I was looking for a way to contribute to this fast growing community of committed individuals. Starting a green group and creating environmental goals to lessen our environmental footprint over time seemed like the normal progression for someone with my background.

In 2007, we started a basic recycling program, gathering paper from the staff offices and collecting bottles and cans from our weekly Kiddush lunch. In 2008, we had an informal energy audit by the Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, which identified a number of energy efficient challenges facing the synagogue. Since then, we have made a commitment to focus on low cost and no cost efforts by replacing our incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents and retrofitting our outdated exit signs with light emitting diode (LED) counterparts. We also switched to environmentally friendly cleaners and installed our first low flow toilet.

It is important to note that our efforts extend beyond physical changes. In 2010, we launched an environmental education campaign aimed at children and their families using the holidays as a basis for our teachings. We held a Tu B’shvat seder and organized an arts and crafts booth at our annual Purim carnival to make recycled mishloach manot containers.

Yet we remain committed to increasing energy efficiency and decreasing the environmental footprint of our facility. While our previous audit identified some basic improvements, we had no baseline of our energy consumption and could not establish reduction targets. Falling on my expertise, we turned to ENERGY STAR’s Portfolio Manager tool. We collected the minimum of a year’s worth of energy data for all fuels (and later added data from 2008-2011) as well as some basic space characteristics about the synagogue including the square footage, number of computers and more.

Portfolio Manager provides a 1-100 rating of energy performance and facilities earning a score of 75 or higher are eligible to apply to earn the ENERGY STAR label, indicating that they are performing amongst the top 25% of similar buildings across the country. Soon we found out that Ohev Shalom earned the label AND became the first synagogue in the country awarded this distinction. We are overjoyed with our accomplishment and inspired to do more. We plan to build upon our efforts and demonstrate that Orthodox Judaism takes the responsibility to be shomrim (guardians) of the environment seriously. Our hope is to serve as a role model for others in the Jewish community and I personally welcome the opportunity to work with other synagogues to take that vital first step.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

So when I signed up for this month of public speaking, I was figuring on having weeks to prepare for my big speech, lots of prep time practicing and a huge cool down after. Not at all my experience.

I signed up for my dvar torah a few weeks in advance (you do know how hard it is to plan anything with someone in residency), wrote the speech four days before and spent a few days trying to edit, memorize and deliver my talk.

I did have a dry run at the synagogue the day before and some wonderful friends and family who provided feedback and listened as I droned on with my text again and again. By the time came for the big day, I felt ready. Not sure if I was ready to talk or ready to just get it over with. Probably the latter if Im being honest.

Part of my anxiety was not knowing if my husband would be home to help with the kids that Saturday in the morning at home or during the actual talk. Once we got clearance for him to switch shifts, it was then hard to figure out who could watch the kids so he could hear me speak. Next it was waiting to find out when I was going to speak as we used to have talks in the middle of services but have recently pushed them to the end. Once I heard the end was my place, I settled back into my seat and began reviewing my notes.

When the time came, I walked slowly to my place and took a deep breath. I have to say it was somehow easier for me to look out at the faces in the crowd that I did not know then to focus on those I had in my circle of friends. Strange I suppose but I guess I figured that they didnt know me yet or what time and effort I had put in so it was up to me to deliver my words in a way that gave them a sense of myself and to open up their worlds to the green side.

I shook a bit inside and tried to think of all those who came before me to share their thoughts in this holy place. I also tried to think about how proud of myself I would be, here in month 9 of this blog project, putting my money where my mouth is, that is, to finally use my mouth to spread my love of the environment and tell all members of my community about my blog project.

When it was all said and done, I received such wonderful feedback face to face, via email and calls from members of the synagogue who heard me in person or read my speech on the internet. I felt so supported and so proud of all that I had accomplished. I then had to turn around and talk again at our ENERGY STAR plaque ceremony a few days later before a smaller group of environmental organization reps and some congregants. With the main talk behind me, I felt more ready to take that next step.

I am happy to say that I raised my voice and put my thoughts on the table for all to see. Not sure Im going to make this a regular thing, but certainly it will no longer be a barrier to sharing my opinions with others. I am looking forward to savoring the last three months of this project. Some ideas include whitewater rafting, learning to drive a motor boat (overcoming my fear of deep water), and more.

See you all next month under the sea.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Dvar Torah (Speech) from Ohev Sholom Today

Parshat Behar

I have to admit I have a deep fear of public speaking. While I have gotten in front of a crowd on a few occasions, I am not a huge fan. So why is it that I am standing before you today?

Nine months ago, I turned 32, the age of my own mother when she died. I was merely 14 months old. Turning 32 has become this age, in my mind, that I have always come to fear AND one that has led me to a crossroads in my life.

This year, I decided to launch a blog project, called year 32, where every month I would select a professional goal to meet or a fear to overcome and blog about it, to share my experiences with family and friends. I have had the fortune of spending the past 8 months shadowing a professional pastry chef, volunteering at a local flower shop, overcoming my fear of heights while ziplining in Rock Creek forest and more. And now, for month 9, here I am, coming before you all, to stare my fear of public speaking in the face. If only I could imagine everyone in their underwear. I suppose that’s too much to ask, even for an open orthodox shul, such as our congregation.

But in all seriousness, today I want to share with you a topic that is very near and dear to my heart: the environment. Coming from a home of chemical engineers, a love the environment and a fear of toxic chemicals was instilled in me at an early age. I have spent years dedicated to making a cleaner and healthier environment for those around me from designing a campus-wide recycling program as an undergrad at Brandeis to earning a master’s in urban and environmental policy at Tufts.

I come before you NOT just to talk about what I have spent my life doing to preserve and defend the environment, but for us as a community, to be able to explore together, what the environment has to do with Judaism, this week’s parsha and our shul’s responsibility.

Lets start with the first question. What does Judaism have to say about the environment? The law of baal tashchit, do not destroy, appears in devarim 20 verses 19-20. Our sages teach us that hashem created the world and all of its contents for humans to both rule over and guard. During biblical times, these passages were interpreted to relate specifically to times of war where we learn that when you wage war against a city, you must not destroy its fruit bearing trees. However, in rabbinic times, these same verses are interpreted to teach the importance of refraining from any kind of destruction. It also comes to teach us that winning the war cannot be our only consolation. We have to think about what we are doing to the world around us, as we are fighting this war and what kind of environment we will be left with, after all is said and done.

Sefer hahinuch, a 13th century text, written by an anonymous Spanish author, explains in mitzvah 529, that the purpose of the mitzvah of baal tashchit is to cling to that which is good and to avoid destruction altogether. While our text in devarim refers to fruit bearing trees, Sefer Hahinuch takes this to the next level saying that not so much as a mustard seed should be wasted or spoiled. This law comes to teach us that in order to become righteous people, we should become distraught at any spoilage or destruction that occurs in our midst lest we become a wicked people unaffected by wasted resources.

There are many other halachot related to environmental protection including baal hachaim (preserving animal rights) and those included in this week’s parsha. So let us explore my next question:

What is the role of the environment and our responsibility to protect it. In this week’s parsha, Parshat Behar, literally on the mountain, takes us through the conversations between hashem and moshe. We learn of the obligation of the shmitah year, where every 7th year the land of Israel is to be given a complete agricultural rest, and of the yovel or jubilee year, where every 50th year, neither the land nor the vineyards can be worked, slaves are freed, and property is returned to their original owners.

To me it seems such a straightforward and simple idea, that if we put so much demand on our land, our animals and our natural resources, that at some point, they too, need a time to recharge and recuperate from all that we demand. And yet we are surrounded, by so many in the Jewish world, who still believe that the land is OURS to conquer and that the link between environmentalism and being mindful of our consumption of natural resources is not of Jewish origin. Let alone a halachic or Jewish legal obligation upon us.

I recognize that it is not always easy to make choices that lessen our impact on the environment and have to admit, that I am a recovering vegetarian and that I do wear leather shoes. But I try to buy organic produce, dairy and meat where possible and I only use environmentally-friendly and non-toxic cleaners. I carpool when I can, and I try to use less energy at home through computer management software, changing light bulbs to lower wattages and turning off lights when not in use. I know sometimes the costs of organic groceries or healthy cleaners may place a burden upon already stressed financial resources, especially for those committed to keeping a strictly kosher lifestyle or pursing private Jewish education for our children.

I choose to view these choices as making an investment. I pay more for healthier and non-toxic products as part of making an investment in my health and the wellbeing of my family. Perhaps we will save on healthcare down the road and we will keep our bodies free of toxic chemicals. But also we are preventing animals from being fed antibiotics AND kept in inhumane conditions and preventing water pollution from the runoff of pesticides on agricultural lands.

I constantly ask myself if I am I doing everything in my power to respect all that g-d has given me? Am I realistic about how much I need or how much I can donate to others? Do I apply my ethical actions of how to treat people to my expectations and demands of kosher meat producers and agricultural growers? Am I raising my voice loud enough by carefully selecting which companies I support with my wallet?

It is with these thoughts that I turn to my third and final topic for discussion here today. What is the responsibility of our community, of our shul, to protect and demonstrate our commitment to be shomrim, or guards of the environment? I have dedicated my life to studying the impacts of climate change on cities and local communities. I work in environmental consulting improving the energy efficiency of commercial buildings across the country. And while there are great politics surrounding the science of climate change, I firmly believe that the cost of inaction and our halachic responsibility TO ACT is far TOO great to sit back and wait. We humans are consuming more than we need and we do place unnecessary pressures on the natural ecosystems. We are causing air pollution NOT just with our cars, but with the energy we consume in our homes and our offices. I ask you today to please put the politics aside, regardless of your political affiliation or your love/hate relationship with tofu and focus on what WE can do as individuals to reduce our impact on the environment.

When Steve and I first came to this shul in 2007, 6 months pregnant with Ma’ayan, we met with the rabbi and he looked us straight in the eyes and said, welcome to ohev sholom, what can YOU offer the shul. The first thing that came to my mind was to start a green group, carve out a basic recycling program and set a goal of making this sacred space both safer and healthier while also lessening our environmental footprint over time.

Since 2007, we have built upon our small paper and bottle recycling system to now include a switch to environmentally-healthy and kid friendly cleaners throughout the synagogue, a retrofit from incandescent to compact fluorescent lightbulbs and an energy audit of our facility. But we have not stopped there. We are examining opportunities to reduce waste from Kiddush lunch by purchasing greener disposables, exploring a composting program and planting a garden with our children to beautify this space in a natural manner.

I am proud to announce that through our management of energy resources, we have officially become the first synagogue in the country to earn the energy star label for a house of worship. Joining 16 churches and soon to be the first mosque, we have met this goal NOT by purchasing fancy electric cars, or installing solar panels on our roof (wonderful as they may be), but through the simple, low cost, and no cost measures of assessing our energy bills, and making operational decisions to minimize waste, such as holding daily minyan in the chapel, rather than the sanctuary and using window air conditioning units for staff offices, so as to not cool the whole sanctuary or the entire top floor of the shul, for the comfort of a few, during business hours.

Let me provide a bit of background about the energy star program. Energy star is a joint effort of the environmental protection agency and the department of energy, that offers a label certification for both buildings and products. Most people are aware that your television or computer can have energy star certification. But energy star also has a buildings program including residential, commercial and industrial facilities.

As a house of worship, we fall under the congregations network of energy star. In order to qualify for this prestigious award, we collected a year’s worth of energy data for all fuel types, as well as some basic space characteristics such as our square footage, the number of refrigerator/freezer units, computers and more.

I have spent months working with the rabbi, jeff, carol and mike to locate these pieces of information and input them into energy star’s free online tool called portfolio manager. This tool provides a 1-100 score for energy performance and facilities that earn a score of 75 or higher are eligible to apply for the energy star label. Based on our management actions and conservation efforts thus far, our synagogue earned an energy performance score of 75. I should note that we could not have achieved this accomplishment without the assistance of Richard Reis, a professional engineer and member of the Washington ethical society, who volunteered his time to provide the required third party verification of our application, certifying that our data is an honest record of our size and consumption.

Being the national synagogue and all, it only added drama to the process when we learned that we had officially become the first synagogue in the country to earn this distinction. While many other shuls of all denominations have earned prestigious awards for their environmental activism and efficiency efforts, none have earned the energy star label.

While I am proud of our accomplishments, I have to be honest and say, we still have a long way to go. We still have more lights to replace and windows to reseal and recaulk and so much more that can be done. In fact, we have just begun to replace our outdated exit signs with LED high efficiency bulbs. A small sign that has a huge impact. And I should point out that energy is only one piece of the puzzle. We just installed new low flow hand washing sinks downstairs which you will notice when you go downstairs for lunch.

And we are taking efforts to educate our children about our greening efforts as well. A few months ago, I had the privilege to join with our youth director, Sarah Shapiro, to lead a Tu B’shvat seder for our kids and oversaw an arts and crafts table during the Purim carnival where we made recycled mishloach manot containers. Through these examples, I witnessed first hand, the impact of our shul’s greening program on our children. To them, treading lightly comes naturally. From being reminded not to waste their breakfast food to being gentle to the animals and plants we see outside, we have so much to learn from our children about caring for the earth.

Ohev has reached a milestone for Jewish communities across the country but we must keep our head Behar, on the mountain, so that we remember our obligation to hashem and to each other. To take only what we need and to make sure that what we take, is taken in a way that lessens its impact on the environment and on each other. I ask that you join me and Ohev in bringing our greening initiatives home with you today. You may ask what can I do to get involved?

Here is a list of a few things I came up with and you can feel free to add your own:

You can start by performing a home energy audit. Replacing incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents, using timers on Shabbat for lights and hotplates, installing dimmer switches or removing lights altogether when not needed. Turn off the water when brushing teeth, take shorter showers or bathe the kids together to save on water. Buy organic where possible, carpool to work and school, take public transportation and start reading the newspaper electronically. We all have so many decisions we make on a daily basis that impact the environment around us. It is up to us to decide how much pollution we put into the atmosphere by controlling our electricity and natural gas consumption, preventing water and paper waste and removing toxic chemicals from our homes and food supply. Let Ohev be our shared starting point. But please, for the sake of our children, take a piece home with you, here today.

ENERGY STAR has provided us with some free brochures for the grownups on how you can join Ohev on lessening your impact. We also have Lorax coloring books for the kids. Both are located on the table outside the sanctuary for you to take home. Make your commitment to guard the earth and keep it holy and be a light unto the nations. Not just in our daily minyanim, kashrut and Shabbat observances and but in our obligation to reduce our impact on this gift of a planet, we have been given. I welcome your feedback and your support as we embrace this honor and invite you to join me and the synagogue staff at our energy star plaque presentation this Monday at 2:30pm in the chapel. Please keep an eye out for the plaque which will be on display for all to see in the near future and hopefully this plaque will serve as a reminder to both our commitment and our obligation to tread lightly.

Shabbat shalom.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day

Every year around this time, I start looking forward to mother's day. Not for the bought gifts and fancy plans but for the homemade arts and crafts my big girl brings home from pre-school so proud and for the secretive planning my husband starts working on weeks in advance.

For those who know me, I am apparently a bit hard to keep a secret from. That combined with the fact that I work from home and pretty much know where everything is and recognize hidden items, makes me a challenging person to surprise. However, I love surprises. So my husband has taken to unexpected homemade dinners and other neat treats to allow us to celebrate this special day each year.

Today we had a family made dinner of a pizza bubble ring (sounds as cool as it is to eat), veggies and a special treat to finish it off. It was fun making the food with our kids and spending time together as a family. I also enjoyed a few hours off on my own to clear my head and walk around downtown.

Its always days like this when I think about my own mother and my recent trip to her grave in Massachusetts when we were in Boston for Passover. I have secretly always loved going to her cemetery, not just because I get to visit with her and my dear nana, may they rest in peace, but also because they are buried in a field surrounded by beautiful calming trees in a park of only plaques in the ground. Headstones have always bothered me, like people competing for attention and showing off their worldly possessions even after they have passed on. There is something soothing about seeing nature around us and knowing they are there underground with only a simple stone plaque surrounded by chirping birds and swaying trees.

I have also begun working on my May project which is overcoming my fear of public speaking. I have to get up in front of my entire synagogue next shabbat morning (that's 285 families worth of folks) and share my blog project and discuss my recent successes during my month of service where our synagogue won a very prestigious greening award. I keep asking myself what is it that makes me so fearful. Is it the people----no. The announcement of our award---no. Perhaps its the fear of opening up in such an active fashion. Unlike writing my blog or being featured in articles (check out this coming week's Washington Jewish Week for example), public speaking not only lets your voice be heard when you are sharing your emotions, but also requires you to show your face, your expressions to those around you. What if they reject what I say? What if they wanted me to say something else?

Its days like these when I am encompassed by the love of my family in a day-long extravaganza,that I remind myself that its ok to be loved, that its ok to let others show you what you mean to them, and that its ok to share who I am with others. Its the famous adage "better to have loved than lost than never to have loved at all" that is keeping me going. I wouldn't be me if I didn't lose my mom and I wouldn't be having this amazing year of experiences and internal struggles if I didn't set out a goal for myself to push myself to face these fears. Its game time as they say and I'm ready to rumble. Here goes nothing.....