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Beth Rishon youth decorated reusable water bottles during the synagogue’s barbecue Oct. 3. Mark Niederman

The colors of Judaism may be blue and white, but at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, it’s green.

GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental group, honored Beth Rishon at its Sustainable Soiree and Awards Celebration Saturday night at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston because the Reform synagogue’s conservation efforts have saved it thousands of dollars by trimming electricity and gas usage. Beth Rishon was the first synagogue to join GreenFaith’s Certification Program, which GreenFaith created in 2008 to help houses of worship integrate environmental themes into their daily operations and outreach.

“In their efforts in that program they’ve just achieved some remarkable things,” said the Rev. Fletcher Harper, GreenFaith’s executive director. “They really are standard-bearers for the entire religious community in terms of integrating environmental leadership into their identity.”

The certification program now includes 27 congregations of various faiths, including 16 other synagogues. Another 20 to 25 are expected to join in December. Beth Rishon is set to complete the two-year program next year.

Winners of Temple Beth Rishon Watt$ Green Worth contest:
Congregant: Jeffrey Zenn
Clergy member: Rabbinical Intern Sandy Olshansky
Board member: Elena Greene
Under 17: 10-year-old Justin Pecore

“The certification program has given us the structure for our work and made us part of a bigger community,” said Harriett Sugarman, co-chair of T’Green Olam, Beth Rishon’s environmental committee.

Beth Rishon’s board began investigating going green in 2007 and soon after created T’Green Olam to oversee its green strategy. From March 2008 to February 2009, the synagogue reduced its electricity usage by 30 percent and natural gas usage by 16.8 percent. By the end of 2009, the synagogue had saved $16,554 from the same 10-month period the year before.

The synagogue is on schedule to match last year’s level of savings in 2010, said T’Green Olam co-chair Mark Niederman.

The synagogue did not spend a lot of money to implement its environmental changes, Niederman noted. Rather, it lowered the thermostat in areas that weren’t being used; moved small meetings out of large rooms to avoid excess air conditioning for short periods; shut down walk-in refrigeration except during catered events; moved mid-winter services out of the sanctuary and into the small ballroom; and balanced heat distribution among rooms that were too hot or too cold.

“The ways that we shaved our energy use really had to do with vigilance and common-sense approaches to ways we use the building and the way the building is kept when it’s not occupied,” Niederman said.

The T’Green Olam committee has also taken the message to the synagogue’s Hebrew school and general membership. Earlier this year, it held the “Watt$ Green Worth?” contest, which challenged congregants to estimate the synagogue’s annual savings based on charts of its energy usage in 2008 and 2009. Despite e-mails heralding Beth Rishon’s efforts, it was the contest that really drove home the synagogue’s savings accomplishment, Niederman said. That, he added, was a part of a lesson learned from GreenFaith’s program.

“The work you do is admirable, but you accomplish more through the ripple effects,” he said, noting that the committee created the contest to inform congregants, but when local media picked up the story other synagogues began calling for green advice.

“The leverage effect of what we did magnified the accomplishment by virtue of informing everybody,” he said.

Rabbi Kenneth Emert was quick to credit Sugarman and Niederman for leading the shul’s efforts.

“I am overjoyed by what they’ve done. We’re very proud,” he said. “All the clergy and the congregation owe them a debt of gratitude for taking this on.”

The rabbi pointed to Midrash Kohellet Rabah, “Be mindful then that you do not spoil and destroy My world, for if you spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it,” calling the midrash his congregation’s inspiration.

“That’s really why Jews and people of faith are involved in GreenFaith at all,” he said.

During its soiree GreenFaith also honored the New Jersey Black Ministers’ Council and Sister Kathleen Deignan, a graduate of GreenFaith’s fellowship program.

Niederman was hopeful that the recognition of Beth Rishon’s activities would spur other houses of worship to make similar changes.

“If someone takes notice that we saved a lot of money, a lot of energy, and that inspires somebody to take action, that’s as good it gets,” he said.

With elections less than a week away, Niederman pointed to environmentalism as an issue everybody can get behind. National security, reducing the U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and improving the environment fall out on a broad spectrum of ideals, but can all be tied together, he said.

“Energy conservation cuts across all those barriers and is something everybody should rally behind,” he said. “It’s above politics.”

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From left, Mark Niederman, Temple Beth Rishon; Rev. Fletcher Harper, Greenfaith executive director; Rabbi Kenneth Emert; and Steven Blumenthal, GreenFaith board chair, at GreenFaith’s Sustainable Soiree and Awards Celebration Saturday night at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. Courtesy Michael Frenkel

For more information on GreenFaith’s Certification Program, visit http://greenfaith.org/programs/certification.