The future of water in Los Angeles: What the Israeli experience can show us

Most people in Los Angeles don’t feel just how serious the city’s water predicament is.

After all, we are enjoying a respite right now; last year was a banner year for snow and rain. However, just three years ago we were battling a drought so severe that we had to have water rationing in Los Angeles. The anemic 2012 numbers for the Sierra Nevada snowpack (which provides most of our water) portend another shortage around the corner. 

Nearly 90 percent of our water comes from hundreds of miles away — the Owens Valley, the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta. All three of these sources are under pressure — imports from the Colorado River are capped, deliveries from the Delta are no longer fully dependable in view of the fragility of its ecosystem and the instability of its protective levies, and supplies from the Owens Valley have been significantly curtailed due to environmental obligations and an erratic snowpack. Steep price increases are projected for shipments from the Colorado and the Delta. We have to face the fact that the days of cheap, abundant imported water may be numbered. To compound matters, our sole indigenous resource of any consequence, our groundwater aquifer in the San Fernando Valley, which provides for around 10 percent of our consumption, is suffering from such contamination that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has had to close a substantial number of its wells.

Climate change will exacerbate the situation. Los Angeles is heavily dependent on the Sierra snowpack that feeds L.A.’s own aqueduct and the supply from the Sacramento Delta. The Sierra Nevada snowpack (effectively California’s largest surface-water reservoir) has already diminished by 10 percent since 1950 and will continue to shrink as more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow. LADWP has projected that by 2050 a water shortage worse than the 1977 drought could occur in one out of every six to eight years.

We must act now to shape a better destiny for our city — one built to a greater extent on our homegrown water resources. This is not a new concept. Indeed, this is exactly what the 2008 Water Supply Plan, drafted during my tenure at LADWP and announced by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, espouses. It is disheartening that four years after its release, its tenets still remain distant goals — the result of our failure as a city to garner the political will and gather the funding necessary to provide for our future. LADWP is currently attempting to obtain rate increases to finance the programs envisaged by the Water Supply Plan, such as wastewater recycling, rainfall capture, groundwater remediation and underground storage. Angelenos should support this effort.

In envisioning this road to a new water future, it may be helpful to study the experience of other countries that have made radical changes in their water portfolios. 

One such country is Israel. 

Israel has suffered a chronic water shortage for years. By the mid-1990s, a combination of unrelenting drought, population growth, urbanization (impeding the normal recharge of aquifers from rainfall) and man-made pollution led to the depletion and degradation of Israel’s natural water resources — Lake Kinneret and the country’s mountain and coastal aquifers. This crisis threatened the very adequacy of the country’s domestic water supply. As a result, Israel has embarked on a wide-ranging strategy that includes desalination, wastewater reclamation, conservation, infrastructure upgrade and rate reform strategies — all under the jurisdiction and leadership of Mekorot, the Israeli national water company. 

Israel has already begun to reap benefits from its water revolution, accomplishing the highest rate of wastewater reclamation in the world, an enviable conservation record and landmark advances in desalination processes. Mekorot has emerged as a world leader in water technologies and is today sharing its expertise and engaging in global business transactions. In effect, Israel’s actions to solve its water crisis have become exportable assets providing valuable know-how to others while also bringing revenues to Mekorot.

This is not to suggest that Israel and Los Angeles are in the same position; Israel’s water exigencies are certainly graver that any presently confronting Los Angeles, and Israel’s geopolitical and security situations place it under much greater pressures than we in Los Angeles can even begin to imagine. However, there are some intriguing parallels between Los Angeles and Israel. Both have a semiarid climate, and both face recurrent droughts and the uncertainties of climate change. Israel and Los Angeles also have similar policies for dealing with their respective water supply problems. 

However, there is at least one important distinction: Israel has staked its water future, to a large extent, on seawater desalination; Los Angeles has not, although desalination technologies are utilized in wastewater reclamation, aquifer remediation and other methodologies. As can be seen from the list below, ocean desalination is conspicuously missing from the L.A. Water Supply Plan as a strategy for obtaining a new water resource for the city. This is because, unlike Israel, Los Angeles has a long way to go in first attaining practical levels of wastewater recycling, conservation, rain capture and aquifer purification before it can justify desalinating the ocean (given the high monetary and environmental cost of this choice); Israel has already substantially exhausted these other options and has determined that it has no choice but to turn to the Mediterranean. It is reported that Israel will spend around $15 billion on its five new coastal desalination plants. Mekorot is regarded as peerless in terms of optimizing the design and operation of desalination plants to reduce cost, energy consumption and environmental impacts, but the fact remains that for us in Los Angeles, desalination is the most expensive of treatment technologies (especially compared to wastewater reclamation, aquifer remediation and conservation), the most energy intensive and the most problematic as far as environmental effects are concerned (considering the land area needed and marine life and brine disposal matters). It makes little sense for Los Angeles to pursue ocean desalination as a first-tier policy when it is recycling negligible amounts of its wastewater (see below). It would be illogical to clean our wastewater, dump it in the ocean, and then suck it back up and desalinate it; we need to reclaim and reuse that wastewater before it hits the ocean. Still, Israel’s advances are of tremendous benefit to us because these desalination technologies can be applied to other water purification methods beyond seawater desalination.

As a first step for Los Angeles, we need to recognize that our imported-water model (compounded by the advent of climate change) may simply not be sustainable as we seek a secure, affordable, adequate water supply for the Los Angeles of tomorrow. The 2008 Water Supply Plan already gives us the blueprint; we now need the leadership, and LADWP needs the funding, to implement it.

Let’s review the strategies for Los Angeles:

Conservation. Los Angeles has done extremely well; our population has grown by more than a million people over the last 25 years, and yet our water consumption has actually declined. Our per capita use is now less than 120 gallons a day, the lowest of any American city with a population of more than a million people. During my tenure at LADWP, we were able to dramatically reduce water consumption levels using the combination of a public outreach campaign, the enactment of the Water Conservation Ordinance (together with the deployment of the Water Conservation Team to enforce it), a rate regime to send a potent conservation signal, and a panoply of rebates and incentives to encourage behavior change. The positive results of those steps are still with us today. But, we can do better. We may be able to boast a low consumption rate in contrast to other American cities, but not in relation to other parts of the world. As a point of comparison, the per capita daily consumption number for Israelis is around 70 gallons. This is partly because a water conservation ethos is taught to Israelis from a very young age, an example we are now emulating in Los Angeles. Let’s remember also that around 40 percent of the water used in Los Angeles is outside the home — those ubiquitous sprinklers quenching the relentless thirst of lawns. By installing California landscaping and drip irrigation, a great deal of water can be saved.     

Infrastructure. Our pipelines are deteriorating, and current replacement and repair programs aren’t keeping pace. Across the United States, there are more than 240,000 water-main breaks annually (650 per day). It is estimated that this translates to wasting 7 billion gallons per day. Around 20 percent of LADWP’s pipelines are more than 100 years old. Strengthening LADWP’s repair and replacement program will protect the integrity of the system and provide a new source of water.

New building standards. We have made great strides in Los Angeles with our fixtures ordinance, which requires water-saving appliances to be incorporated in new development; the Low Impact Development Ordinance; the Green Building Ordinance; and other measures. Much more can be done by way of legal mandates, especially with respect to gray-water systems, cisterns, metering and other design features to conserve water. 

Wastewater recycling. This has to be a crucial element of any program to produce new water. In Los Angeles, we’ve spent billions of dollars building state-of-the-art plants to treat our wastewater to a high degree (secondary and tertiary levels), only to throw it away in the ocean. Other jurisdictions have long discovered that wastewater is an asset and have devised ways to reclaim it safely and affordably. Israel now reclaims almost 80 percent of its wastewater for irrigation and industrial uses. In Los Angeles itself, our rate is a paltry 2 percent. LADWP plans a substantial expansion of reuse projects for both nonpotable and potable applications. 

Rainfall capture. It is estimated that 60 percent of the rain that falls on Los Angeles is wasted. It hits impervious surfaces (roads, roofs, parking lots) and runs untreated to the ocean through an extensive storm drain system, only to foul the coast. This is both a water quantity and water quality problem. It is a central paradox of our city that in exactly this place so dependent on imported water we treat our own rainfall like some evil force to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. We have to learn to build differently so that we don’t continually add impermeable areas. Here, our Low Impact Development Ordinance and other regulatory mandates are steps in the right direction. Israel, too, has to address the issue of lost rain as a result of urbanization that precludes the natural seepage of rain to recharge groundwater. Mekorot builds and operates catchments for the retention of rain. One example is the facility at the Shikma River, south of the City of Ashkelon, which can store up to 6 million cubic meters (nearly 5,000 acre feet) of rainwater.

Aquifer remediation. Roughly 10 percent of our water comes from our own aquifer in the San Fernando Valley. It’s a tragedy that this irreplaceable resource is suffering from contamination from human activities, which continues to spread. To its credit, LADWP has decided to execute a plan to save this basin. Israel is likewise no stranger to the qualitative deterioration of groundwater resources (as a result of over-extraction, seawater intrusion and anthropogenic pollution) and to the means that can be employed to redress these problems. In Israel, contamination caused by human activity menacing the coastal aquifer includes nitrates (probably from fertilizers), fuel (from leaks at oil refineries), volatile organic compounds (from industrial activities) and perchlorate, a rocket fuel. Pollution from pesticides and fertilizers has also posed a threat to the health of Lake Kinneret. 

Underground storage. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, it is foreseeable that long dry spells will follow periods of heavy precipitation, that the Sierras will receive more rain than snow, and that the pattern and timing of snowmelt will change. This all points to the need to store water underground during the times of plenty for use in the lean years. Storing underground avoids losses due to evaporation and contamination resulting from aerial deposition.

The foregoing, then, is the roadmap for providing a degree of water security for Los Angeles as we contemplate a future in which our imported water sources won’t expand and may well contract as climate change takes hold and other factors play out.

The problem, of course, is to find the funding necessary for these programs. Achieving a rate increase in Los Angeles is a very political, public, often contentious exercise. Rate revisions require a broad-based, painstaking, time-consuming campaign — a dialogue with every segment of society, including business, labor, environmental, neighborhood and faith-based groups — so that these stakeholders will take ownership of the issue and, in turn, pressure the decision-makers to do what is necessary. Further, it’s not just the rate increase that needs to be explained and defended, but also the rate design because we must ensure that the burden of the rate hikes won’t fall on those least able to bear them. LADWP is going through this process right now and the L.A. City Council is scheduled to consider the requested rate additions in August.

In 2010, Israelis acceded to a number of rate increases, starting with a whopping 25 percent hike in January 2010 (with subsequent additional raises) to support construction of desalination plants. This was a difficult, divisive process in Israel, but most Israelis were convinced of the need for the increases. Our water officials in Los Angeles must gain the trust of Angelenos; I firmly believe that if our rate-payers have confidence in the truth of the reasons being offered for rate increases, they will support them, even in harsh economic times. Otherwise, we will be courting a water crisis.

H. David Nahai is a consultant and attorney specializing in water, energy and real estate matters. He is the former general manager and commission president of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, chair of the Regional Water Quality Control Board and senior adviser to the Clinton Climate Initiative.

Ceremony launches multi-year conservation project at Auschwitz

A ceremony on the grounds of Auschwitz officially kicked off a multi-year, $150 million conservation project.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum on Wednesday officially opened its Global Conservation Plan, which will take many years of conservation work funded by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.

Israeli Ambassador to Poland Zvi Rav-Ner during the ceremony called the initiative “a holy mission.” Auschwitz was a “German Nazi death factory,” he said, in which 1.5 million people were killed.

“The memory is important,” Rav-Ner said. “There are many voices on the world which say that Auschwitz didn’t happen and there were no millions of victims.”

Some 20 countries are supporting the foundation’s project. The highest donations and declarations are $37.7 million from Germany; $15 million from the United States; $12.5 million from Poland; $7.5 million from Austria; $6.3 million from France; $3.3 million from the United Kingdom; and $1 million from of Israel.

The foundation aims to bring in approximately $150 million for the Perpetual Fund. The annual interest of several million dollars will make it possible to plan and carry out the conservation work.

The memorial is nearly 200 hectares of grounds, 155 buildings and 300 ruins, including of the gas chambers and crematoria, as well as more than 100,000 personal items that belonged to the victims. Other items include archival documents and prisoners’ artworks.

The first phase of the project reportedly is to restore the 45 brick barracks at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Reform, Conservative St. Louis day schools to merge

Two St. Louis Jewish day schools, a Reform and a Conservative, have voted to merge.

The boards of the Conservative-affiliated Solomon Schechter Day School of St. Louis and the Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy backed the merger in separate votes Monday, according to the St. Louis Jewish Light. Passage required two-thirds majority of each school’s board.

The new school, to be known as the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, will open for the 2012-13 school year and accommodate 175 students from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Cheryl Maayan, the Reform Jewish Academy’s head of school, will lead the merged entity. Maayan and William Rowe, the interim head of school at Solomon Schechter, told the Jewish Light that the new school will be inclusive of Jewish students and support their families’ choices in observance.

Red-Dead canal idea stirs controversy

HERZLIYA, Israel (JTA) – On aerial photographs, the shrinking Dead Sea juts into the surrounding desert landscape like a blue index finger.

As part of the effort to prevent this finger from becoming a mere smudge on the map by 2050, the World Bank is conducting a $14 million study into the practicalities of building a channel to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which is shrinking rapidly due to evaporation and upstream water diversion.

Proponents say the plan could rescue the Dead Sea while supplying desalinated water and hydroelectric power to the region.

“We will have to balance the technological, environmental and economic issues at the heart of this complex study,” Peter Darley, the team leader of the feasibility part of the World Bank study, said at a public hearing last week in Herzliya.

Similar public hearings were held earlier in the week in Amman, Jordan, and the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The governments of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, all of which stand to benefit from such a project, had asked the World Bank to fund and oversee the study on the implications of building a 112-mile long conveyance system—either a canal or pipeline—to bring the water to the Dead Sea.

The idea has come under intense fire from Israeli environmentalists and water experts, who argue that more time than the year currently allotted needs to be devoted to studying the possible scientific consequences of the project.

They cite the potential environmental damages the project could cause, whether it be to the fragile coral reefs of the Red Sea or the unique Dead Sea ecosystem. They say alternatives must be studied in tandem by independent-minded international consultants—not representatives of the three governments involved, as is currently proposed.

“It’s like asking a cat to guard a bowl of milk,” said Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East.

Bromberg and other critics of the canal plan charge that the Israeli, Jordanian and P.A. governments are interested in the canal solution because the international community might foot the bill for it as a massive desalinization or peace project.

Alex McPhail, the program manager at the World Bank who is overseeing the overall study of the project, says the bank is being methodical and scientific in its approach. He noted that the World Bank’s approach consists of three parts: a feasibility study, an environmental impact study and a report on alternative solutions.

“It’s an environmental question mark and that’s why we are doing these studies,” McPhail said. “It’s very important that we examine and understand all the potential environmental implications.”

Proponents of the canal project argue that the project could be a one-stop solution for replenishing the waters of the Dead Sea, generating energy, and providing drinking and agricultural water for Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians.

The project also is being touted as a rare symbol of regional cooperation.

“There is an interest internationally in saving the Dead Sea and this could also help bring water to the region that badly needs it,” said Uri Schor, a spokesman for the Israeli Water Authority.

Addressing environmentalists’ concerns, he added, “That is why everything is being checked out first.”

“We need to check all the options. If the project is deemed unsuitable, then we won’t do it. But if there are no problems found, then why shouldn’t we pursue it?”

Some developers see the project dubbed the Red-Dead Canal as a potential boon.

Isaac Tshuva, the Israeli real estate magnate, has answered President Shimon Peres’ vision for a so-called Peace Valley to be built along the canal—a corridor of shimmering skyscrapers, casinos, man-made lakes and 200,000 hotel rooms. That’s more hotels rooms than currently exist in all of Israel. The vision is for a new tourist and industrial mecca that planners hope would draw as many as 3 million Israelis to live in the region.

The project, whose scale would be unprecedented in Israel, has been described as Las Vegas meets Dubai in the Arava Desert.

Its detractors roundly condemn it as an environmental nightmare.

In 2007, when Peres was Israel’s minister in charge of Negev and Galilee development, a government decision declared the Peace Valley project and the canal as national projects.

At the time, some environmentalists warned that political and business interests were being mixed too closely at the potential expense of the environment.

Baruch Spiegel, Peres’ adviser for regional affairs, rejects any such notions.

The government made its decision to prioritize the project because of Israel’s water crisis and the shrinking of the Dead Sea, he told JTA. The Dead Sea’s water levels are dropping by about 3.2 to 3.5 feet per year.

“This is a major vision of the president of Israel—to use water and energy as a catalyst for peace and stability,” Spiegel said, emphasizing that environmental concerns will come first and any development that follows will have to adhere to strict guidelines.

“All options are being examined very carefully,” he said. “But without a project, things will get worse.”

Some Israeli and Arab environmentalists say the Jordan River, historically the main source for the Dead Sea’s water, should be rehabilitated rather than undertaking such a complex and expensive project as the canal. They also suggest reforms in the chemical industries on both sides of the sea, which are blamed for contributing to the Dead Sea’s dwindling water levels.

Among the environmentalists’ main concerns is that mixing Dead Sea and Red Sea water could damage the Dead Sea’s unique ecosystem, leading to growth of algae that could change the color and buoyancy of the water. That would also damage the tourism industry that has sprung up around the Dead Sea in both Israel and Jordan.

Others note that if the salty marine water from a canal or pipeline were to leak, it could seep into the ground water and contaminate local aquifers. There are also concerns that the coral reefs of the Red Sea could be harmed by the pumping out of so much of its water.

“I’m worried,” Yehoshua Shkedi, chief scientist of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority said at last week’s hearing in Herzliya. “I have a feeling not enough money or time is being given to research to answer major questions. Good studies have to be done.”

For Gundi Shahal, a member of Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which sits near the banks of the Dead Sea, the questions about the canal plan are not just academic.

“Who will take responsibility for the impact on our lives, livelihoods and what we call home?” she asked at last week’s hearing.

Save the Dead Sea by restoring the Jordan River, not a canal to the Red Sea

TEL AVIV (JTA)—Environmentalists in Israel and the Middle East have a clear vision on how to save the Dead Sea, which has been losing 850 million cubic meters per year thanks to water diversion upstream and mineral extraction at the sea.

This vision sees fresh water flowing again into the Dead Sea from the Jordan River, arresting the sea’s declining water levels. It envisions Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian communities that live along the Jordan River benefiting collectively from a revitalized economy based on shared water and sustainable tourism, including Christian pilgrimages to holy sites on the rehabilitated river.

This vision, however, could not be more different from that of the World Bank, Israeli President Shimon Peres or Israeli billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva.

Their solution is to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which they say also will counter water scarcity in the region and bolster peace ties. Along the route of the canal, in the Arava Valley, Peres and Tshuva have proposed building artificial lakes, casinos, Dubai-style skyscrapers and 200,000 hotel rooms.

Ignoring the environmental impact of their plan is a grave mistake.

The Red-to-Dead canal plan places the fragile coral reefs of the Jordanian city of Akaba and the Israeli city of Eilat at risk. Pumping 2 billion cubic meters of water out of the Red Sea could alter water temperatures in the Red Sea Gulf.

Transporting seawater in a pipeline or open canal through the Arava Valley, an area where earthquakes regularly occur, likely would lead to spills and the salinization of groundwater. And the development ideas Peres and Tshuva harbor for the route of the canal would transform the unique desert landscape of the rift valley in the Arava into a Las Vegas-type strip mall.

The canal plan jeopardizes the Dead Sea as well. Scientists are now vocal in their concerns that mixing sea water with the unique minerals of the Dead Sea could lead to the growth of algae and turn the Dead Sea’s waters from deep blue to reddish brown.

By contrast, rehabilitating the Jordan River would strengthen existing but all-but-forgotten Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley by bringing an influx of tourists and investment to the struggling region. New infrastructure would have to be built to accommodate the tourists, helping revitalize a region that is home to 350,000 people.

Rehabilitating the river would not require restoring its historical flow of 1.3 billion cubic meters per year. We can make do with just a quarter of that, 350 million.

To do so, however, we have to stop drawing so much water out of the Jordan’s tributaries, including Lake Kinneret.

How? Studies show that Israel could reduce domestic water consumption by 30 percent by promoting a combination of policy directives, from education for water conservation to pricing reforms. Rainwater harvesting, waterless toilets and low-water-use appliances need to be supported by legislation and grants. Domestic water measures would save some 200 million cubic meters of water per year.

The balance would have to come from reforms in the agriculture sector, which consumes about 500 million cubic meters of fresh water per year. Water authorities and environmentalists already agree that Israeli agriculture should be based solely on recycling treated sewage water. But while the water authorities want the savings to go toward satisfying increased urban demand for water, environmentalists want to see the saved water returned to nature, including the Jordan River.

The vision of Friends of the Earth Middle East is to decouple population and economic growth from increased freshwater demand. Our region, not Europe, should be the model for ingenuity in water conservation.

As for the Dead Sea, we believe the sea’s water level should be stabilized, not restored to its historical levels, last seen around 1930. Some 850 million cubic meters of water would be needed per year for stabilization.

If the aforementioned water reforms are applied in Israel and Jordan, a revived Jordan River could supply 500 million cubic meters of that, solving 60 percent of the problem. The 350 million balance must come from the mineral extraction companies at the Dead Sea, which are responsible for 40 percent of the water that leaves the Dead Sea every year.

It’s time that the Israeli and Jordanian publics demand that the enormous profits being earned by these companies—Dead Sea Works in Israel and the Arab Potash Company in Jordan—be invested in new technology to extract minerals without evaporating so much Dead Sea water.

The demise of the Dead Sea is man-made. Environmentalists should not be condemned for insisting on looking at the causes of the demise: upstream water diversion and mineral extraction.

Our vision is based on water sharing, water conservation technologies, sustainable agriculture and sustainable tourism. The Peres-Tshuva-World Bank vision may lead to ecological disaster.

Gidon Bromberg is the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East,, a regional environmental organization that brings Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to work together in a common effort in search of peace and sustainability.

Israel Invests in Clean Tech as energy Crunch Looms

At a lab in Rehovot, the man who developed the Arrow missile is consumed with his next mission: making Israel energy independent by using cheap solar power.

“The issue of energy is the greatest danger to Israel, because in 30 years there will be no energy means, no oil and no gas, and the use of coal will be prohibited,” said Dov Raviv, now the CEO of MST, an Israeli renewable energy company. “Without energy Israel cannot survive, and we must find a substitute and find it fast. That is what I am trying to do.”

Raviv’s company is working to reduce the high price of solar power, which is not yet competitive with the price of conventional energy sources like oil, by more efficiently harnessing solar energy through a method of concentrating sunlight on a matrix of single solar cells.

MST is one of dozens of alternative energy start-ups across Israel seeking solutions to the global energy crisis.

Among the innovations under development are a gear system that dramatically boosts the efficiency of wind turbines, a device that would reduce gas emissions from trucks, the generation of bio-fuels from desert plants and various techniques to generate energy from unlikely sources, including seaweed and sewage water.

Entrepreneurs say Israeli solutions can help not only Israel but also the world.

“Israel has the minds, the R&D, the technology and the entrepreneurship, but we are lagging behind in terms of actual deployment,” said David Schwartz, the chairman of MyPlanet, an Israeli consortium of companies involved in energy and security issues. “This is impeding reaching our full potential as a source of alternative energy for the world.”

Israel’s leadership in the development of alternative energy also can have security benefits. If the world is weaned from its overwhelming dependence on oil, the oil-rich autocratic regimes that surround the Jewish state, including Iran, will have less oil revenue to pay for their anti-Israel activities — whether the development of nuclear weapons or the funding of fundamentalist terrorist groups.

During a recent visit to Israel to accept the $1 million Dan David Award for promoting environmental awareness, Al Gore asked a question many Israelis have been pondering themselves: “How is it here, in the land of the sun, there is no widespread use of solar energy?”

Alternative energy is “good for the Jews,” Gore told a conference on the subject at Tel Aviv University.

Industry observers say more aggressive government policies, such as underwriting renewable energy initiatives and granting more land for power plants, are needed to bolster the development of alternative energy.

“Europe and the U.S. have made incredible strides,” Schwartz said. “Israel has not.”

Meanwhile, Israel has an energy shortage looming. Israel’s supply capacity is 10,600 megawatts per day, and the country has come dangerously close to exceeding that demand on especially hot and cold days.

With limited energy reserves to accommodate for surges, and as the country’s population and energy use grows, the problem is becoming more acute.

The head of the Israel Energy Forum, Yael Cohen-Paran, says some relatively simple measures could significantly reduce the load on the energy grid: cash rebates for those who purchase energy-efficient air conditioning and heating units, and government encouragement of energy-saving building practices.

The long-term solution, however, may require more of a shift.

At the Tel Aviv energy conference, Israel’s infrastructure minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, responded to criticism of government policy on the issue by announcing a commitment to increase the share of such energies to 15 percent to 20 percent of Israel’s total energy use by 2020, double that of previous targets.

He also pledged to adopt a plan to build one new solar station per year for the next 20 years and introduce a bill to make the Negev Desert and southern Israel a “national preference region” for renewable energies. Tax breaks and other incentives would be part of the package.

Yossi Abramowitz, the president of Arava Power, wants to install 62,500 solar panels by year’s end on the sun-drenched sands of Israel’s deserts. He says his company has found investors to pay for solar power stations that would be capable of supplying up to 500 megawatts of electricity for the country — nearly 5 percent of Israel’s daily energy needs during daylight hours.

The project relies on the use of photovoltaics, or PV, a relatively expensive technology that uses a fraction of the silicon used in conventional solar panels to convert sunlight-generated photons into energy.

But for this energy to be competitive on the open market, the government needs to double its current rate of subsidy, Abramowitz says, bringing Israel more in line with the levels of subsidy in countries such as Germany and Spain.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev recently announced a new deal with Israeli start-up Zenith Solar to license solar energy technology developed by its researchers that could revolutionize the way solar power is collected and drastically reduce its price.

The new method, a form of “concentrated PV,” would use fewer of the expensive silicon solar cells to create energy. Instead it would use low-cost glass mirrors to collect sunlight and then focus it onto a relatively small amount of those solar cells to generate power.

The Israeli founder of an algae fuel company called GreenFuel, Isaac Berzin, who was named by Time magazine as one of its Top 100 people in the world for 2008, says Israel is too small of a country to keep such technology to itself.

“Israel should be a catalyst for change,” Berzin said. “Israel is a very small market, a very small place in the middle of nowhere, but it has here what it takes in terms of technology, the know-how to change the world.”

A Festival of Lights — lite

How many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb?

Here’s a hint: Sing this song by Deborah Kornfield to the tune of “I Have a Little Dreidel”:

I have a brand new lightbulb,
It’s a miracle you see;
It lights the room completely,
Using half the energy.
Oh compact fluorescent lightbulb.
I really have to kvell;
It’s just so energy efficient.
And it saves you gelt as well.

The question is, in fact, the name of a campaign launched by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). Humorous title and cute lyrics aside, COEJL is on a serious mission to heighten ecoconsciousness in a Jewish context, and this initiative focuses on — you guessed it — energy-efficient lightbulbs.

COEJL’s Web site describes its three-pronged approach of “engaging the Jewish community in awareness, advocacy and concrete action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote energy conservation and sustainable legislation,” in order to “change how American Jewry responds to … daunting environmental problems.”

This all sounds good, but why, you may be wondering, is this a Jewish issue?
God said this to Adam: “See My works, how good and praiseworthy they are? And all that I have created, I made for you. [But] be mindful that you do not spoil and destroy My world — for if you spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).

And, COEJL argues, Jewish values such as tikkun olam and tzedek should be extended to include not just people but other animals and plants.

OK, you’ve conceded. It is Jewish. But is this really about Chanukah?

Well, what about the Festival of Lights? About making resources last longer than we thought they could? Like for eight nights, perhaps?

High-efficiency lightbulbs actually last eight times longer than regular lightbulbs. Imagine that. And speaking of the number eight, see COEJL’s list of eight actions in eight days as a simple and concrete way to bring some ecoconsciousness into your Chanukah holiday practice.

So, you might be left wondering, just how many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb? As many as possible. As of the writing of this article, more than 20,000 energy-efficient lightbulbs have been sold through COEJL, saving 8,250 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

So, as you nosh on your latkes this Chanukah, be a modern-day Maccabee — take action against global warming and environmental degradation.

Rachel Kantrowitz is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

The Treasures on Top of the Mountain

By many accounts, it ranks just below Jerusalem as one of Israel’s most beloved treasures. It holds United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) status as a World Heritage Site. Conde Nast Traveler magazine even named it the “World’s Best Monument.”

Masada, which represents a stronghold of Jewish courage and defiance, is among Israel’s most visited sites. Located in the Judean Desert, adjacent to the Dead Sea, King Herod the Great built Masada 2,100 years ago as both his winter palace and a place where he would retreat in times of crisis.

Thanks to monumental excavations begun in 1964 under the direction of Yigal Yadin, visitors regularly come to this lone mountain. At a sharp peak of 1,200 feet, Herod fashioned this marvelous palace with three floors of elegant halls. Its many other wonders included heated bath houses decorated with still-visible mosaics, a remarkable plumbing system to gather runoff from nearby flash floods and even chambers for storing ice in the desert heat. Masada, it seemed, was unconquerable.

But after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, fate would eventually prove otherwise. Some 960 Jewish zealots took over the abandoned palace as the last independent Jewish holdout in the Land of Israel against conquering Roman armies. The refugees survived atop Masada for three years until a 36-month Roman siege, involving tens of thousands of Roman soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Jewish slaves, finally succeeded.

What the Romans found when they arrived was a community that had taken its own lives rather than become captive slaves. The Roman siege ramp on the western side of Masada that led to the end of the battle still offers easy walking access to the top of the fortress. From there, you can also see the outlines of several Roman camps below.

The World Heritage Committee recognized Masada under the auspices of UNESCO, describing it as “a symbol of the ancient Jewish kingdom of Israel, an example of the opulence and luxury of the early Roman Empire and a symbol of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.”

In advance of expected, heavy millennium year tourism, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, in conjunction with the National Park Authority, completed a $40 million conservation and renovation project at the site. A 90-minute drive southeast of Jerusalem or about 20 minutes from Ein Gedi, Masada now includes a state-of-the-art visitors center, as well as high-speed, high-capacity cable cars, which start at the eastern entrance, one mile from the Dead Sea. But hundreds of visitors each day choose to hike up Masada’s Snake Path.

The weather is accommodating year-round, though high summer temperatures suggest an early morning visit. If you’re up for an early morning arrival, it’s a magnificent place to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Plan on spending about three hours to tour the site.

Masada is reachable via regularly scheduled bus service from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Eilat. Use the western entrance for the nighttime sound-and-light show (fee required). For more information, sound-and-light show schedule and admission fees, visit

Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor


Q: When does a Christmas tree become a Tu B’Shevat tree?


A: When a Westwood church and a Santa Monica synagogue decide that having one tree do double duty is good both for the environment and the spiritual awareness of their congregants.


After the hard-working tree has done its dual job, it will be planted in a public park for everyone to enjoy.

Fifty Jewish families from Beth Shir Sholom and 50 Christian families from the Westwood Hills Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ are each contributing $36 to jointly purchase one tree, for a total of 50 trees.

The trees, in planters, were delivered to the church on Dec. 12, during a joint celebration with temple members.

After the Christmas season, on Jan. 9, the trees will be delivered to Beth Shir Sholom families, who will care for them for the next three weeks.

Although Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of Trees, falls on Jan. 25 this year, the actual tree planting will be delayed until Sunday, Jan. 30.

On the morning of Jan. 30, the Christian and Jewish families will meet at the temple and nosh on the fruits symbolic of the holiday, after blessings by the rabbi.

Immediately afterward, the trees will be transported to the Ed Edelman Park in Topanga Canyon and planted there with the help of the TreePeople, Malibu Creek State Park and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

“This project marks the convergence of two traditions, without detracting from the integrity of either one,” said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom, the “Progressive Reform” congregation long active in interfaith relations. “In both traditions, trees symbolize new life and hope.”

“We tend to link Christmas and Chanukah because they happen around the same time,” said the Rev. Kirsten Linford-Steinfeld of the church. Linford-Steinfeld, who is married to a Jewish man, warmly endorsed the project. “I think it’s a neat idea to connect two of our holidays in a different way, especially since Tu B’Shevat comes exactly one month after Christmas this year.”

The project was the brainchild of Nurit Ze’evi, who thought of the idea when she remembered her childhood in Israel and the Tu B’Shevat holiday.

This year, the project will be on a trial run, but Ze’evi already has more ambitious plans for the future.

In a poem she wrote for the occasion, Ze’evi envisions that in the years to come, hundreds and then thousands of Christians and Jews will join hands in planting Christmas/Tu B’Shevat trees in Los Angeles, the United States and across the world.


Your Letters

A Conservative Challenge

In our studies at Beth Chayim Chadashim’s (BCC) Queer JewishThink Tank, we are not throwing out the halacha, nor are we bending andtwisting the texts to suit our own devices (“A Conservative Challenge,” Jan.17).

BCC and Rabbi Lisa Edwards are at the forefront of thisexploration and are 100 percent committed to the full integration and acceptanceof gay Jews within Judaism.

To relegate a Reform synagogue to the sidelines in thisglobally impacting discussion and to discount the essential importance of BCC,a 30-year-old gay synagogue, by not consulting them for your “Out of theCloset” issue, is shortsighted at the very least. 

There is a danger in leaving the entire halachic, Talmudicand Tanachic “playing-field” to those who dwell “inside the box.” Other voicesmust be listened to and those other voices do have a great deal to say.

Melanie Henderson, Los Angeles

Thank you for your excellent article covering thecontroversy within the Conservative movement about the inclusion of gay,lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. However, I wish to take strongexception to the comments of Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of the JewishTheological Seminary, who said that ordaining gays and performing commitmentceremonies for us would fracture the movement.

The movement is already fractured. I was raised in aConservative home, and my grandfather was one of the founders of the movementin Chicago.

As a gay man I am a second-class citizen, my relationship of20 years unrecognized, my learning unimportant. In many Conservative shuls, Iam not welcome in positions of leadership or for honors on the bimah.

Like so many other gay folk, I have joined the Reformmovement where I am much more welcome, although my practice and beliefs aremore in line with Conservative ideology. I guess I just don’t count when itcomes to assessing what is happening in the Conservative movement.

It’s already fractured, rabbi. Open your eyes and watch thepeople leave that you have driven out.

Avram Chill, Silver Lake

Plant a Tree, Save a Car

Rob Eshman’s logic on oil is a little slippery (“Plant aTree, Save a Car,” Jan. 17). If it is in the Jewish interest to reducedependence on Arab oil, then why not support tapping into domestic sources ofenergy as well as conservation?

Environmentalists, who seem to oppose all oil drillinganywhere in America, share the blame with SUV owners for fattening the Saudibank accounts that find their way to terrorist groups.

Conservation and new technologies are important, but like itor not the U.S. economy is going to need a lot of oil for many years to come.

The United States (and Jewish interests) cannot afford todeclare these energy sources off-limits due to the childish, fanatical mindsetof many environmentalists.

Frederick Singer, Huntington Beach

Send Troops

In reading Rob Eshman’s article, “Send Troops” (Jan. 10), Iam greatly disappointed in his apparent lack of understanding of the realitiesof the world situation. The worst idea that could be proposed is for the United States to send troops to Israel to serve as a buffer. I shudder to think ofwhat the fallout would be from U.S. troops killing Israelis trying to break upa firefight between Israel and the Palestinians, especially if it was perceivedas intentional.  And if U.S. troops, acting as buffers, don’t try to intercede,why would Israel need a buffer force?

Emanuel R. Baker, Los Angeles

From L.A. to Tel Aviv

In David Margolis’ story about The Federation’s Tel Aviv-LosAngeles Partnership (“From L.A. to Tel Aviv — A Partnership That Works,” Jan.3) he did not distinguish between projects, which are conceived, developed andexecuted by the Partnership’s staff and lay committees, and those in which thePartnership is a partial source of funding for implementing projects ofindependent institutions with goals that complement and reinforce those of thePartnership. The Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity is one suchindependent institution.

One example of the center’s recent work is “The Dybbuk”project, a two-year-old, ongoing three-way collaborative effort among the TelAviv University and UCLA theater departments and the Center, with eachinstitution providing the talents of its respective artists in the creation ofa pioneering world-class contemporary dramatic musical work based on a Jewishclassic.

Despite the article’s unfortunate omission of the Center, welook forward to continue sharing the Center’s accumulated experience andexpertise in developing and strengthening Israeli-Diaspora relations throughJewish culture in the communities of Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, and to involvingthe Partnership in future Center initiatives directed toward shared goals.

John H. Rauch, President Center for Jewish Culture andCreativity

David Margolis’ otherwise comprehensive article missed oneof the more ambitious projects which is currently being explored by the TelAviv-Los Angeles Partnership of The Jewish Federation. That is, the attempt tocreate in Tel Aviv a legal services agency modeled after Bet Tzedek LegalServices. Bet Tzedek is the only Jewish organization in the country that isdedicated to providing free legal services to the poor, elderly and disabledmembers of the community, covering a wide variety of legal areas. Further, itis the only organization to provide free assistance to, and representation of,Holocaust survivors in applying for reparations and other available programs.

Tel Aviv has a significant indigent population who havevirtually no access to the legal system and is very much in need of anorganization like Bet Tzedek. We hope this project will take root and come tofruition during the coming year.

Stanley Kandel, President , Board of Directors Bet TzedekLegal Services

Second Generation

I would like to thank Rachel Brand for the thoughtful andcomprehensive article about the Second Generation (“Support Group Helps SecondGeneration,” Dec. 27). In addition, I would like to clarify a few minor points.Many Second Generation individuals have achieved fully actualized lives,successfully incorporating the lessons learned at home to become some of themost productive members of our community.

The goals of our organization now are to provide asupportive environment where those who share our legacy can exchange ideas andfeelings about their heritage. We promote Holocaust education and memorialization,foster an understanding of the implications of the lessons of the Holocaust onsociety and support both the State of Israel and the Los Angeles Museum of theHolocaust.

Dr. Morry Waskberg, Vice President

I wanted to thank you for writing such a sensitive andcaring article about the noble organization Second Generation and survivors ofthe Holocaust, especially now when so many people that I know and work with tryand say that the Holocaust never existed and that it’s only a big lie createdby Jews.

Some day, people like the doctor you interviewed won’t be around totell their story or their parents’ story. And the people who say the Holocaust wasa lie and that Jews were never singled out and murdered will win the publicover with their lies.

Name Withheld by Request, Los Angeles

Lowering the Bar

Thank you Gary Wexler (“A Plea to Lower the Bar on BarMitzvahs,” Jan. 10) for openly saying what too many of us do not have thecourage to say when it comes to extravagant, vulgar, inappropriate, hedonistic,tasteless parties that have come to define the terms bar mitzvah and batmitzvah all too often.

Wexler’s article should be required reading for every Jewishparent of children 10 and older. It should be sent by synagogues and rabbis toparents and children. It should be given to every parent when the bar mitzvahdate is given. I hate to use the term “silent majority,” but I hope there isone, and that more parents develop the character to do the right thing and notsuccumb to peer pressure, social pressure or their children’s whiney demands.

Howard M. Fields, Hidden Hills

Shalom Center

My response to the Shalom Center ad (Jan. 17) and to Rob Eshman’srecent plea to be allowed to present all points of view is this: Auschwitz isthe lesson to Jewry from those who refused to stand up and fight Hitler. Thedestruction of Israel by nuclear-tipped scuds will result from Shalom Center”peaceniks” sitting comfortably in the Diaspora while urging other Jews to dolikewise rather than confront the Iraqi enemy.

Peaceniks, among other appeasers, pushed Israel down theprimrose path to Oslo and toward today’s Palestinian suicide bombing turkeyshoot. The Shalom Center purposefully ignores the lesson of WWII and the gravesof 6 million Jews. We who fought Nazism in the military vow “never again.” Jewsmust ignore the peacenik guilt trip and rise to the needs of Israel’s survivalshould the hostile Arab world get nuclear weapons.

Jerry Green, Los Angeles

Fuel for the Fire

Funny how a massive attack on American shores, the devastating loss of 3,000 innocent lives, the U.S. invasion of one country (Afghanistan), the incipient invasion of another (Iraq) and the continued threat of biological, nuclear and random terror in our own neighborhoods can get people thinking.

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, an ideologically diverse and unallied group of analysts, pundits, activists, business people and the occasional brave politician has been proffering one very simple message for anyone interested in how America can shake free from the grip of Islamic terror: It’s the oil, stupid. “If we can reduce our dependence on oil, and our need to go the extra mile in going along with some of the things that repressive regimes do, we would be a lot better off,” former CIA Director James Woolsey told Reuters. “But to get that kind of independence we have got to be not so dependent on their oil.”

Such sentiments have begun to resonate loudly with Jewish activists and organizations. Buttressed by the research of energy experts such as Amory Lovins, they have concluded that American energy consumption endangers not just American stability, but Israeli security and even what they understand as Jewish values. “The Persian Gulf has 63 percent of the world’s oil reserves, and worldwide consumption is expected to grow 55 percent over the next 20 years,” said Jack Halpern, chairman of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) Energy Independence Task Force, in a recent address. “The bitter reality is that the Arabs don’t invest in their peoples’ welfare. Instead, they spend their petrodollars acquiring weapons of mass destruction, distorting the votes and conferences of the United Nations, harboring terror organizations, rewarding the families of suicide bombers and funding the Wahabi madrases that breed radical Islam. In short, Arab oil imposes a suffocating burden on Israel, and is a lethal threat to U.S. citizens.”

If there’s a bit of overkill in the rhetoric — Arab states do spend many of their petrodollars legitimately — the concern over our open-ended account at Gulf State Gas & Electric is real. The AJCongress is just one of the Jewish groups now intent on decoupling the American economy — and Israel’s security — from the West’s dependence on Persian Gulf oil.

Although only about 16 percent of our oil comes from the Gulf, every long-range forecast shows America needing the resources that the Gulf State regimes control — unless we significantly cut our consumption. That need forces us into geopolitical games that, given our addiction, we find impossible to walk away from.

“It really is all about the oil,” said Richard Ziman, CEO of Los Angeles-based Arden Realty, the largest landlord of office buildings in Southern California and the state’s leader in energy-efficient commercial construction. “It dumbfounds me that a country with our technical talent can’t develop a way to get rid of this issue.”

There may not be a technical fix — yet — but there is a growing political pressure for it. A coalition of 29 Jewish environmental groups across the country has launched a multifaceted outreach campaign — including the installation of solar panels on local synagogues — to increase awareness of the impact of energy consumption on national security and environmental policy. “People ask, ‘What can I do for Israel?'” said Lee Wallach, Southern California chair of the Council on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). “Well, one of the things you can do is look at the kind of vehicle you drive.”

On Nov. 20, COEJL and the National Council of Churches launched a national letter-writing campaign to CEOs of automobile companies asking them to raise Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, the minimum average fuel economy that a manufacturer’s fleet of cars must meet. Along with pressing Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, the 100 religious leaders are calling upon their congregants to weigh fuel efficiency more heavily when they buy a car.

Just this week, COEJL descended on Santa Monica Pier and ticketed gas-guzzling SUV’s with faux citations. “For Jews to be driving these big SUVs that provide billions to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq and make us beholden to these countries is a disaster,” Wallach said. “Now we can make a direct link between war and terror and oil.”

This Chanukah, COEJL began distributing educational packets linking the holiday, with its imagery of burning oil and the miracle of light, to the need for oil conservation. Energy efficiency, said COEJL Director David Rosenstein, is a Jewish moral obligation, the “stewardship of God’s creation.”

Unlike in years past, such sentiments are not solely the province of hemp-wearing men and women with composting toilets. For one, bottom-line capitalists have joined the fray. Acres of advanced photovoltaic panels are in operation on the roofs of the 302,000-square-foot office centerbuilding in Fountain Valley, which is owned by Ziman’s Arden Realty, Inc. This year, Arden earned the federal government’s highest energy efficiency and environmental conservation designation — the “Energy Star” label. Cost was only one factor, Ziman said, in his decision to invest more than $20 million in energy retrofits this year — the biggest variables in commercial real estate development are wages and utilities. The other factor was geopolitical. “I’ve always been concerned about our dependence on foreign oil,” he said.

Ziman is an unabashed liberal. But his concerns are echoed across the political spectrum, all the way to the Republican Jewish Coalition and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who will chair AJCongress’ first ever Cooperation for Energy Independence of Democracies in the 21st Century held in Jerusalem from Jan. 21-23, 2003. The debate might be over solutions — whether drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will decrease our oil dependence substantially or not at all, for instance — but not over the basic problem.

One unlikely prophet to this gathering tribe is Lovins, energy guru extraordinaire. He has been saying what they are saying, but he’s been saying it since 1975. That’s the year he published a landmark article in Foreign Affairs arguing that if the market were allowed to pick the cheapest way to provide a given use of energy — say a warm house or a cold beer — it would always pick renewable resources or conservation.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, I spoke with Lovins, who had been my professor for a term in college two decades ago. At the time, Lovins’ research was groundbreaking, but hardly mainstream. Osama bin Laden changed that. Although I had completely lost touch with Lovins, what he taught back then suddenly struck me as painfully relevant.

And, when I reached him by phone, he acknowledged that my instincts were correct. Pursuing energy efficiency, he once again said, would be the fastest way to decrease our addiction to Mideast oil.

Before I could ask the obvious first question, Lovins repeated something he’d found himself telling a lot of journalists lately. During the six years after the 1979 oil embargo, U.S. oil imports from the Persian Gulf fell 87 percent. Lovins referred to those years as, “The last time we were paying attention.” That difference was due, largely, to new fuel-efficiency standards that increased vehicle output by some 7 miles per gallon (mpg). The result: OPEC got the message that the United States could separate our economic health from Persian Gulf oil — gross domestic product grew by 16 percent during the period. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan relaxed vehicle-efficiency standards, and oil imports skyrocketed. “If we had continued at the same pace,” Lovins said, “we’d have needed no Gulf oil by now.”

But that’s not what happened. The advent of the SUV, which has been exempt from new fuel-efficiency standards, has proven catastrophic for efficiency. Today, new cars average 24 mpg, a 20-year low. (Two weeks ago, a Transportation Department study found that the average gas mileage of new vehicles in the 2001 model year had slipped back to the level of 1999, which was the lowest since 1980.)

It is possible, Lovins said, to take OPEC out of the equation again, with the same old tools: efficiency and renewable resources.

Lovins never uses the C word: Conservation was so 1970s. What will set us free from oil dependence, he stressed, is oil efficiency. “There is a stark difference between efficiency and conservation. Conservation is a change in behavior based on the attitude, ‘Do less to use less.’ Efficiency is the application of technologies and best practices to eliminate waste based on the attitude, ‘Do the same or more with less.'” To replace Persian Gulf oil imports, Lovins said, would take a 2.7 mpg increase in the automobile fleet. Making the light vehicle fleet more efficient by 0.4 mpg would save enough gasoline to save as much crude oil as we’ll ever pull out of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “In 1991, the United States deployed 0.56-mile-per-gallon Abrams tanks and 17-feet-per-gallon-equivalent aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf because we hadn’t deployed 32-mpg cars at home,” he said.

Do such voices have a chance of being heard under an administration glutted with oil company executives, focused on war with a major oil-producing nation and eager to expand domestic drilling? Lovins, ever analytical, is cooly apolitical. His Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a “think-and-do tank” on energy issues he runs out of an energy-efficient home near Aspen, Colo., spearheaded a non-partisan National Energy Policy Initiative which outlined an alternative to the Bush Adminstration energy program that has found support among Democrats and Republicans.

Doubt him if you will, but Lovins credibility puts him in a league no tree-sitter can match. Admitted to Harvard at age 16, he was named a don in physics at Oxford University at 21. The author of 27 books, he received a MacArthur genius grant, and was named “A Hero for the Planet” by Time. Lovins regularly earns upward of $20,000 per day in consulting fees for major corporations, a source of financing for RMI. (The Web site is a model of efficiency and design in and of itself.)

“If people had listened to Amory 20 years ago on making the [energy] infrastructure more decentralized and resilient,” ex-CIA director Woolsey told Fortune magazine, “the country would be in a lot less dangerous shape.”

Lovins, instead of doing the I-told-you-so dance, is offering yet more ways out. One, he told me enthusiastically, could involve Israel.

Lovins started Hypercar, Inc. to build an SUV that could go from one end of America to another on a single fill-up and emit nothing but drinkable water. Made of lightweight carbon fiber — think fighter planes and tennis rackets — it would be powered by a fuel cell that cleanly converts hydrogen into electricity. BP Amoco has invested in the Hypercar start-up, and former executives from Shell, Fiat, Jaguar and GM sit on Hypercar’s board of advisers. And there’s room for others to get involved: Lovins asked, if you were to pick a country to develop and manufacture a car that used alternative hydrogen fuel cell technology, light and strong materials often found in military aircraft manufacture, and relied on an educated and motivated workforce, which country would you choose? “Israel,” he said.

And indeed, part of the AJCongress conference in Jerusalem this January will be devoted to involving Israel in the Department of Energy’s “Freedom-Car” initiative, a $150 million-a-year program aimed at improving gas-electric hybrid cars and developing cars running on hydrogen, which use zero gasoline.

That Lovins’ words echo in the Jewish state should surprise no one these days. Terrorism, oil policy, national security and Israel have become inextricably linked since Sept. 11, 2001, and the people who proclaimed the miracle of the oil, celebrated every year at this time, are now hoping to have to burn, buy and be beholden to much, much less of it.

Conservation and Appreciation

I learned of the Jewish slant on conservation on my first flight to Israel in my late teens. Fate would have it that I was seated next to a very dignified and sage-looking haredi gentlemen. He was quite pleased, since he would not have to fend off small talk about soccer teams with some sabra from Tel Aviv. I was less pleased, since I would be forced to be on best behavior, even before arriving at my yeshiva destination.

I probably learned more on that flight than during the next month in yeshiva. I observed up-close the conduct of a Torah scholar (he was one of the heads of a large and prestigious yeshiva in Jerusalem) — his constant smile, his inner joy, the immediacy of his connection to God.

What lasted the longest, however, was his minilecture about sugar packets.

When the flight attendants came around with the post-coffee refuse bag, the rabbi made sure to rescue the sugar from an ignominious end. "Sugar is such a wonderful gift!" he quickly explained. "God is so good to give it to us. How can we trivialize it by treating it as trash?"

His interest was not in recycling, preserving resources or contributing to a global garbage disposal problem. He was concerned with the sludge deposited upon our personalities when we take things for granted.

I was impressed at the time, but it took many years to appreciate that he had alerted me to one of the most attractive elements of Jewish life.

Members of other faiths are frequent guests at my Shabbat table They are fascinated with Shabbat itself, to be sure. All the stereotypes about a spiritless and slavish devotion to a cold law vanish with the songs and the spirit, while my wife has Wolfgang Puck beat badly by the time the second course comes along.

They are most fascinated, however, by "Brachot," by the variegated and nuanced system of blessings pronounced before eating different foods. Thanking God before eating is hardly something foreign to the Christian visitors. They are intrigued, however, by the questions that the children ask about which blessing to recite, whether one blessing "counts" for two kinds of food, whether they have eaten enough for an after-blessing. Isn’t it enough just to say "thank you" to God?

Jews don’t just acknowledge — they take inventory. They notice the fine detail in a gift. Thus, they demand different blessings for all sorts of foods, making them more conscious of the specialness of everything in God’s creation. The different blessings on produce of the ground and produce of the trees sensitizes us to the fact that God could sustain us by feeding us nothing but plastic airline food. In a world without the variety God created, we wouldn’t even know the difference. Blessings, in their complexity, make us aware of the quality of divine gifts, not just their existence.

In this week’s portions, God spells out the consequences to the Jewish people for obedience and disobedience to divine law. Rashi seems to turn around the plain meaning of the text that pledges, "You will eat your bread to satiety" (Leviticus 26:5). He comments, "You will eat a little, and it will be blessed within you." The Divine blessing is not in the bounty, Rashi implies, but in our ability to be nourished, satisfied and pleased by eating very little. This is indeed strange after the text explicitly speaks of truly bountiful harvests of plentiful food.

Rabbi Eli Munk, former chief rabbi of Paris, explains that satisfaction with little is a Jewish necessity, even in times of plenty. The quintessential Jewish reaction to a bumper crop is to share as much of it as possible with other peoples and nations. We should expect to limit our intake to improve the lot of others.

Such an ethic is hard to promote in a society that delights in the quick disposal of anything not needed at the moment, whether sugar packets, plastic dinnerware, broken VCRs or spouses who have aged. Might part of the fix not lie in the old system of blessings, which force us to look life squarely in the eye, and take note of how rich and beautiful it is, and how much we owe to God?

So if conservation is on your mind, think of the Jewish way: count your blessings.