GreenFaith, an environmental group that works each year with some 200 congregations around the country – many of them in New Jersey – recently called upon Wyckoff’s Temple Beth Rishon to help with an important initiative.
The synagogue, a participant in the group’s certification program, is rallying support for a new national rule aimed at reducing the emission of mercury and other toxins from power plants nationwide.
“This rule will prevent thousands of people from serious illness and death – particularly those in poor communities near many power plants,” said Rabbi Kenneth Emert, the religious leader of Temple Beth Rishon. “It’s the right thing to do, and we are proud to support it.”
On March 15, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed the rule, which is open for public comment.
Founded in 1992, GreenFaith’s mission is to educate and mobilize diverse religious communities to be environmental leaders, said the Rev. Fletcher Harper, the group’s executive director.
“This rule will save lives as soon as it is implemented,” he said. “Temple Beth Rishon is offering important leadership by encouraging its members and community to voice their support.”
According to Harriet Shugarman, co-chair of the synagogue’s T’Green Olam Committee, Beth Rishon is “the first Jewish house of worship in GreenFaith’s certification program. We helped them pilot it two years ago,” she said. “We hope to become certified soon.”
“We look at sustainability issues inside the synagogue and how to reach out to the wider community,” she noted, describing the work of her committee. “We partnered with GreenFaith to get structure for what we were doing.”
Shugarman, who spent years working as an economist at the United Nations, said she is now focusing on environmental issues at a different level. The chair of Wyckoff’s environmental commission, she also maintains a website and blog called Climate Mama (climatemama.com).
At the synagogue’s Mitzvah Day on Sunday, May 15, a petition will be circulated in support of the EPA rule.
Stephanie Perl, a member of T’Green Olam, is working with her teenage children to create posters and signs describing the importance of the initiative.
“We’ll go around and have people sign the petition,” she said, adding that Mitzvah Day usually attracts at least 200 people. Signatures will also be collected on May 18, when the synagogue hosts a speaker from the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel. (See related story.)
Harper said GreenFaith was approached by the EPA “because they understand the importance of the religious community in terms of mobilizing public support around the common good.” He noted that he’d been aware of the fact that the agency was planning to issue a rule requiring power plants to install new equipment to reduce mercury emission. “I knew there would be resistance in the business community because of increased costs,” he said.
The GreenFaith leader said the proposed rule would require many power plants to install widely available pollution control technologies that would prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year. In addition, it would reduce the number of cases of childhood asthma and acute bronchitis.
“Half of our electricity comes from coal plants,” he said. “Right now they are not only creating power but releasing mercury into the air, which is killing people. The rule will improve the situation. We think people ought to be aware of that and support these measures. It’s our responsibility as consumers of energy to make sure the energy we use is healthy and clean.”
Congregations that receive GreenFaith certification work over a two-year period on a significant number of environmental projects, integrating them into worship services and synagogue activities; reducing waste and becoming more environmentally responsible in their own facilities; and engaging in advocacy.
According to Shugarman, a participating congregation does an audit of “where you’re at and what you’re doing. It made us take stock,” she said, adding that thanks to the efforts of her co-chair Mark Neiderman, “we took a look at how we can [realize] energy savings in the temple. By being more diligent, at little or no cost, we’ve saved $30,000 over two years.
“It’s all part of a bigger picture,” said Shugarman, “[of] how to make our homes and our congregations more sustainable and how to move outside and have an impact on the world around us. There’s no downside. It’s all part of what we’re trying to do to be better people.”