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low cost and no cost efforts by replacing our incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents and retrofitting our outdated exit signs with light emitting diode (LED) counterparts.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.