AJC’s New ‘Green’ Building Is Also a Political Statement

Rising: AJC’s Linda Lansky stands next to
new, energy-efficient elevator equipment.
Rising: AJC’s Linda Lansky stands next to new, energy-efficient elevator equipment.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published July 06, 2011, issue of July 15, 2011.
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The American Jewish Committee, one of America’s largest Jewish advocacy groups, owns a 10-story glass building on East 56th Street in Midtown Manhattan, built in 1959. Like most buildings from that era, it was, until recently, a picture of environmental inefficiency. The steam-powered central air conditioner periodically shut down, prompting complaints from the organization’s 160 employees. The elevators moved at a glacial pace, carving away precious work time. And the recycling program was all but ignored, with employees tossing trash into blue bins marked for paper and plastic.

But on June 27, AJC Executive Director David Harris mounted a frosted-glass plaque on the wall of the building’s foyer that decisively changed his organization’s environmental profile. The plaque reads “LEED GOLD,” which stands for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design award and is the U.S. Green Building Council’s second-highest level of environmental certification. In fact, the AJC foyer it overlooks — outfitted with wood paneling from a sustainable forest and a super-absorbent rug meant to cut down on cleaning costs — is itself a testament to the changes the award recognizes.

“That was, for me, one of the most significant moments of my professional life,” Harris said. “This was an expression of living our values, not just talking about them. This is keeping with Jewish tradition — as my father planted for me, so will I plant for my children.”

But for Harris and some other communal officials the commitment also reflects a geopolitical agenda that includes policy prescriptions opposed by major environmental groups. The AJC and other Jewish groups see going green as a way to combat U.S. dependence on foreign oil, a dependence, say AJC officials, that keeps the country beholden to Arab oil states whose policies imperil the United States, Israel, and Europe. To decrease that dependence, the AJC supports measures lauded by environmentalists, such as increasing car fuel efficiency. But it also promotes off-shore domestic drilling and new, purportedly cleaner coal technologies.

Sean Sarah, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club, termed off-shore drilling “a short-term solution that will only further endanger our environment in the long-term.” And, he declared, “Coal kills. It causes asthma and mercury poisoning, and causes a significant portion of the soot and smog problem, especially on the East Coast. Until someone can prove that we can find a way to cleanly mine and cleanly produce energy from coal — and I don’t think we ever will — it simply makes no sense.”

Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of national and legislative affairs in Washington, denied there was any contradiction between the group’s environmental claims and its energy security agenda.

“It’s not all or nothing, and we don’t have to buy into the entire [environmental] agenda,” he said. “With oil development, it is not ‘drill, baby, drill.’ There is a smart way to do it, to develop energy sources that are clean and safe.”

As for coal, Foltin acknowledged, “we are not in the optimal place” in terms of how that resource is used. But he added: “Coal is out there. It is a potential energy source.”

The AJC’s bottom line, said Foltin, is that “we want to be less reliant on foreign oil in the event someone seeks to use oil against us as a strategic weapon.”

The AJC has been a leading Jewish advocate for energy independence since 1973, when Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an oil embargo on the United States to punish it for its supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War. The AJC established its energy department in response that year.

“There is an Israeli connection and an American connection,” Harris explained. “The higher the global demand for oil, the higher the prices, the more the coffers of countries like Iran and Venezuela are filled. That threatens Western countries, that threatens the United States and that threatens Israel.”

Harris said that the AJC’s LEED certification reflects the group’s determination to have its own practices match its advocacy work. The AJC covered half of the $1.05 million cost through grants from New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the Kresge Foundation, 3 Phases Renewables, which is a supplier of renewable energy solutions, and individual donors, including members of the AJC’S board of governors.

The process began with help from NYSERDA, which identified “low hanging fruit” — goals the group could implement immediately, such as cutting down on its operational hours. Other improvements followed: low-flow toilets; ceiling lights that splay powerful white light and turn off when the room empties of people; a new, electrical-powered air conditioning system; biodegradable cleaning solution, and two powerful new elevators that recoup lost energy and send it back to the power grid.

According to Amanda Mishler, who spearheaded the AJC LEED process, the AJC reduced electricity usage by 20% and steam usage by 70%.

Many other Jewish groups are intent on greening their images, and many of these groups cite environmental stewardship as their immediate rationale. But Israel is also paramount. “Energy independence is one of the key areas of critical Jewish interest with relation to Israel’s security,” said Sybil Sanchez, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

Last year, COEJL and 17 other Jewish organizations, including the AJC, created DontFundTerror.org, a website advocating policies that the groups believe will help end America’s reliance on foreign oil. The website urges visitors to sign a prewritten letter to their senators, asking them to back an energy independence strategy and fund green technology.

The website features a large photo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a quote from Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu: “Reducing the world’s dependence on oil would help cleanse our world after more than a century of industrial pollution….And it would end the massive transfer of wealth to some of the world’s most odious exporters of terrorism and fanaticism.”

Michael Klare, a Hampshire College professor who studies energy security, said that Jewish organizations that place American energy independence at the heart of their greening goals have the right idea but the wrong scope. The problem is not American dependence on foreign oil, but world dependence on oil in general. Even if the United States cuts its oil usage, Japan and Europe will continue to finance Arab oil states, he said.

“Every step we make to reduce our consumption of oil is a good thing,” Klare said. “But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we will ever free ourselves entirely from our dependence on the Middle East.”

Meanwhile, he said, LEED certification makes sense as an environmental goal but not as a political one.

“LEED certification should be for its own sake, because the challenge of global warming affects everyone on the planet. Regardless of religious or political orientation, we all have to act on this,” Klare said.

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com

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