Synagogue Sustainability


“We are living on this planet as if we had another one to go to,” Terri Swearingen, winner of the 1977 Goldman Environmental Prize once said. Over 40 years later, the wellbeing of this planet is still something that communities around the world address in different ways.

The response of many has been to act more sustainably, thinking of the consequences that each item of trash has on our planet. This includes composting, recycling and acting more consciously with regards to the amount of waste we produce.

To some interpreters, ancient Jewish texts address the issue of sustainability: “When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?” (Deuteronomy 20:19) After reaching out to synagogues in my community, I found that each sect of Judaism and each temple interprets these texts differently, so their solutions tend to be unique.

At Young Israel of Scarsdale, a Modern Orthodox synagogue, the issue of sustainability is being dealt with, but it is not the congregation’s main focus. “Currently it’s not so wonderful” said Rabbi Nuriel Klinger, the associate Rabbi of the synagogue. While sustainable practices aren’t occurring in full force at Young Israel, the discussion of how to become a more environmentally conscious worship center is being had. “We’re actually on the path of becoming a more sustainable and environmentally friendly synagogue,” Klinger explained. But becoming a more sustainable place of worship requires funding and planning, something that is being discussed at board meetings, but is not in practice just yet at Young Israel.

However, this isn’t the case everywhere. At Westchester Reform Temple (WRT), a Reform synagogue in Scarsdale, N.Y., creating an environmentally friendly community is of the upmost importance. “One of the things that we have been working on at WRT is the Zero Waste Project,” said Michelle Sterling, co-chair of the Zero Waste Initiative at WRT. “We are looking to become a zero-waste facility…meaning that everything is reusable, recyclable or compostable.”

The committee focuses on achieving this zero-waste goal through incorporating sustainable practices throughout the synagogue. Sterling and her co-chair, Ron Schulhof, explained that they have partnered with their synagogue to convert the plates and utensils used at the synagogue to reusable material. However, in the event that items used in the synagogue can’t be converted to reusable material, plastic is no longer used. Instead, the committee organizes the usage of compostable items.

The Zero Waste Program also handles all the synagogue’s recycling. They aim to ensure that any waste produced by the synagogue gets taken to the right recycling or composting facility so that it can be reused or reassembled appropriately.

While the Zero Waste Program now deals with sustainability at WRT on a larger scale, they began small. “We started with one event,” said Sterling. “From there we went to all religious events.” The progression to become a zero-waste facility required planning, commitment, funding and devotion to the cause of sustainability from the committee, as well as the members of the synagogue as a whole.

In fact, the Zero Waste Program is so successful, it can be replicated, allowing for zero waste facilities to exist almost anywhere. This includes other worship centers, schools and community centers all across Westchester and the greater tri-state area.

One of the synagogues that follows WRT’s Zero Waste Initiative is Temple Israel Center, a Conservative synagogue in White Plains, N.Y. Much like WRT, plates and utensils are aimed to be either reusable or compostable at as many synagogue events as possible. WRT advises Temple Israel Center—and any other places of worship or community centers that wish to adopt their practices—where to obtain these materials at affordable rates. WRT also guides them on how to behave sustainably on a congregational level. For Temple Israel Center and other places of similar size, this means accessible and multi-colored trash, recycling and composting bins.

Within such a small radius of each other, these three synagogues can be seen addressing sustainability uniquely, whether that be in terms of their speed or method of action. However, all have come to the same conclusion: adjustments must be made at synagogues to address the issue of climate change. In both big and small ways, synagogues in Westchester can be seen taking the problems that our earth is facing into their own hands, promoting the thought that the planet’s wellbeing shouldn’t rely on any one group of people; we must all take responsibility.

Ariel Weinsaft is a junior at Scarsdale High School.

Fresh Ink for Teens is an online magazine written by, and for, Jewish students from high schools around the world.