February 3, 2009 -- NJJN Bureau Chief/PMB
The Jewish Center in Princeton is in the vanguard of a national effort to make synagogues more environmentally friendly.
Since last spring, the Princeton shul has been one of 14 Conservative synagogues participating in a "sustainability pilot project" initiated by the movement's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs.
Participants are required to adopt a number of eco-friendly innovations, from installing a solar-powered ner tamid, or eternal light, to using biodegradable and compostable cups, flatware, and paper goods for all synagogue functions.
The initiative, known as Shomrei Ha'aretz — Stewards of the Land — has the support of the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism, an association of the movement's major arms, including United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
The other congregations in the pilot project are in Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
Participants are also required to take part in a carbon-offset program, which entails making a donation to or investment in a project that balances the synagogue's greenhouse gas contributions. Synagogues are also required to use and sell eco-friendly Shabbat candles made of soy wax.
"My motivation behind all of this is the mitzva factor," said Rabbi Adam Feldman, during a recent interview in his synagogue office.
Joining him there for a discussion about the project were Naomi Perlman of Princeton, cochair — with Beatrice Bloom — of the congregation's social concerns committee, and Suki Wasserman of Princeton, cochair — with her husband, Matthew — of the sustainability committee.
"What I love about this is the Jewish factor," the rabbi said. "What I want our kids to understand is that we should not waste God's resources. That's the religious piece. We're doing it as a mitzva.
"One of the other things I love about this is that this is intergenerational," he added. "My kids are doing something about this and I am doing something about this. Families can do it together."
Signs of the congregation's focus on sustainability are literally everywhere in the synagogue building — recycling bins placed at strategic points and signs in every room declaring: "Bal tashchit (Do not waste). Dispose of garbage in the trash and/or recycling bins. Turn off the lights. Turn off the air-conditioning or heat (at day's end)."
Accenting each sign is a symbol, designed by congregant Joshua Zinder, of an endless, interwoven cycle of arrows in the shape of a Jewish star.
"It's a concept from the Torah," Feldman said. "It's simple but brilliant. It's the Jewish value of recycling."
The congregation has long been engaged in observing that value, but in a piecemeal way, according to Wasserman and Perlman. Already in the works were a recycling program and an assessment of energy and waste management in the synagogue building. Now, through involvement in the pilot program, such activities have become more focused, they said.
"Now, we're doing waste and energy management not only on The Jewish Center's premises, but also in members' homes," said Wasserman, a marketing research consultant. "We feel we can have a greater impact beyond this building to 730 households in Princeton.
"Sustainability is made up of three parts," Wasserman added. "One is caring for the environment. The second part is building a community, and that means supporting the community, doing tikun olam [repairing the world], and making sure that the community is thriving. The third piece is economic. It's a balance between these three things."
The work of the 10-member sustainability committee dovetails perfectly with the goals of the social concerns committee, which has made sustainability its focus, said Perlman, an attorney who works in the field of risk management.
"When I sat down with my cochair, in trying to figure out where we would go with social concerns, we thought it would be advantageous if it was a more-than-one-year process," she said. The pilot project "had a religious component. It had a local component. And it was something we took on as an 18-month- to-two-year initiative."
Since last spring, The Jewish Center has woven the thread of Shomrei Ha'aretz into the fabric of congregational life. Activities have included hosting a panel discussion in the congregational sukka on green building and green living, planning a demonstration of organic kosher cooking, selling the soy candles for Shabbat, using recycled paper for classroom art projects, training the custodial staff in proper recycling, adding a sustainability column to the synagogue's monthly newsletter, and incorporating the subject of sustainability into every class curriculum.
In addition, Perlman said, the congregation has renewed its cleaning supplies with eco-friendly, nontoxic products. "This has obvious health benefits, and it's saved a lot of money as well," she said. "That's been a big plus."
The greening of The Jewish Center has also involved a mandate for the nursery school to dispense with disposable products, Feldman said. Now, he said, he finds himself thinking not only about what kind of sandwich to make for his young son's lunch, but also about wrapping the sandwich in a washable, reusable wrapper with plastic on one side and cloth on the other.
Feldman said he expects to have the solar-powered ner tamid installed in the synagogue sanctuary within the next two months. "This is one of my favorite pieces — just the image of the eternal light being solar-powered," he said. It's a reminder that "if we waste our resources, we're not going to have eternal power."
"I think it's wonderful that we're at the forefront of doing this," Feldman added. "I just love the fact that we're following a Jewish mandate. We're conserving God's natural resources, and we're God's partner in that process."
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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