I’ve been an environmentalist for a good part of my life. My parents deserve some of the credit for this—they used to threaten me as a little boy, telling me that if I didn’t turn off the lights when I left a room, "Mr. Edison" would come get me. I found this to be a little scary, but it worked—to this day, I rarely find myself leaving the lights on when I leave a room. As a pre-teen, I cherished books such as "50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth" and even tried my hand at running a local environmental group: Kids FACE (For a Cleaner Environment).
Ever since the opening of An Inconvenient Truth, environmentalism and "going green" has become vital to the way I live. More recently, I’ve tried to experience the process of "going green" through a Jewish lens. While working in Austin, Texas, my congregation was the only Jewish institution in the city that had made a pledge to use green energy sources—even though these often cost a bit more. In my current congregation in the south suburbs, I initiated a paper recycling program that is now successfully in place. I am glad that people are now seeing how much paper is being recycled on a weekly basis, giving weight to this mitzvah.
I recently led a trip for our high school kids to one of the greenest congregations in the country— Evanston's Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC). Our students went on a tour of the building and learned about how it received LEED green certification. The building is stunning to look at and walk through, and knowing that what you are seeing is not simply for appearance but is actively making a difference in the world, gives you such a sense of gratitude. One of my favorite aspects of the building was how they used wood from trees cleared from the building site and fallen trees from storms to line the ceilings and build their bimah. When you walk in, you smell the amazing aroma of this wood—such an enveloping welcome as you enter the space. JRC has also made the choice to put in energy efficient light sensors in all rooms, so that no energy is wasted, as well as water saving toilets. I have seen these recently in other newly built synagogues, and it’s an easy and cost effective way for any congregation to start going green.
Our students were very interested in what they saw on the tour. A few were already well educated on environmental issues, which was clear from their comments and questions to our tour guide, and putting this into a Jewish context made it all the better. We know that beyond measure, Judaism values the protection and care of the world we live in. This is just one element that plays into the multitude of what we define as tikkun olam. I certainly hope that Jewish institutions and organizations will do their part to make environmentalism and "going green" a conscious decision in an era where doing so is not just a values statement, but an essential mitzvah upholding the health of our planet and us.