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Jews, Christians Join in Calling for Smaller Cars and Less Pollution

November 27, 2002
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Rabbi Jerome Epstein owns a Buick, but he’s going automobile shopping this week.

“What I’m looking for is a small car,” Epstein says.

As he wanders the wilderness of car dealerships, Epstein might wonder, what would Moses drive?

Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational umbrella group, is among Jewish and Christian leaders and organizations aiming to steer the United States away from its dependence on foreign oil and put the brakes on Americans’ penchant for gas-guzzling Sport Utility Vehicles.

Officially called the Interfaith Climate and Energy Campaign, the effort by four dozen leaders and groups has won major media coverage, thanks largely to the evangelical Christian motto, “What would Jesus drive?”

On the Jewish side, fueling the push are the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, together with leading rabbis and organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, Hadassah, the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

On Nov. 20, campaign members delivered petitions to the heads of the Big Three automakers in Detroit, urging tighter fuel economy standards in new cars as a “moral imperative” that would heighten national security and reduce pollution from fossil fuels.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, told the CEOs of DaimlerChrysler, Ford and General Motors that nearly all the cars Detroit is producing “are poisoning the air, warming the air, punishing the poor, weakening America’s security by dependency on foreign oil, jeopardizing the future of our children” and “just plain violating the covenant with our Creator.”

Coalition members maintain that there’s a direct connection among SUVs, national security and global warming.

Mark Jacobs, executive director of the Jewish environmental group COEJL, says 52 percent of U.S. oil is imported from places such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

That means “U.S. foreign policy is significantly shaped by Saudi oil and some of the same nations that support terrorism,” Jacobs says. “The quickest way to increase our security is to lessen our reliance on foreign oil.”

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the United States, which has only 3 percent of world oil reserves, remains reliant on Saudi reserves more than a decade after the Persian Gulf War sparked calls to diversify oil imports.

U.S. oil consumption also is rising as cars get bigger, while fuel economy standards are stagnating, the coalition says.

In 2001, Americans bought more SUVs, light trucks and minivans than cars. It’s no accident that the United States belches out one-quarter of the Earth’s ozone-depleting greenhouse gases from fossil fuel and other industrial emissions, the group says.

Consumer demand for bigger cars has climbed since automakers began skirting tougher fuel-economy standards for smaller cars by building SUVs, which come under the light-truck category, in the 1980s.

SUVs and other outsized vehicles consume 40 percent of all gas pumped in the United States daily. Their fuel economy is mandated at only 20.7 miles per gallon, far below the 27.5 mpg standard that small cars must meet.

Detroit long has had the technology to produce more efficient engines and even to mass-produce cleaner models such as hybrids, which only now are hitting showroom floors in significant numbers, the coalition maintains.

For some time, Jacobs has been warning that Jews are part of the affluent segments of society that use gas-hogging SUVs.

In a recent edition of Reform Judaism magazine, he wrote that “many synagogue parking lots look like veritable showrooms” of SUVs.

He adds, “There’s no disproportionate Jewish love for SUVs, but the Jewish community is largely affluent and SUVs are very popular in those societies.”

Yet Jacobs and Sharon Bloome, national board chair of COEJL, insist they’re not urging people to boycott car companies or even trade in their Lincoln Navigators for Honda Civics.

Instead, “we are trying to initiate a new conversation about cars that takes into account the moral choices car makers make when choosing to produce vehicles, and the choices people make when purchasing them,” Jacobs says.

In a piece she wrote for COEJL’s Web site, Bloome noted the “miracle of oil” in the Chanukah story as a chilling reminder of a time when oil was “a coveted resource.”

Today’s SUVs “are really a fashion statement,” she said, since they’re designed as off-road “nature” vehicles but few people use them that way.

In addition to raising people’s consciousness of the environmental impact of what they drive, Jews should make “their own personal accountability” about their automotive habits. Bloome says.

In recent years, the interfaith coalition has spent much of its budget — hundreds of thousands of dollars — lobbying Congress to enact stricter clean-air laws. But oil industry contributions to Congressional campaigns have made the group change tactics, Jacobs says.

By directly petitioning corporate leaders in the automotive industry, “we’ve broken new ground in the way Jewish organizations are engaging the community on this,” Jacobs says.

One of the petition’s supporters, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, lauds the SUV campaign.

But only new laws — such as new fuel taxes and tougher fuel-consumption regulations — will succeed in changing things, he says.

Yet for Epstein, even the small act of finding a more ecological car really matters.

Otherwise, “We will leave the world in far worse shape than we have it today,” he says. “Our children and descendants will be left in a terrible state.”

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