Government Grant Helps California Synagogues Find Eternal Sunshine of the Holy Kind

By Rebecca Spence

Published April 15, 2009, issue of April 24, 2009.

In 1897, two New York policemen disrupted a public ceremony marking the Blessing of the Sun and dragged a rabbi down to court for failing to have a permit. More than a century later, on the opposite coast, government officials are not only giving a similar ceremony their blessing — they are also putting money behind a new environmental program in its honor.

To mark the event, which occurs only once every 28 years, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California is partnering with the agency responsible for improving the region’s air quality to install solar-powered Eternal Lights — the lamps that hang above synagogue arks — in synagogues throughout the region. The South Coast Air Quality Management District is even funding the “Harnessing the Blessing of the Sun” project, to the tune of $10,000.

It is said that every 28 years, the sun returns to the position it occupied when the world was created. According to the Genesis story, God created the sun on the fourth day of the week, a Wednesday. There are 365 and a quarter days in a solar year, so it takes 28 years for the sun to end up back at its starting point.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is the only partnership of its kind in the country, where you have a partnership between a board of rabbis and a governmental agency,” said Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

A dozen California synagogues, including Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton and Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center, are participating in the new program. Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation in Beverly Hills, flipped the switch on its solar Eternal Light at an April 7 ceremony. The lamp’s installation, which requires putting a solar panel on the synagogue’s roof, cost $1,647, about half of which was covered by the AQMD grant.

While efforts to green synagogues across the country have been under way for several years, this latest endeavor underscores the West Coast’s leading role in pushing environmentally friendly measures. The new program, which will help defray the cost of installing solar Eternal Lights, also demonstrates the role that faith-based institutions can play in promoting environmental awareness.

“The environmental movement is much more energized now by faith communities,” said Laura Geller, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel. “It becomes not only a political issue, but a religious issue to take care of the planet.”

Contact Rebecca Spence at spence@forward.com.



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