Creating a Jewish ‘greenprint’ for St. Louis

John Meyer (left) drops off  items  during an electronics  recycling drive at Central Reform Congregation in late January. The drive was part of the ‘Eco-Bayit: Sustainable Living Fair’ held by CRC on Tu B’Shevat. Pictured with meyer are Natalie A. Vowell and Angelo Greer, both staff members from WITS (Web Innovations and Technology Services). Photo: Kristi Foster

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The pine-orange-banana smoothie is tasty enough, but Dianne Carty views this treat as particularly special for another reason. After all, it’s not every day you get to make your own beverage using a bicycle.

“I powered my own food,” said the proud 34-year-old Central Reform congregant as she stands next to a stationary bike with a small mixer on the back. It takes only 30 seconds of riding — and no electricity — to produce a frosty drink.

The Rep - A Christmas Carol

True, leg-driven kitchen appliances may not seem the most pragmatic way to address the growing issue of sustainability, but at “Eco-Bayit,” this Saturday morning’s sustainable living fair at CRC, it’s one of many interesting displays promoting “green living.” From greening the office supply chain to environmentally friendly crafts projects to an electronics recycling drive, the congregation’s January event was a hub of activity demonstrating the community’s commitment to sustainable practices.

But can even more be done? Does the Jewish commitment to ecology go beyond novel ways to make a smoothie? Is sustainability just a buzzword in an abstract universe of high-profile events and bicycle-powered blenders or has it translated into genuine changes in the way congregations, institutions and individuals conduct their everyday lives?  

Those questions often run into difficult practicalities that can pit zeal for social action against the realities of aging facilities and more costly products at a time of tight budgets. But it can also open the possibility of less waste and greater energy efficiency, which might bring big savings over the long-term while charting a sustainable course for both the Jewish and general communities.

“I think it’s on the radar for everybody,” said CRC Rabbi Randy Fleisher when asked about green issues at a nearby table. “The next step is how do we alter our lifestyle to reflect that awareness?”


‘An opportunity for revitalization’

Jen Bersdale, director of communications at CRC, says the congregation’s link to environmental responsibility is always foremost in the minds of temple leadership. CRC’s building already has programmable thermostats, zoned heating and cooling and single-stream recycling. Hebrew school and teen programs cover relevant environmental topics on a rotating basis. CRC, which eliminated Styrofoam awhile back, even makes sure to offer vegetarian options at events, a sustainable practice since eating meat leaves a bigger carbon footprint.

Yet the biggest commitment may be seen in the temple’s acceptance of the two-year certification program of GreenFaith.

This national interfaith endeavor, founded more than two decades ago, now works with 60 congregations in 22 states, about a third of which are synagogues, according to the organization.

“What appealed to us about the program,” said Bersdale, “was that it encompassed both the greening/sustainability things that people normally think of like energy conservation/waste reduction (as well as) really strong elements on spirituality. It makes sure we are covering environmental topics in our religious school programs and worship services as well as environmental justice.”

CRC did its sustainability audit for GreenFaith last summer and fall. Bersdale also says there is a more intangible aspect to the program.

“Environmental justice really becomes the interplay between environmental concerns and economic and racial justice. What we’ve discovered is that our congregation works on all of those issues but not always in a way that coordinates,” she said. “The program is really encouraging us to connect some of those silos for our members, which has been a good challenge for us.”

United Hebrew Congregation is another participant in GreenFaith. Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg says UH is already going through various green audits, and is particularly focused on the educational aspect of the issue.

“Another thing we are looking at is whether we can have more programs outdoors, including some of our services,” she said. “We did do a couple of those things in the fall. It’s a little more difficult right now when it’s so frigid outside.”

She said GreenFaith has prompted serious discussions at the temple, which installed solar panels on its roof this summer, and has helped to bring certain issues into focus. For instance, congregants learned that a move away from Styrofoam may not help the environment much unless efforts are made to recycle whatever is substituted for it.

“If we’re going to spend the money to go to compostable materials, then we need to build a compost and make sure we are really composting,” said Rosenberg. “It sparked a lot of conversation.”

Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith, said that his group has made a special effort to partner with the Reform and Conservative movements nationally. He notes that congregations that choose to be greener can also save money in the long run, with just a “minimal investment.”

“Most houses of worship have a large space, their sanctuary, that is only used 12 hours or less per week,” he said. “Without intending to, (congregations can) overheat that space when it’s not in use, so there are significant opportunities for savings there.”

Bringing down bills may not be the only benefit. Harper said that congregations may also increase membership by speaking to the values of congregants.

“We’ve seen that addressing environmental concerns from a serious moral and ethical perspective is not only important for the planet but also a real opportunity for revitalization and growth for synagogues and all faith-based groups,” he said.

Buildings new and old

Carol Wolf Solomon, director of communications at Temple Israel, might agree with Harper’s assessment.

“Definitely among our younger families, it’s certainly an important issue for them,” she said.

And TI has responded to that. There are now motion sensors in the restrooms while recycled paper and Earth-friendly cleaning products are used where possible. Last spring, the congregation did an electronics recycling drive. When the roof was replaced, light reflective materials were used. Public recycling dumpsters sit in the parking lot.

Efforts are also underway at the preschool where children are encouraged to employ reusable bottles and containers. A committee has been formed to make the preschool entirely green.

“We’ve tried to go paperless as much as we can,” said Solomon. “Packets that we produce for board meetings are sent electronically to board members. We produce an electronic version of our annual report, making paper copies only by request.”

But facilities choices can sometimes be tough because of infrastructure.

“We try to do as much as we can given the fact that we’re in a pretty old building, which limits our efforts a bit,” she said.

Some institutions don’t have to worry much about the problem of old buildings cramping their endeavors. Nusach Hari B’nai Zion just moved into their new facility in Olivette in 2011. Rabbi Ze’ev Smason said the structure is filled with any number of eco-friendly features.

Sixty-five solar panels on the roof generate about 15 kilowatts of energy, roughly enough to run the entire shul while geothermal cooling uses wells sunk deep within the earth to regulate the building’s temperature. The windows are computer-controlled. The bathrooms are designed for water conservation. The edifice itself is even situated to maximize the use of natural light.

All of it helps preserve the Earth – and the congregation’s pocketbook.

“Money is not a sin and we have to pay attention to it,” Smason said. “There’s a prohibition against wasting.”

The Jewish Community Center is another spot where new facilities created new opportunities. Opened in 2009, the massive Staenberg Family Complex included an array of green features and later renovations improved upon the building’s eco-friendly nature. Interior day lighting is maximized to cut power bills. Bamboo flooring greets participants in the yoga and Pilates areas. Energy-efficient lighting, including LED scoreboards, is present throughout the facility. Even the fitness equipment features user-powered readouts. Meanwhile, solar reflective materials are being installed on the roof and construction of the building itself used regional suppliers wherever possible to slash fuel costs.

Lynn Wittels, president and CEO, said protecting the environment is part of the JCC’s mindset. The organization has even partnered with a Lincoln County farm to form an organic food co-op. Individuals buy “shares” so they can be supplied with weekly veggies during growing season.

“This is consistent with Jewish values of protecting the environment so there are programming aspects that we include at day camp, Camp Sabra and early childhood,” she said.

“I know that ecology and how to protect the earth was a major focus of that program,” Samis said.

Greg Yawitz, first vice-president at Congregation Shaare Emeth, said green issues are important to the congregation. His temple has energy-efficient lighting and is considering possible solar panel installation.

“In the event we did some building work, [sustainability] would obviously be taken into consideration,” he said.

At Traditional Congregation, member Alan Elfanbaum said it does regular programming on sustainability and recycles paper and ink cartridges while trying to use non-toxic cleaning products.

“We’re required to tend the garden, not only to reap it,” he said. “That’s a main tenet in Judaism and the green synagogue movement, that we’ve been doing too much using and not enough replenishing.”

The next generation

Cheryl Mayaan, head of school at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, said there is plenty to talk about at her institution.

 “We’re always looking for opportunities within the curriculum to teach students about the value of being stewards of the Earth, both from a Jewish perspective and from the perspective of science,” she said.

The school grows some of its own food in an organic garden. Virtually everything in the lunchroom is either washable or recyclable. Science classes teach about the evils of Styrofoam as well as what happens to recyclables after they leave the school. Third graders work with peers in Israel on solutions to deforestation. And in first grade, students observe “No New Paper Thursday,” a once-a-week commitment to stick to using scrap paper in class.

Moreover, the school is also growing its own prairie, with help from a local greenhouse, as part of a project to teach children about native Missouri plants and the state’s original native inhabitants.

“We want our students to not only learn about the prairie in the context of how very sad it is that the white man came and destroyed (it),” Mayaan said. “We want our students to understand that they have the power to make a positive impact. Therefore the entire project is set up so they have the resources around them to restore prairie.”

Asked if she felt the Jewish community was doing enough to tackle sustainability, Mayaan said it was hard to know.

 “We can always be doing more,” she said. “If we think we’re doing enough we learn something new we can do to impact the Earth.”

Tending the garden

At Congregation B’nai Amoona, executive director Michael Samis said cost can be a big factor in trying to make decisions for congregations. That’s not just true for facilities issues but for smaller-ticket items as well.

“It’s difficult because the other products are very expensive,” he said. “To give you an idea, a six-ounce Styrofoam cup is about $10 a thousand compared to buying recyclables, which are $30 or $40 a hundred. The price is just ridiculous.”

Still, B’nai Amoona does what it can to make a difference. The congregation runs a huge electronics recycling drive each November and went to single stream recycling five years ago. It also cut back significantly on paper usage by going to e-mail for announcements. The congregational bulletin used to print 800 copies. Today, thanks to the Internet, there are only 50.

B’nai Amoona also recently celebrated Tikkun Olam Days.