GreenFaith – which since 1992 has worked with interfaith groups around the country to educate them about environmental responsibility – last year initiated a certification program to help houses of worship become environmental leaders.
“It’s the first program of its kind,” said Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and GreenFaith’s executive director.
“It differs from past programs because it’s much more comprehensive that anything we’ve ever launched,” he said, noting that upon completion, participating congregations will become certified GreenFaith Sanctuaries.
This month, the certification program was inaugurated in New Jersey, in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism. Among the eight synagogues enrolled in the Greening Reform Judaism Pilot Program are Temple Sinai of Tenafly and Barnert Temple of Franklin Lakes.
“The congregations take part in a substantial number of activities over a two-year period,” said Harper, noting that participants are asked to integrate environmental themes into worship services, build environmental consciousness into all education programs, and advocate – and encourage members to advocate – for environmental justice.
To implement their new programs, participating congregations create a “green team,” responsible for carrying out the initiatives, said Harper.
“We think this program transforms congregations, turning them into solid environmental leaders,” he said, pointing out that houses of worship throughout the country that participated in last year’s program have not only seen measurable environmental benefits but have also seen their congregations strengthened.
“I think it’s a grand slam,” he said.
Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai, said his “green team” is meeting on Sunday and he expects that virtually everyone in the synagogue will be affected by its efforts.
“‘Transform’ is the right word,” he said, noting that the team is composed not only of people who are personally interested in environmental issues but of those who hold key positions in the congregation as lay leaders and staff.
“They’ll be able to deal with the whole range of things that go on in congregational life so that, first and foremost, the congregation will operate in a more environmentally sensitive way,” he said. Millstein noted that “the certification program asks that we do specific educational programming on all levels [and throughout] the different educational arms of the congregation,” including not only the religious school but early childhood and adult education programs as well.
“It will impact things done across the board,” he said. “It’s a way of really galvanizing and energizing the congregation to be active in the way we should be.”
“We have been doing things, but in fits and starts,” he said, pointing to a major environmental program the synagogue sponsored last year with Kehillat Kesher. “It was a great program, but the problem with operating that way is that there’s no structure in place to follow up.”
Millstein said he is particularly excited by “the connection between environmental issues and Judaism. As a rabbi, I always struggle with people feeling that somehow Judaism isn’t really relevant in terms of the world around us.”
“The coming together of environmentalist thinking and Torah is one of the most interesting and powerful forces developing in modern Judaism today,” he said. “I’m absolutely convinced that when people see how Judaism looks at the earth, God’s relationship with the earth and with human beings, and the specific halacha [regarding] how to treat God’s creatures and the world, it will be energizing and people will recognize that it is deeply relevant. It will become a real spiritual movement as well as ‘the right thing to do.'”
Barnert’s religious leader, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, said she fully expects her congregation to be “challenged” through its participation in the program.
“We’ve done the basics,” she said, pointing to programs “letting everyone know about [energy-efficient] light bulbs and giving out free bulbs. We’ve also determined our own carbon footprint and have contributed money to plant a forest to offset that footprint.”
In addition, children in the religious school distributed glass bottles to members to discourage the use of plastic bottles.
Still, said Frishman, “we realized that it’s not very much; we weren’t really making a difference. The primary distinction is that this challenges us,” she said. “It’s really meant to push us.”
Frishman suggested that humans “are physically designed to be integrated into the earth.” She pointed out that when we breathe in, we draw in oxygen from vegetation. When we breathe out, we give back carbon dioxide. The human ego, however, “forgets” that the eco-system is interdependent.
Instead of using the earth to benefit everyone, she said, we tend to benefit ourselves.
“We think of ourselves as the center,” she said. “The mission has gone awry. God has breathed life into us, and there’s no sense of God taking that breath back in. We can draw in that breath and give it back.”
But doing that is very hard, she said, especially with the “American ethic, where it’s ‘all about me.'”
Frishman said she is excited about the certification program.
“It will work to convince me of certain things and I will learn to teach it more effectively,” she said.
“It wasn’t an easy thing for us to say yes to,” she added, noting that while the leader of the synagogue’s green team is already on board, “the rest of us are ‘normal.’ It’s not easy to figure out how to really change what we do. I have a feeling there’s a great deal more for us to learn,” she said. “A much larger cultural shift has to take place.”
- rev. fletcher harper
- greening reform judaism pilot program
- kehillat kesher
- elyse frishman
- carbon footprint
- carbon dioxide
- barnert temple
- new jersey
- rabbi jordan millstein
- temple sinai
- union for reform judaism
- franklin lakes