Jewish Commitment to the Environment Growing but Uneven Despite Significant Giving by Other U.S. Donors

Kol Shalom Synagogue, Rockville, Md. Photo courtesy The project is LEED Gold certified. Some of the major elements incorporated into the design include a geothermal well system, green roof, and views to the outside and continuous insulation outside of the exterior wall framing to reduce thermal bridging.
Kol Shalom Synagogue, Rockville, Md. Photo courtesy Shinberg.Levinas
The project is LEED Gold certified. Some of the major elements incorporated into the design include a geothermal well system, green roof, and views to the outside and continuous insulation outside of the exterior wall framing to reduce thermal bridging.

By Robert Evans

The American fundraising entity representing Israel’s Ben-Gurion University announced last month the receipt of a $400 million gift by the estate of Dr. Howard Marcus and his wife Lottie, of San Diego, California. This gift provides for the creation of a permanent endowment, primarily focused on BGU’s water research at the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research, which studies sustainable use of water resources, desalination technologies, water quality, and microbiology.

The Marcuses, both Holocaust survivors, were fascinated by the university’s work in desalination and desert farming. Dr. Marcus died in 2014 at the age of 104 while his wife died last December at the age of 99. Although the Marcus gift was just announced, it reflects an uneven but real trend in charitable giving that places an emphasis by donors on support of the environment and animals. But to my team and me, Jewish donors seem slow – if reluctant – to support projects that could make an impact on the environment because of how these projects are developed and presented. In fact, when we test giving priorities by potential donors and current Jewish leaders, we usually encounter less than lukewarm support for environmental sustainability in construction efforts or endowment-focused efforts.

According to the just published report on charitable giving in 2015, Giving USA highlighted that philanthropy in the environment/animals subsector increased 16% in the two-year period 2014 and 2015. In fact, Giving USA’s figures reflect $10.68 billion in 2015 for the environment and animals, representing an all-time high since the annual study began tracking giving in this sector in 1987.

In a Jewish context, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) represents a decades-long commitment to the environment and direct connection to the land and people of Israel. Started in 1901 primarily to fund the purchase and development of the soon-to-be nation of Israel through methodologies like the planting of trees in Israel and the collection of coins in a little blue box, JNF has continued its environmental and strategic focus with the addition of several other compatible priorities. Eighteen years ago, water became a stated emphasis, according to Russell F. Robinson, CEO of JNF in the U.S. Under his direction, JNF has been “instrumental in developing successful programs for Israel’s water crisis, environmental work, and the sustainable development of the Negev.”

JNF also received a major bequest of $227 million in 2013 from Dora and John Boruchin, also Holocaust survivors, who had immigrated to California. The gift was directed for its general campaign and on-going work. In an unheard of thoughtful decision, JNF leadership directed the funds towards its highly successful Zionist education and engagement programming, especially targeting support from Millennials, the fastest growing component of JNF’s donor base today. Sparked by widespread generosity, JNF has launched a ten-year roadmap to the future: a $1.0 billion campaign that is moving even faster than original projections.

What priorities do these two Holocaust survivor couples have that the rest of us are missing?

Despite feelings of optimism as conveyed through JNF’s fast-moving campaign efforts, we approached several architects known for innovative Jewish projects. For example, Philadelphia-based architect Michael Hauptman notes mixed experiences relating to the environmental focuses that some would champion. His firm, Brawer & Hauptman, works with many Jewish congregations on new construction and renovations to existing facilities. “Every synagogue client that we’ve had for the past couple of years has had sustainability near the top of their list when articulating the goals of their projects. None have gone so far as requesting that their project be LEED certified, but almost every project has a prospective donor who wishes to make a donation that is targeted for something sustainable,” he said.

(Note: LEED certification provides independent verification of a building’s green features, allowing for the design, construction, operations and maintenance of resource-efficient, high-performing, healthy, cost-effective buildings. The U.S. Green Building Council awards certifications, depending on the levels of sustainability incorporated into a project.)

Hauptman quickly noted that “we have completed one synagogue project that has solar panels on the roof, and we are working on one now where that is being explored, along with a green roof, geothermal heating and cooling, innovative storm water management, and porous paving. Often the analyses of these additions to the project do not show a fast-enough payback to justify the first costs and they get ‘value engineered’ out of the project.”

Two other architects that we contacted because of their extensive work with Jewish houses of worship echo Hauptman’s report. “Addressing sustainability (tikkun olam) is in our approach in every situation,” says Michael Landau of Landau/Zinder Architects. “We won’t back away from sustainable design in any project but we need leaders – and especially donors – with vision, commitment, and an appreciation for the impact of sustainability,” Landau told me. He also repeated an on-going trend that he has witnessed: “synagogue leaders contend that they don’t need the LEED certification as long as the commitment to address appropriate environmentally-important components doesn’t get lost in budgetary considerations.”

Baltimore-based architect Jay Brown, of Levin/Brown Architects, advised that “we have received some limited interest in LEED certification for both new and renovation projects. Unfortunately when the issue of cost is discussed, interest quickly wanes. To comply with even the lowest level of certification increases the cost of construction by approximately 15% and it increases other fees, too.”

Brown added quickly that “every project we have pursues many of the techniques outlined for LEED certification without the actual submission and performance requirements. We affectionately refer to this type of design as ‘LEED Lite.’ Congregations, therefore, get many of the environmental benefits of sustainable design without the additional cost.”

One other prominent synagogue-experienced architect, Salo Levinas, commented to me that “ten years ago there was absolutely no interest in sustainability. Today that has changed for sure.” Levinas noted that a project his firm, Shinberg/Levinas Architects, developed and oversaw was a Gold-level LEED-certified project and it became the first U.S. Conservative congregation to achieve this level of sustainability when it opened its doors in a new facility in 2013. “Kol Shalom, of Rockville, Maryland, is one of a very few Jewish congregations to embrace the high levels required for such sustainability,” he noted. The congregation’s website highlights a statement from their rabbi, Jonathan Maltzman, who writes that “from the moment we began to imagine our future synagogue, the members of Kol Shalom expressed a fervent desire to see this building unfold not only as a tasteful religious and spiritual home but also as a Jewish environmental treasure. We are proud of the example we have set for all.”

Lavinas and his firm are currently working with two Jewish schools, neither of which will be a LEED-certified project but are moving in parallel tracks to equal gold-level certifications. He says that “today, our clients are much more receptive to including environmental focuses … from leadership as well as users. What we have seen is that sometimes specific donors fund the increased costs to make certain that an environmental thrust is guaranteed.”

One other Conservative congregation, Temple Beth El of Stamford, Connecticut, embraced sustainability three years ago as “morally compelling,” says Rabbi Joshua Hammerman. Now his Conservative congregation is in the early phases of a major endowment and capital campaign that will undoubtedly include another component of sustainability to complement its installation of solar panels, changes to the synagogue roof, adjustments of its lighting, and additional modernization. “Our congregation took advantage of a state program that benefited many organizations from tax credits after Hurricane Sandy,” he said. “We received many accolades because of our truly becoming a ‘sustainable building,’” he said. But … a small number of congregants, he said, questioned the efforts on political grounds (none relating to the expense).

Robert Evans is founder and president of the Evans Consulting Group, a full-service firm that helps nonprofits address their strategic and fundraising goals. Now in its 25th year, Evans Consulting leads fundraising campaigns, facilitates strategic planning processes, engages in donor research and cultivation, coaches nonprofit leaders and performs a number of other development-related services. Mr. Evans is a member of the Giving USA editorial review board and is also a board member of the Giving Institute. He can be reached at