The Woodstock Jewish Congregation (WJC) is one of 90 organizations, so far, to earn a Seal of Sustainability from Hazon: Jewish Lab for Sustainability, described as the largest faith-based environmental organization in the U.S. Based on an audit of the synagogue’s operations, covering facilities, food, and ecosystems, achievements were noted and inspiration was gained for future improvements.
“This has been the year that a critical mass of people has started to really take the climate crisis seriously,” said Hazon founder and CEO Nigel Savage. “It’s an issue in the U.S. elections. It’s an issue in the U.K. elections. Jewish institutions are stepping up to take responsibility and have committed to making changes. Synagogues, churches, and not-for-profits generally produce an excess of waste. Think about all the Styrofoam cups and plates, mountains of plastic silverware, and uneaten food that is thrown into landfills.” The Hazon Seal of Sustainability harnesses the values of faith-based communities to encourage action on behalf of the environment.
“Hazon is the Hebrew word for ‘vision,’” explained WJC’s Rabbi Jonathan Kligler. “It’s self-evident that we were put on this Earth in order to care for it. We read that God placed us in the Garden of Eden to till and tend it, protect and work it, serve it — there are a lot of ways to translate those words. In Leviticus, there’s a line central to our tradition that says, ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and all that’s in it, and we are but residents upon it.’ There’s plenty of awareness that we have a responsibility here on Earth.”
Gail Albert, chair of the synagogue’s Sustainability Committee, took charge of the audit, consulting a long list of potential actions catalogued on Hazon’s website. She affirmed which steps had already been taken and considered others that might be doable in the future. “We’ve finished one year of audits,” said Albert, “and we have another two to go, in which we have to demonstrate what we’ve done. The audit has very specific questions: ‘Do you have programmable thermostats?’ ‘Do you serve 50 percent vegan or vegetarian dishes at get-togethers?’ We’re doing another audit next week as a baseline for next year. It gives us ideas we might not have thought of.”
Since construction of the new building in 2006, a solar array was placed on the roof, offsetting a significant portion of the electric bill. Last summer, thanks to a grant from Central Hudson, all the light bulbs in the building were replaced with LED bulbs, further slashing electricity usage. As propane-fired HVAC units die, they are being replaced with electrically powered minisplit air-source heat pumps, gradually reducing use of fossil fuels. A heat pump costs up-front about 30 percent more than a conventional propane unit, noted Kligler, but WJC expects that, due to the attendant reduction in the heating bill, the purchase will be paid off in three or four years.
“Within the relatively midterm future, we think we can get our building to be carbon-neutral,” he said, “and we’re well on the way. I’m personally excited about that. Being a public space, on the one hand, anything we do is a drop in the bucket. But on the other hand, it makes a statement. People can come and see that this is an ordinary building, and it’s quite possible to accomplish this as technology gets more efficient.”
To reduce the waste stream, WJC has acquired a large set of glassware and silverware, as well as tablecloths instead of the disposable paper coverings used in the past. “We’re using them as much as possible, when we have enough volunteers to wash dishes,” said Kligler. “And we’re getting close to composting.” They’ve bought a carbonation machine that turns drinking water into seltzer, eliminating disposal of a plethora of plastic containers.
“We’ve cut our trash in half,” said Albert. “There’s less going to the landfill and creating greenhouse gases, and we also raise consciousness in terms of what each of us can do at home.”
Because one of Hazon’s goals is to create community ties to enhance resiliency, many of the synagogue’s group activities are considered part of their sustainability audit. This year, kids at the family school signed on to be guardians of the Earth. They painted birdhouses, planted seeds, took nature walks, and raised money to help a village in Africa deal with water issues, becoming pen pals with children in the village. In the coming year, like last year, WJC will host a series of films on environmental issues, in conjunction with the Woodstock Land Conservancy, St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, and Transition Woodstock. “We hope to add more faith-based groups, to make it both a secular and non-secular movement,” said Albert. “The idea is based around educating people out of despair. In the midst of climate change, we have to help people overcome the thinking that there’s nothing we can do as individuals or as a small community. Changing morale helps people take part in movements at the state and national level. That’s what we’re aiming for.”
“This has to be a priority of communal life,” said Kligler. “Climate catastrophe is going to overtake many of the other problems we have in the world now. It has to be on the front burner.” ++