When Will the Jewish Community Truly Go “Green”?

by Robert I. Evans & Avrum D. Lapin

With the United Nations-sponsored international summit on climate change in Copenhagen capturing worldwide headlines, we questioned how American Jewish organizations and their donors are responding to growing environmental challenges. In heeding the often heard slogan “Think Globally/Act Locally”, are environmental concerns attracting attention in the Jewish community? How do Jewish donors and leaders feel about the greening of our agencies and being and/or becoming good stewards of our planet? Are Jewish donors thinking and responding differently than non-Jewish philanthropists?

Charitable giving to environmental causes by all donors has historically been about two percent of the giving “pie.” Giving USA reported that 2008 donors directed only $6.58 billion out of the $308 billion given that year for animal rights and issues relating to the environment. This reflected a 5.5 percent decline following a surge of charitable support between 1997 and 2007 for environmental causes. With the recent economic difficulties, there is the possibility of similar (or even more major) declines in 2009 and 2010.

Yet despite the slight drop in giving, largely reflecting economic pressures, we still see the environment to be a clear priority in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. With many U.S. non-profits pressing attention on environmental needs, how are we, as a Jewish community and as donors, responding?

There are a number of prominent organizations, such as the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), which have dedicated their missions to protecting the environment with a specific focus on the Jewish community. The Jewish Climate Change Campaign is one exhilarating – but little-known – example of Jewish commitment to making a public issue around being “green” and pledging to improve the environment for future generations. We expect organizations like these and others to rise to prominence as the issue grows beyond the “margins” and becomes more firmly established in the mainstream.

We were pleased to find several dozen U.S.-based Jewish organizations with an environmental agenda, and we are especially glad to note that both the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) held sessions at their recent biennials which focused on the importance of being “green” within the Jewish community, especially focusing on Jewish houses of worship. The URJ is even providing a live update from Copenhagen, as well as remarks from Rabbi Warren Stone, a summit attendee. We commend the URJ in their efforts to bring greater attention to the importance of this conference and the issues discussed, as well as highlighting how the Jewish community is taking action.

Architects today are drawing plans and developing facilities with guidelines set by the U.S. Green Building Council. More and more buildings designed today are integrating a number of important factors like a facility’s energy and water usage, carbon dioxide emissions, and overall environmental impact. To receive a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification requires significant planning and a short term investment of financial resources yet promises a more efficient facility that will have positive environmental effects over time.

Yet the first LEED-certified U.S. synagogue will break ground in April in Maryland, and few if many other congregations are considering major changes to their systems that impact the environment. The architect for the 200-member Conservative congregation, Kol Shalom, Salo Levinas, of Shinberg Levinas Architects, told us that “the congregation’s leaders were committed from the outset to make their building a truly pacesetting house of worship.” The investment of slightly higher costs for environmental innovations “will undoubtedly be returned over a handful of years,” he said.

Another prominent architect responsible for many synagogue construction and refurbishing efforts, Jay Brown, of Levin Brown Architects, holds the LEED accreditation but notes that few projects “are actively moving forward with capital improvements, perhaps because of the downturn in giving. This is a very shortsighted approach,” he added.

Both agree, however, that while developing “green” buildings may seem transformative today, in a short time it will be commonplace, like the general commitment to making facilities accessible to people with disabilities.

Hillel Campus for Jewish Life has witnessed 40 construction projects on campuses across the U.S. since 1995 and 20 others are on the drawing boards today. While none are LEED-certified, almost all are built with environmental considerations, especially prompted by student users and organizational mandates for long term cost savings.

Our experiences working with hundreds of U.S. Jewish organizations on various types of fundraising campaigns have reflected a dilemma among organizational leaders who intellectually understand and support the effort to effect positive environment changes, yet they are hesitant to embrace and promote environmental issues for their own facilities in a transformative way. Certain organizations lack the appropriate funds to construct LEED-certified facilities and are reluctant to ask donors to underwrite more costly steps to create them. However, some are taking other creative and thoughtful short and long-term approaches, including creating endowment funds that address energy efficiency, natural beautification, and a variety of other environmentally conscious approaches. While most organizations have fostered small-scale activities like limiting the use of and re-cycling paper, we look forward to seeing the large scale facility-focused transformative efforts that will truly make a difference.

As members of the Jewish community, we must all join together and work to ensure a brighter, safer future for generations to come. Join us in this call for action and for a vision that embraces a healthier planet.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia. A member firm of to The Giving Institute, the organization that oversees the preparation and distribution of Giving USA, EHL Consulting works with dozens of non-profits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices.