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Local congregations dig deeper into environmental issues

GreenFaith — which since 1992 has worked with interfaith groups around the country to educate them about environmental responsibility — last year initiated a certification program to help houses of worship become environmental leaders.

“It’s the first program of its kind,” said Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and GreenFaith’s executive director.

“It differs from past programs because it’s much more comprehensive that anything we’ve ever launched,” he said, noting that upon completion, participating congregations will become certified GreenFaith Sanctuaries.

This month, the certification program was inaugurated in New Jersey, in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism. Among the eight synagogues enrolled in the Greening Reform Judaism Pilot Program are Temple Sinai of Tenafly and Barnert Temple of Franklin Lakes.

“The congregations take part in a substantial number of activities over a two-year period,” said Harper, noting that participants are asked to integrate environmental themes into worship services, build environmental consciousness into all education programs, and advocate — and encourage members to advocate — for environmental justice.

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To implement their new programs, participating congregations create a “green team,” responsible for carrying out the initiatives, said Harper.

“We think this program transforms congregations, turning them into solid environmental leaders,” he said, pointing out that houses of worship throughout the country that participated in last year’s program have not only seen measurable environmental benefits but have also seen their congregations strengthened.

“I think it’s a grand slam,” he said.

Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai, said his “green team” is meeting on Sunday and he expects that virtually everyone in the synagogue will be affected by its efforts.

“‘Transform’ is the right word,” he said, noting that the team is composed not only of people who are personally interested in environmental issues but of those who hold key positions in the congregation as lay leaders and staff.

“They’ll be able to deal with the whole range of things that go on in congregational life so that, first and foremost, the congregation will operate in a more environmentally sensitive way,” he said. Millstein noted that “the certification program asks that we do specific educational programming on all levels [and throughout] the different educational arms of the congregation,” including not only the religious school but early childhood and adult education programs as well.

“It will impact things done across the board,” he said. “It’s a way of really galvanizing and energizing the congregation to be active in the way we should be.”

“We have been doing things, but in fits and starts,” he said, pointing to a major environmental program the synagogue sponsored last year with Kehillat Kesher. “It was a great program, but the problem with operating that way is that there’s no structure in place to follow up.”

Millstein said he is particularly excited by “the connection between environmental issues and Judaism. As a rabbi, I always struggle with people feeling that somehow Judaism isn’t really relevant in terms of the world around us.”

“The coming together of environmentalist thinking and Torah is one of the most interesting and powerful forces developing in modern Judaism today,” he said. “I’m absolutely convinced that when people see how Judaism looks at the earth, God’s relationship with the earth and with human beings, and the specific halacha [regarding] how to treat God’s creatures and the world, it will be energizing and people will recognize that it is deeply relevant. It will become a real spiritual movement as well as ‘the right thing to do.’”

Barnert’s religious leader, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, said she fully expects her congregation to be “challenged” through its participation in the program.

“We’ve done the basics,” she said, pointing to programs “letting everyone know about [energy-efficient] light bulbs and giving out free bulbs. We’ve also determined our own carbon footprint and have contributed money to plant a forest to offset that footprint.”

In addition, children in the religious school distributed glass bottles to members to discourage the use of plastic bottles.

Still, said Frishman, “we realized that it’s not very much; we weren’t really making a difference. The primary distinction is that this challenges us,” she said. “It’s really meant to push us.”

Frishman suggested that humans “are physically designed to be integrated into the earth.” She pointed out that when we breathe in, we draw in oxygen from vegetation. When we breathe out, we give back carbon dioxide. The human ego, however, “forgets” that the eco-system is interdependent.

Instead of using the earth to benefit everyone, she said, we tend to benefit ourselves.

“We think of ourselves as the center,” she said. “The mission has gone awry. God has breathed life into us, and there’s no sense of God taking that breath back in. We can draw in that breath and give it back.”

But doing that is very hard, she said, especially with the “American ethic, where it’s ‘all about me.’”

Frishman said she is excited about the certification program.

“It will work to convince me of certain things and I will learn to teach it more effectively,” she said.

“It wasn’t an easy thing for us to say yes to,” she added, noting that while the leader of the synagogue’s green team is already on board, “the rest of us are ‘normal.’ It’s not easy to figure out how to really change what we do. I have a feeling there’s a great deal more for us to learn,” she said. “A much larger cultural shift has to take place.”

 
 

Temple Beth Rishon saves thousands, wins award for going green

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Beth Rishon youth decorated reusable water bottles during the synagogue’s barbecue Oct. 3. Mark Niederman

The colors of Judaism may be blue and white, but at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, it’s green.

GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental group, honored Beth Rishon at its Sustainable Soiree and Awards Celebration Saturday night at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston because the Reform synagogue’s conservation efforts have saved it thousands of dollars by trimming electricity and gas usage. Beth Rishon was the first synagogue to join GreenFaith’s Certification Program, which GreenFaith created in 2008 to help houses of worship integrate environmental themes into their daily operations and outreach.

“In their efforts in that program they’ve just achieved some remarkable things,” said the Rev. Fletcher Harper, GreenFaith’s executive director. “They really are standard-bearers for the entire religious community in terms of integrating environmental leadership into their identity.”

The certification program now includes 27 congregations of various faiths, including 16 other synagogues. Another 20 to 25 are expected to join in December. Beth Rishon is set to complete the two-year program next year.

Winners of Temple Beth Rishon Watt$ Green Worth contest:

Congregant: Jeffrey Zenn
Clergy member: Rabbinical Intern Sandy Olshansky
Board member: Elena Greene
Under 17: 10-year-old Justin Pecore

“The certification program has given us the structure for our work and made us part of a bigger community,” said Harriett Sugarman, co-chair of T’Green Olam, Beth Rishon’s environmental committee.

Beth Rishon’s board began investigating going green in 2007 and soon after created T’Green Olam to oversee its green strategy. From March 2008 to February 2009, the synagogue reduced its electricity usage by 30 percent and natural gas usage by 16.8 percent. By the end of 2009, the synagogue had saved $16,554 from the same 10-month period the year before.

The synagogue is on schedule to match last year’s level of savings in 2010, said T’Green Olam co-chair Mark Niederman.

The synagogue did not spend a lot of money to implement its environmental changes, Niederman noted. Rather, it lowered the thermostat in areas that weren’t being used; moved small meetings out of large rooms to avoid excess air conditioning for short periods; shut down walk-in refrigeration except during catered events; moved mid-winter services out of the sanctuary and into the small ballroom; and balanced heat distribution among rooms that were too hot or too cold.

“The ways that we shaved our energy use really had to do with vigilance and common-sense approaches to ways we use the building and the way the building is kept when it’s not occupied,” Niederman said.

The T’Green Olam committee has also taken the message to the synagogue’s Hebrew school and general membership. Earlier this year, it held the “Watt$ Green Worth?” contest, which challenged congregants to estimate the synagogue’s annual savings based on charts of its energy usage in 2008 and 2009. Despite e-mails heralding Beth Rishon’s efforts, it was the contest that really drove home the synagogue’s savings accomplishment, Niederman said. That, he added, was a part of a lesson learned from GreenFaith’s program.

“The work you do is admirable, but you accomplish more through the ripple effects,” he said, noting that the committee created the contest to inform congregants, but when local media picked up the story other synagogues began calling for green advice.

“The leverage effect of what we did magnified the accomplishment by virtue of informing everybody,” he said.

Rabbi Kenneth Emert was quick to credit Sugarman and Niederman for leading the shul’s efforts.

“I am overjoyed by what they’ve done. We’re very proud,” he said. “All the clergy and the congregation owe them a debt of gratitude for taking this on.”

The rabbi pointed to Midrash Kohellet Rabah, “Be mindful then that you do not spoil and destroy My world, for if you spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it,” calling the midrash his congregation’s inspiration.

“That’s really why Jews and people of faith are involved in GreenFaith at all,” he said.

During its soiree GreenFaith also honored the New Jersey Black Ministers’ Council and Sister Kathleen Deignan, a graduate of GreenFaith’s fellowship program.

Niederman was hopeful that the recognition of Beth Rishon’s activities would spur other houses of worship to make similar changes.

“If someone takes notice that we saved a lot of money, a lot of energy, and that inspires somebody to take action, that’s as good it gets,” he said.

With elections less than a week away, Niederman pointed to environmentalism as an issue everybody can get behind. National security, reducing the U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and improving the environment fall out on a broad spectrum of ideals, but can all be tied together, he said.

“Energy conservation cuts across all those barriers and is something everybody should rally behind,” he said. “It’s above politics.”

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From left, Mark Niederman, Temple Beth Rishon; Rev. Fletcher Harper, Greenfaith executive director; Rabbi Kenneth Emert; and Steven Blumenthal, GreenFaith board chair, at GreenFaith’s Sustainable Soiree and Awards Celebration Saturday night at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. Courtesy Michael Frenkel

For more information on GreenFaith’s Certification Program, visit http://greenfaith.org/programs/certification.

 
 
 
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