Going Green in Jewish St. Louis


From fluorescent light fixtures to electronics recycling to composting, area synagogues and Jewish groups are working in ways large and small to raise awareness, lower their carbon footprint, and bring a new sense of environmental responsibility to their operations.

Still, many are struggling locally to meet the same challenges of cost and practicality that are confronting organizations worldwide as they aim to build sustainable lifestyles that more closely match the increasingly “green” values held by the people and communities they serve.

“As a facility, we’ve done a number of things,” said Eli Montague, executive director of Congregation Temple Israel. “We did begin our own recycling here of paper and cardboard goods. We have also looked carefully at the types of disposable products that we use trying to limit that where possible.”

The temple preschool is running a paper recycling drive and the congregation also recycles toner cartridges and batteries, the latter being heavily used due to remote speakers and hearing assistance devices used during services. Despite the extra cost, TI does the same with fluorescent tubes which — while a boon from an energy efficiency standpoint — can create waste issues upon disposal since they contain mercury, an environmental toxin.

Facilities issues play a major role as well. According to Montague, the congregation’s master plan, completed in 2005, generated much discussion about whether to retrofit the old facility, parts of which date to the early 1960s, or whether to start from scratch with a new building. While a new structure would have had some environmental benefits, it also had costs.

“Although it was slightly more expensive to remodel,” he said, “once you destroy a building, you’ve taken off the table a big part of the environmentally friendly aspects of what you can do because all of that goes to a landfill. Typically, it is not reused.”

Another debate was whether to go for LEED certification. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council for measuring the environmental friendliness of a given facility. Although some areas have offered tax breaks and other incentives for LEED-certified buildings, the costs of implementing LEED still run high. While LEED certification was just too expensive, Montague said that the revamp is still being conducted with many “LEED-like” features, including zoning of air conditioning and heating, motion sensor-controlled lights, and reflective surface atop roofing.

“It’s also about materials, floors, carpeting, paint, wall coverings,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a premium involved that’s not worth it, but all those items have more eco-friendly alternatives. We certainly want to examine that as we go.”

Green vs. green

The roofing project has been completed but many other aspects of the retrofit are still waiting for fundraising to bring in the necessary cash. Meanwhile, Temple Israel isn’t the only organization grappling with cost issues. Across the community concern for one sort of green has to be balanced against concern for another.

Like Temple Israel, Covenant House/CHAI Apartments has also just finished installing new roofing with a reflective surface that will help keep air conditioning bills down. Now the three-building, 432-unit complex is looking to make other improvements as well. After finding five furnaces with maintenance issues in Covenant I, management replaced those units and is working to replace the rest over the next several years. Seven of the 17 boilers have also been replaced with higher efficiency units, with eight more scheduled to be changed out by the end of the year. Jerry Nelson, Covenant’s property manager, said that modulating gas valves in the new Energy Star-approved units will make a significant difference in efficiency because it allows the boilers to come on in 10 percent increments.

“I think we will see at least a 20 percent efficiency improvement on the modulating gas valves simply because with a modulating valve whenever the system calls for heat, it doesn’t just come on at 100,000 BTUs. Incrementally, it will maintain the temperature and when it starts to drop, it will come on at 20 percent capacity if there is just a small usage.”

Other changes include a continuing replacement of incandescent lighting fixtures and older less-efficient T12 fluorescents with newer, smaller T8 tubes and the replacement of older 10-SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) air conditioning condenser units with newer 13-SEER equipment. As toilets require replacement, 1.6-gallon tanks are being installed and Covenant I and II are also undergoing a $300,000 project to install more efficient windows which have an insulating gasket called a thermal break and contain argon gas between panes to help reflect heat, a vast improvement on the present windows which bleed heat much more easily.

“The old window was just as cold on the inside as it was on the outside,” Nelson said. “Literally, if you had a high humidity situation in your building you’d actually have ice on the inside of your windows.”

But some of the challenges are as big as some of the changes. While lighting has been changed in public areas of the facility, residents still buy bulbs for their own living quarters and frequently choose incandescent. Janet Weinberg, executive director of Covenant/CHAI Apartments, said the problem goes deeper than it might seem since there is little incentive for tenants to save energy on lighting or climate control.

“The thing you have to remember is that people in this housing do not pay for electric or gas,” she said. “That’s like writing somebody a blank check. Turn up the air. Turn up the heat. Leave the lights on. You’re not paying for it.”

The windows also came with their own issues. While more efficient, they are aluminum, rather than vinyl and hence not Energy Star-approved. Weinberg said that the cost was significantly higher for the Energy Star windows and that she also had a variety of concerns about the appearance, visibility, aesthetics and possibly shortened lifespan they would provide. Windows that need to be replaced earlier create a greater solid waste issue.

“There are many sides to greening that people need to think through,” she said. “It would have changed the look of the building and I don’t think it would have been as nice as what we are putting in.”

She said Covenant/CHAI is working hard to make the greenest choice practicable but the price tag makes the effort a delicate balancing act.

“Fifty or 60 percent of the rental income is Section 8 subsidies,” she said. “That’s your taxpayer dollars at work, so we have a financial responsibility to consider it as though it’s coming out of our own pocket.”

In an era characterized by a slumping economy and contracting ledger sheets, that’s something that organizations are beginning to understand all too well — even with small things like environmentally friendly cups, which can cost several times more than Styrofoam, according to Michael Samis, executive director at Congregation B’nai Amoona.

“We’re trying to convert over our goods to more biodegradable products but in all honesty it’s very expensive to do,” he said. “With budgets the way that they are, as much as we’d like to do that, we haven’t.”

Social action committees take the lead

B’nai Amoona’s biggest contribution to green efforts involves running an annual electronics recycling drive. In its inaugural year of 2005, the event collected three tractor-trailers full of electronics. Last year, it took 17 trailers to cart away more than 155 tons of items ranging from computers and televisions to slow cookers and lawn equipment, said Social Action Chair Phyllis Cantor.

“It’s a wonderful community effort,” said Cantor, who noted that the congregation receives no money from the drive, which attracts dozens of volunteers and hundreds of participants. “I would do anything to get the word out about this nationally because other communities could and should do it. I don’t know if they realize how important it is and what a difference it can make.”

Cantor also works to raise awareness of environmental issues in other ways, such as through her social action page in the congregational newsletter.

It’s not uncommon for social action committees to be at the forefront of greening or sustainability campaigns at congregations. That’s certainly the case at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel, where executive director Harvey Leader notes that the committee is the driving force behind its environmental efforts, such as those on display during the congregation’s Mitzvah Day, which featured an eco-booth that distributed reusable canvas grocery bags.

“Part of their goal is to educate the synagogue about recycling, ecology, grocery bags, compact fluorescents and things like that,” he said. “We started recycling. We hadn’t been doing it. We moved to paper goods rather than Styrofoam.”

Like many congregations, BSKI keeps the lights off and climate control to a minimum in areas not in general use during the week. That’s one way in which costly utility bills are kept under control, but Leader says new windows would help as well. Such an idea has been considered but, as in so many other circumstances, the money just isn’t there yet.

In the meantime, the synagogue makes due with what it has.

“I figure that if you have the same number of people complaining that it’s too hot as it’s too cold then it balances out,” Leader said.

Don Kriss, executive director at Congregation Shaare Emeth said that his temple also employs a “power down” philosophy for unused building areas, but the congregation has also worked hard to retrofit its facility with energy savings as a priority. Kriss said that motion detectors were installed in every schoolroom, every light fixture was “greened” and all the building’s air-handlers and HVAC units were upgraded to maximize energy efficiency.

Meanwhile, the temple tries to bring green values into more than just the building.

“One of the things that Congregation Shaare Emeth is tackling is more advocacy, with more social action being incorporated into each and every piece that we do,” he said. “That means talking to everybody and writing about these issues. Even our preschool has a recycling program. Every classroom is run as a recycling classroom.”

The 180 children at Camp Emeth are getting a dose of green through the congregation’s “Making a Difference” campaign which will run for two semesters. Youth and camp director Jody Miller said there is a strong Judaic component to the effort, which incorporates hands-on activities and lessons from the book Let the Earth Teach You Torah. Miller said it is all about empowering kids who in turn can educate their families on the need to think about sustainability issues and apply them to their own lives.

“The campers walk away with a sense of what they can do personally, even as young as a five- or six-year-old, to remind their parents to turn off the lights and to give them some kind of awareness,” Miller said. “They can become the energy police in their own home.”

Recycling is a major component of the congregation’s efforts. Kriss said that last year, one bar mitzvah even did an electronics recycling program that collected two tractor trailer loads of material. Still, recycling also highlights one of the challenges organizations face with regards to rising costs. The sluggish economy has left suppliers with less demand for raw materials and in doing so has severely wounded the market for recyclables.

“Right now with recycling not being profitable for these companies it’s getting to be very difficult,” Kriss said. “What does a large agency do when you’re trying to recycle, yet all of a sudden you have to pay because the people who are recycling don’t have a use for the product? That’s very hard.”

Spreading the word

It’s not just costs but awareness that can be a problem for Jewish organizations looking to make themselves more green. That’s where the Jewish Environmental Initiative (JEI) can help.

“Leaders of congregations, education directors, early childhood centers, social action chairs, we hear from people at all levels,” said JEI’s Gail Wechsler. “Initially, we started out doing tree plantings and that kind of thing. Over the years, we’ve done more service projects regarding the environment. We’re also a resource for congregations, youth groups or Jewish groups throughout St. Louis who want advice on how to be more green.”

Modeled after the national Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the JEI operates under the auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). Wechsler, who is the JCRC’s domestic issues/social justice director, said that the JEI’s primary purpose is to provide information to synagogues and other agencies on recycling, energy conservation and other sustainability issues. In addition to sponsoring speakers and lunch and learn events, it can also suggest eco-friendly bar and bat mitzvah projects, arrange tours of a local LEED-certified building, and advise organizations on how to get an energy audit. The centerpiece of the JEI’s efforts is Project Noah, an annual event in which information is distributed to day schools, congregations and other groups in an effort to encourage environmental programming. For years, JEI has held an annual tree planting program, which it now does in concert with Interfaith Partnership.

All of it is part of the larger context of a Jewish value system.

“We’re here to preserve the Earth,” Wechsler said. “That’s our mandate for future generations.”

Reusing and replanting

Sue Baseley of Congregation B’nai El doesn’t need a mandate — just a garden.

Baseley, the temple’s executive director, is proud that the well-maintained plantings out front, which include golden currant bushes and phlox, are all native Missouri plants, but those selections indicate more than just regional pride. They also battle soil erosion in a way grass simply can’t.

“The plants have a very deep root system so that when the rain hits it, it keeps the water there,” Baseley said. “A lawn is just like concrete. It simply runs off.”

B’nai El keeps its plants growing with compost made from food waste generated from the Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy with which it shares a building. Students at the school even eat their meals with cloth napkins rather than paper to cut down on trash.

Meanwhile, the synagogue uses the environmentally friendly office supplier Pedro’s Planet, has a recycling bin out back, and disposes of its compact fluorescents properly. It has also installed a tankless water heater and is working to cut its electrical bill wherever possible.

“What we want to do is decrease the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere,” Baseley said. “If we’re using less electricity, less coal is being burned.”

Green efforts aren’t just limited to synagogues. The Jewish Federation of St. Louis is also launching its own effort to “go green.”

Recycling has been expanded from aluminum to include glass, plastic and magazines. Styrofoam is no longer being used in Federation offices and employees are encouraged to use non-disposable cups.

The organization also issues an occasional green e-newsletter and has worked to place more information on its Web site rather than on paper. Another paper conservation effort is found in making double-sided copies where possible. It is also mandatory to shut off computers and office lights when they are not in use.

“Our efforts grew out of a Jewish Environmental Initiative program that was held at Jewish Federation in November 2007,” said Susan S. Scribner, senior planning and allocations associate. “The program emphasized that taking care of the Earth is a core Jewish teaching, an important component of tikkun olam and tzedek. When we consider the state of the environment today in light of these values, it is clear that we have an urgent Jewish mission to make our workplace as green as possible.”

New facilities, new challenges

No one has to tell that to Menachem Szus of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion congregation. For him, that mission comes directly from the Torah.

“We look at it from a very old, very constant source, a halachic source,” he said. “From a Torah perspective, there are lots of environmentally friendly laws. The fact that you are not allowed to waste anything is a very classical law.”

Szus notes that applying halachic practice can make a difference in ways that many may not initially think of.

“A Shabbos observant person doesn’t drive on Shabbos or holidays,” he said. “That automatically saves one seventh of emissions for the year. It’s built in.”

Szus is getting a firsthand look at green issues as chair of the shul’s relocation committee. NHBZ has purchased a two-acre parcel of land behind the Logos School at Price and Old Bonhomme Roads for the future site of its new synagogue. The congregation is still in the process of fundraising for the building but Szus said the design will emphasize energy-efficiency.

For one thing, the $2.5 to $3 million facility will have natural insulation, since three of the walls will be sunk partially underground.

“That automatically provides a very stable environment as far as heating and cooling goes,” he said.

The bi-level structure will easily allow the upper floor to remain shut down during the week while fluorescents and natural lighting will further combat high utility bills.

“We’ve created the roof and windows in such a way that a lot of light comes in, lowering the amount of lighting that we have to use during the day,” Szus said. “We’re definitely trying to make it as energy-efficient as possible.”

Members of Congregation Kol Am understand well the challenges inherent in new construction. Their present building was completed in 2005. According to Jeffrey Solomon, a former congregation president who chaired the building committee, the effort took a decade from start to finish during which time changing technology and environmental awareness presented an ongoing array of design challenges.

“When we started building, it was right at the beginning of the green movement and the LEED program was just getting started,” he said. “We didn’t design with that in mind because quite frankly, we were so far along in our construction process, funding and budgeting that we couldn’t go back and redesign the building.”

Instead, the congregation tried to incorporate green components without sharply altering the overall design of the structure. More insulation was added, less roof deck was left exposed and the roofing color was changed from heat-absorbing black to reflective white. Unfortunately, other LEED-related improvements such as a rainwater recapture system to help with irrigation had to be left by the wayside due to cost and time constraints.

The facility also features sensor-controlled faucets in the bathrooms, adjustable lighting in the sanctuary and a programmable HVAC system. Temple leadership ensures that heating and cooling parameters are kept up-to-date with the congregation’s requirements.

“It’s not just a matter of somebody setting it once and the rest of us not knowing what to do,” Solomon said. “We have an engineer who will go around and adjust the settings occasionally as our needs change.”

But despite the challenges of cost, time and shifting needs, there are some things in the Jewish community that don’t change.

“The concept of tikkun olam, being caretakers to the world, is very primary to the religion and it is very much a part of our thinking,” Solomon said. “It goes hand-in-hand.”