Stemming the Tide

By Liz Galst

Published November 04, 2005, issue of November 04, 2005.
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This week, in synagogues around the world, Jews will read about a rapidly rising water table, a torrent that destroys nearly everyone and everything on the planet.

In the story of Noah, this deluge is God’s doing. And after the waters have receded, God promises never again to destroy the world by flood. God does not promise, however, that humans never will destroy the world by flood.

And, in fact, that’s just what we’re doing: Global warming is melting the great polar ice cap and the glacial ice fields that have covered so much of the earth for millennia. That melting ice is running into the oceans, swallowing coastal areas, disrupting weather patterns and intensifying the power of storms such as Hurricane Katrina. Experts say the severe weather events occurring now — the floods, the droughts, New York’s 60-degree weather in January — are only the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg. “Global warming is the most important issue of our time,” Rabbi Lawrence Troster, rabbinic fellow at the national Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life told the Forward. “The more I hear about it from experts, the more frightening it gets.”

But these experts also have said that there is no need to despair. Not yet, anyway. There’s good news when it comes to global warming: Americans can do a lot to stop and reverse the problem, in part because we’re causing so much of it. (Americans produce about 25% of the world’s climate-change-inducing greenhouse gases (GHGs), despite making up less than 5% of the world population.) According to Troster, “This is one issue where each one of us can make a difference, in terms of the way we live and what we tell our government to do.”

And indeed, a number of congregations around the country aren’t simply reading about the flood; they’re taking concrete steps to help address the problem.

Their first step has been to understand what’s causing global warming: namely, the accumulation in the earth’s atmosphere of heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. These are produced primarily from the burning of fossil fuels — in cars, trucks, airplanes, furnaces and power plants. Compounding the situation is the rapid deforestation the world has experienced in the last several decades. (Trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turn it into wood.)

Then, following the advice of groups like COEJL, which was organized in 1993 to galvanize Jewish community concern about the environment, they’ve taken action. For instance, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center is one of the leading endorsers of the Stop Global Warming Virtual March on Washington ( One of the march’s goals is to pass the Climate Stewardship Act, legislation co-sponsored by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman that would limit greenhouse gas emissions and fund innovative energy technologies.

In an effort to reduce GHGs, many communities have begun by taking action at home. At Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven, Conn., an expert performs an energy audit, recommending ways that the synagogue can effectively reduce its energy use. “We’re expecting to cut our electric bill in half,” Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen said.

To encourage members to switch from ordinary incandescent light bulbs to more energy-efficient compact fluorescents, Atlanta’s Congregation Bet Haverim has developed the One for Each Night program. For Hanukkah, the congregation’s Tikkun Olam Committee sells packages of eight compact fluorescents, plus a study guide that includes, for each night, one light bulb joke, one reading about the benefits of energy conservation, and one blessing written by their rabbi. Ninety of the synagogue’s 150 families bought the packages in 2003, when the project was introduced. “We even had people who decided to buy the kits as Hanukkah gifts,” member Dan Cohan said.

A number of congregations have adopted GHG-free solar and wind power

in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Tsvi Benson-Tilsen, son of New Haven’s Rabbi Tilsen, is bringing solar panels to BEKI’s roof for his bar mitzvah project. Solar energy supplies about 25% of the power at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, Calif.

Instead of generating their own electricity, other synagogues have signed up for the GHG-free “green power” available in an increasing number of localities. (The power comes through the same lines and is billed the same way as conventional electricity.) The 18,000-square-foot Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore, on New York’s Long Island, recently switched to the green power available through the Long Island Power Authority. The power will cost them about $1000 more a year, but, “the congregation felt it was time to make environmental responsibility a priority,” Cantor Eric Schulmiller said.

Some congregations have adopted measures to “offset” the GHGs they create. Offsetting is compensation for the GHGs we produce by cutting down on them elsewhere. Some offset groups use tax-deductible donations to underwrite renewable energy projects, thereby taking fossil-fuel-burning power plants offline; others plant trees to suck up carbon dioxide, and still others retrofit old furnaces so that they produce fewer GHGs.

Last year, New York City’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah undertook a tree-planting offset project that began on Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for Trees. According to the synagogue’s Tzedek (social justice) committee coordinator, Micheale Taylor, “By helping plant trees in the developing world, we’re fighting global warming and poverty at the same time.”

In a famous midrash, Noah spends 120 years building his ark in a public place, encouraging people to change their ways. Because of Noah, life on earth continues. “Each one of us can make a difference,” Troster said, “and that is a message of hope.”

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