Rules of Engagement: Greening Jewish Institutions

by Ezra S. Shanken

“When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are – how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it’.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13). With a start like this, one cannot help but believe that the Jewish community must be at the forefront of the green revolution – but are we? Here are thoughts about the Jewish environmental movement, and what all Jewish institutions can do if they wish to go from lagging to leading in this global endeavor, from three people leading the green charge.

Scott Cassel is the executive director of the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), which pursues initiatives to ensure that all those involved in the lifecycle of a product share responsibility for reducing its health and environmental impacts. Prior to founding the Institute in 2000, Scott served for seven years as the director of waste policy and planning at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. Scott has a master’s degree in environmental policy and dispute resolution from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Where did your green journey begin?

I grew up in New Jersey, so I became aware of environmental issues while driving down the NJ Turnpike. The industrial facilities clouded the air with pollution, a far cry from the nice beaches along the Jersey shore. Later, I took a break from college to travel the country for a year. I began to wonder how the beautiful natural landscapes were formed. I attended anti-nuke rallies and freestyle Frisbee championships, and ate organic avocados and sprouts. I saw tar balls washed up on the Santa Barbara beach and learned of a huge oil spill that happened years earlier but continued to have an impact. Being in California sensitized me to the need not only to be in awe of nature, but to take action to protect it.

What is your favorite pro-environment Jewish concept?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote of two types of human beings found in the Torah who correspond to the two biblical narratives of creation. He calls them Adam One and Adam Two. Adam One uses natural resources for his own enjoyment. He subdues nature, and controls it for his own needs. Adam Two is in awe of nature, seeing the beauty and Godliness in all aspects of creation. I believe that each of us has both competing concepts within ourselves. Our goal is to balance them individually and communally through social policies and a comprehensive personal understanding of our natural world.

What are three things that Jewish institutions can do to make their operations greener?

Energy has the biggest environmental impact, so a synagogue should use compact fluorescent lamps, insulate heating units and windows, and conduct a professional audit to determine how to save energy. Secondly, recycle paper, bottles, and cans, and do it visibly so that congregants know that you are serious about it. Third, make sure the cleaning products are non-toxic.

Who is doing a great job at greening up and what are they doing?

The Coalition on Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) is a leading group on these issues and was one of the first to fuse Jewish concepts and environmental teachings. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action have also been active on environmental issues.

How do you envision the ideal role for Jewish institutions in the Jewish environmental movement?

Jewish institutions know how to organize people. JNF, for example, is incredibly well run. Its leaders know how to reach Jews of all denominations, as well as those who are not Jewish and support Israel. These institutions can be tapped to reach out to their members, as well as others with an interest in environmental issues. I have worked in the environmental field for almost 30 years, and only over the last two have I felt that the general public has started to understand why it is important to preserve our environment. There is a unique opportunity for Jewish institutions to band together to educate the Jewish community, and also to articulate to all people the Jewish concepts of environmental protection and social justice.

Rachel Jacoby Rosenfeld is the cofounder and director of the Jewish Greening Fellowship, an initiative of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center funded by UJA-Federation of New York. Rachel served as an advisor to Hazon’s Min Ha’aretz curriculum on food, Judaism, and the environment; as chair of the Greening Resource Guide Group of UJA-Federation of New York’s Network Commission; and is a newly appointed member of COEJL’s Governance Committee. She holds a master’s in comparative literature with a focus on Jewish studies from University of California, Berkeley.

Where did your green journey begin?

I arranged a screening of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth while working at the Riverdale YM-YWHA. At the end of the film, I sat there frustrated, unsatisfied with the suggestions for action advised in the credits. How could my actions have a more meaningful impact than merely changing the light bulbs in my home? How could I help to galvanize systemic change? Then it struck me that I had the means and the obligation to do so from the very place I sat: The values and missions of my own Jewish agency compel me to become a green leader in my community. The following day, I began to plan the Riverdale Y’s first environmental fair. Over the next two years, I worked with my colleagues to conduct an energy audit, set up a recycling program, and switch to green cleaners. This Jewish agency-based environmental action became the model for the Jewish Greening Fellowship.

What is your favorite pro-environment Jewish concept?

Shabbat: sanctifying time by echoing God’s act of refraining from the work of creation. The more we celebrate and appreciate the world by setting aside Shabbat to take long walks, to eat healthy, locally grown food with friends and family, and to join our communities in prayer and gratitude for God’s blessings, the more we can tap into an appreciation of the miraculous world around us and our responsibility to care for that world on a daily basis.

What are three things that Jewish institutions can do to make their operations greener?

First, make it someone’s job. Someone on staff should head up a green team that looks at all programmatic, operational, and facility changes through a green lens and tracks opportunities for state and federal energy efficiency Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Second, check out, which lists federal and state incentives for energy efficiency and renewable technologies. There are new RFPs all the time, so sign up to receive them. Third, reduce waste. Do you really need so many flyers? Do those plastic toy giveaways really improve the quality of life of our children? Is there a way to switch to reusable plates? The less stuff we buy and throw “away,” the better we’ll leave this world for our children. A fourth would be: Source as much of your food as possible locally!

Who is doing a great job at greening up and what are they doing?

The 19 JCCs and camps in the New York area that participated in the first cohort of the Jewish Greening Fellowship have each made remarkable strides in greening. The Staten Island JCC has received several large state and federal grants totaling almost $300,000 toward two different solar projects. They have switched to green cleaning and have almost eliminated paper marketing. They have been recognized as a green leader in their community and have formed partnerships with other local organizations to educate community members about environmental stewardship and to provide opportunities for action. The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center has made greening a centerpiece of its mission for the last decade. From the Adamah farm, which trains young adults to grow food sustainably and helps to supply the kitchen; to the facility’s bamboo flooring, low-VOC paint, energy efficient lighting, and solar-generated electricity in the offices; to retreats and programs that explore environmental values through Jewish living and learning, Isabella Freedman prides itself on a commitment to sustainability.

How do you envision the ideal role for Jewish institutions in the Jewish environmental movement?

Greening our own agencies is an important beginning. Every Jewish agency should have a green team and a staff person whose job is to oversee the agency’s greening efforts. Then, our agencies should reach beyond our own walls to partner with other local organizations in efforts ranging from providing fresh, local produce to advocating for better recycling and composting programs. Ultimately, we should also reach within and beyond our own communities to identify local environmental-justice leaders, to learn about the issues important to them, and to work together to create vibrant, sustainable, and healthy communities for all.

Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD) for more than a decade, Fred Scherlinder Dobb remains active in Jewish, interfaith, and environmental efforts, serving on the boards of Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), the Shalom Center, Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light (as chair), and Religious Witness for the Earth, among others. A past president of the Washington Board of Rabbis, he recently received his doctor of ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary, with a focus on greening congregations.

Where did your green journey begin?

Jewish summer camp, probably (my first was the Reform Goldman Union Camp Institute in Indiana). Camp connects Judaism, tikkun olam, and love of the outdoors with what’s fun, social, and spiritual. These factors became woven together ever more tightly in the years ahead, as the urgency of our ecological crisis became clearer to me, and as my commitment to Jewish tradition and community simultaneously deepened.

What is your favorite pro-environment Jewish concept?

My favorite famous green Jewish concept is Shabbat: the weekly celebration of creation, celebrated traditionally by living lightly on the Earth (i.e. not driving, avoiding commerce, etc.). Even more deeply, Shabbat suggests that the greatest meaning in life and greatest spiritual satisfaction comes not from the rat race of ever more production and consumption pursued on the six other days of the week, but precisely from their cessation on the seventh. Shabbat is a day to be and enjoy and rest, rather than a time to do and make and acquire. The world needs more Shabbat right now!

What are three things that Jewish institutions can do to make their operations greener?

First and foremost, get a good programmable thermostat, preferably multiple for separate heating/AC zones in your building. Set the temperature aggressively in an energy-saving direction, keeping it as cool in winter and as warm in summer as folks will allow, even more so overnight when facilities are unused. This not only saves money better used for program expenses, but also is a major step toward saving carbon. Second, establish and empower a Green Group that has the ear of the institution’s leadership. Having some mavens around is a great way to ensure that new ideas get explored, and new policies get implemented. Third, build a consensus within the community that caring for creation is indeed a Jewish mandate, and that limiting the impact of this institution on our planet and our neighbors and our future is part of the community’s very mission.

Who is doing a great job at greening up and what are they doing?

The top example is the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Illinois. Not only was it the nation’s first synagogue to receive the highest sustainability rating for its design and construction (“LEED-Platinum”), but it was also the first house of worship of any faith to do so. Take the virtual tour of the groundbreaking facility and its many replicable energy-saving features at their website. Great stuff is happening around New York thanks to its UJA-Federation’s partnership with the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center to create the Jewish Greening Fellowship, which unites and equips great minds in the community to do ever more in this arena. The Kayam program at Baltimore’s Pearlstone Retreat Center shows how a thoughtful Jewish educational center focusing on sustainability can reach and touch people all across a diverse community. My own synagogue has turned ecology from a professed value into a programmatic agenda, replicably outlined at

How do you envision the ideal role for Jewish institutions in the Jewish environmental movement?

In the forefront, of course! Institutions have their own cultures based on their unique histories, locations, missions, and constituencies, but ultimately, institutions are made up of people. The same folks who lead and attend and are served by our community’s institutions – shuls, schools, camps, federations, agencies, etc. – are also leaders and attendees of businesses, universities, governmental bodies, secular non-profits, and so on. Individual Jews must continue to push to ‘green’ their institutions yet further; these newly sustainability-focused Jewish institutions will in turn set other Jews onto the green leadership path. And putting all those environmentally-focused Jews out there will serve society, our planet, tradition, and our descendants – and it will reflect well on the Jewish community.

Ezra S. Shanken is the Senior Manager of the Young Adult Department and Major Gifts at the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado and a third-generation Jewish Communal worker. He was the 2009 co-chair of the Professional Leaders Project Skill Summit.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Our Environment issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.

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  1. carole caplan says

    Thanks to Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb for mentioning JRC, and for his inspiration and direction along our journey…As a past president, I am proud to have helped JRC become the first Platinum certified religious institution of any denomination in America.

    Though we are a strong congregation, JRC reached LEED Platinum without being the largest, the wealthiest or the most knowledgeable of congregations. We relied repeatedly on the teachings of our tradition, and followed the Reconstructionist model of “values-based decision making” which inspired and sustained us throughout the project. Please know that we are happy to speak to others about our story…

    Importantly, I want to bring light to Greenfaith, a wonderful resource for doing this work in spiritual community. GreenFaith’s mission is to “inspire, educate and mobilize people of diverse religious backgrounds for environmental leadership”. They believe and promote that protecting the earth is a religious value, and that environmental stewardship is a moral responsibility, and provide invaluable resources and training. Learn more at:

    Together we can make a meaningful difference!

  2. says

    Kol hakavod (Kudos) to all involved in presenting this very valuable material. A a time when the world is rapidly approaching an unprecedented climate catastrophe and facing many other environmental threats, this information is very important and I hope it will be widely read and acted upon.

    As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), I would like to add that serving all or mostly vegan foods is another very valuable way to green synagogues and other aspects of Jewish life. Animal-based agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, deforestation, desertification, water pollution, soil erosion and depletion, rapid species extinctions and many other environmental problems.

    For more information on Jewish teachings on vegetarianism and related issues, please visit and see JVNA’s documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World” at

  3. Rita Pochter Lowe says

    On Sunday, June 12th, there will be the 2nd annual Riverdale Riverfest in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. We are looking for not for profit agencies/individuals to participate in having a table with demonstrations or information on saving the environment for generations to come. Any agencies or corporations out there that might have useful information to share? We expect well over a thousand visitors and will be holding this event on the campus of Mount St. Vincent, a college on the Riverdale/Yonkers border, right on the Hudson River! If there are any vendors selling environmentally sound prouducts, I believe they can “rent” a space for $ 50.00

    Please get in touch with me if you have any suggestions or are interestedin participating. there will be boat rids as well!