On a ferociously cold evening in November 1978, Rabbi Everett Gendler climbed atop the icy roof of Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., and installed solar panels to fuel the synagogue’s ner tamid (eternal light).
“We plugged it almost directly into the sun,” said Gendler, who rejoiced that the ner tamid was no longer dependent on the finite and politically questionable energy resources of the Middle East.
Gendler’s conversion of that eternal light marks the first known action to green a synagogue, making it more spiritually and ecologically sustainable, and Gendler himself, now Temple Emanuel’s rabbi emeritus, has been hailed as the father of Jewish environmentalism.
Since 1978, and especially after the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development — known as the Earth Summit — the responsibility to go green has taken root in the behaviors of a large number of American Jews and holds a prominent place on the social action agendas of many American synagogues.
This consciousness gave rise in 1993 to the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), which continues to provide a Jewish response to mounting environmental crises. And it has motivated synagogues and Jewish organizations nationwide to mobilize efforts to educate their members and take action on such issues as energy conservation, climate change, biological diversity and pollution.
But now, since the May 2006 release of former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and its warning that we have only 10 years to avert cataclysmic planetary destruction brought on by global warming, the mandate to go green has reached fever-pitch, catapulting environmentalism to the top of the Jewish agenda and, for many, equating its threat with that posed by international terrorism.
“This is not just about planting trees anymore,” said Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. “This is a life change, and this is an earth change. This is what we must do to save ourselves.”
In Southern California’s Jewish community, the reaction to Gore’s potentially apocalyptic vision has resulted in a perfect storm of environmental awareness and activism. It has also created a new common vocabulary that includes such concepts as carbon footprint and carbon offset.
At the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, social action committee co-chairs Levine Grater and Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple, both galvanized by Gore’s documentary, have created a Green Congregations Best Practices Initiative in conjunction with the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California (CoejlSC). Their goal is to educate, motivate and serve as a central resource for the many new and re-energized disparate greening activities under way in Southern California’s synagogues.
The first Green Congregations Summit took place at Stephen S. Wise Temple last Oct. 2, with 45 rabbis and lay leaders representing 30 Reform, Conservative and Recontructionist synagogues from as far away as Riverside and Irvine. It was an opportunity to share environmental ideas, programming and success stories for both neophyte and experienced Green Teams.
But its goals are even grander.
“We want to cast our net as wide as we can and reach out beyond the scope of the congregation,” Stern told the group, expressing the hope that synagogue members will carry these ideas and behavior changes to their homes and workplaces. The next Summit is scheduled for Feb. 5.
At Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, lay leader Richard Siegel, husband of Senior Rabbi Laura Geller, has mounted an ambitious Greening the Synagogue campaign. He was initially inspired by Gore’s film and was later invited to attend a three-day training session in January 2007 at The Climate Project in Nashville, Tenn., where he learned about how to communicate awareness of the climate crisis.
Siegel and his Greening the Synagogue Committee aim to reduce the carbon footprint of the synagogue itself and of all 850-member households by 20 percent. To accomplish this, the committee is asking each household to sign a Green Pledge and to calculate their carbon footprint, meaning the amount of carbon dioxide family members release into the atmosphere by engaging in such energy-dependent activities as driving a car or turning on a light.
Using an online calculator provided by such organizations as the Empowerment Institute or the Jewish National Fund (JNF), family members input information that includes their automobiles’ make and model, number of miles driven annually, monthly electric bill and gallons of garbage tossed out weekly.
The computer program then analyzes the information — for example, the average American car produces one pound of carbon dioxide for every mile driven — and computes the footprint. For an average American household, that translates to about 55,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted annually.
It is that excessive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from human activities that many scientists claim is responsible for global warming.
In her Rosh Hashanah sermon kicking off the Greening the Synagogue campaign, Geller stressed that the environment is not a political or partisan cause. “It is a religious issue, a moral issue, a Jewish issue, and that’s why we need to focus on it,” she said.
Siegel, however, describes the congregation’s reaction as “bifurcated.”
“On the one hand, everyone is incredibly supportive. On the other, only 100 pledges have been signed,” he said. While he had hoped to have all the pledges and carbon footprint totals submitted by Chanukah, he has extended the deadline, planning to announce the results on Earth Day, April 22.
Siegel said he didn’t anticipate such a disconnect between people’s consciousness and their actions. To CoejlSC’s board president, Lee Wallach, it’s the actions that count.
“People need to make a real commitment that leads to some discomfort in order to make a difference,” said Wallach, who co-founded CoejlSC, an independent affiliate of the national organization, in 1999. He differentiates between what he calls “eco-chic” and what is real, definable, measurable action.
CoejlSC began its own Green Sanctuaries program in 2001, with 16 participating synagogues. It expanded in 2005 to include the 65 synagogues that are part of the Pacific Southwest Region of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.