Jewish organizations learn how to ‘go green’

Participants at the COEJL Jewish sustainability conference get a tour of the organic Kayam Farm at the Pearlstone Retreat and Conference Center outside Baltimore. (Mirele Goldsmith)

Participants at the COEJL Jewish sustainability conference get a tour of the organic Kayam Farm at the Pearlstone Retreat and Conference Center outside Baltimore. (Mirele Goldsmith)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Jewish organizations may want to "go green" but the challenges — from the cost to simply knowing which products to buy  — can be complicated.

That’s where last week’s Jewish Sustainability Conference comes in.

Coordinated by the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life, the two-day gathering at a retreat center outside Baltimore brought together about 40 representatives from 17 Jewish organizations, specifically targeting groups that own and operate a significant amount of real estate — including the four major Jewish denominations, the student group Hillel and the United Jewish Communities.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, COEJL’s general consultant, said the goal was to assist the organizations in figuring out what they can be doing and how they can exchange information to help each other.

Sustainability, Cardin explained, means living “a life of dignity and fullness” without diminishing resources or the capacity of the next generation to live well, too.

“It incorporates environmental health” as well as “social and economic well-being,” she said.

“The beauty, and the difficulty of it, is that wherever you turn, you can touch it,” said Cardin, from the food one buys to its packaging, to how it is eaten and its disposal.

Unless an organization has a full-time position devoted solely to sustainability issues, she says, questions arise — for instance, where to find the most sustainable paper products or the best price for them — and companies often don’t have the manpower to investigate.

COEJL, she said, can serve as a clearinghouse, so organizations don’t duplicate the efforts of others in the community.

“If we can be that go-to place for information and tell you 20 miles down the road here’s a vendor in your area,” then, for instance, a religious denomination can spread the word to synagogues in the area, saving time and resources, she said.

She also points out that the price of certain materials, such as sustainable cleaning products, can be significantly reduced if bought in bulk — an option for many of the participating organizations.

In addition, the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center, where the meeting was held, includes an organic farm, so participants received some education on sustainable food options.

Cardin hopes to follow up with monthly Webinars or other projects that provide information and sustain the relationships that the conference began to build.

Participants were excited by the conference’s results.

Rachel Cohen, a legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said it was “exciting and inspiring to create new connections all across the broad spectrum” with people working on this issue that she “never had the chance to meet face to face.”

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, associate director of synagogue services for the Orthdox Union, said it’s “hard selling people” in their member synagogues “on protecting the environment if it’s going to cost 50 percent more,” but he learned that in many cases such efforts are pretty much a wash financially and in the end provide long-term savings.

Not only can it “help our bottom line,” but “we’re practicing what we preach,” he said.

There also was some discussion of halachic problems that might arise from possible green solutions. For instance, Abramowitz noted that suggestions to hook up synagogue lights to motion detectors are problematic on Friday nights and holidays, so Orthodox synagogues might have to get some kind of override for Shabbat.

Similarly, a certain type of toilet paper that would be better for the environment is perforated and thus not compliant with the prohibition on tearing on Shabbat and holidays.

“Those are the type of things we uniquely have to investigate,” Abramowitz said.

Cardin emphasized that all the participating organizations demonstrated their seriousness about sustainability because they all co-sponsored the gathering, paying their costs for attending as well as a fee to underwrite the conference.

“They paid to put sustainability on the agenda,” said Cardin. “The question is where is it on the agenda to bring us to the place we all need to be.”

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