COEJL Institute: Greening Synagogues and Energy Independence

Charles Lenchner, 3/9/2005

Earlier this month, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) held its annual Institute. The last time I attended was four years ago, when I was still relatively new in the United States. A lot has changed since then.

At this years Institute, some participants learned of a new phase in the relationship between Jewish greenies and the organization officially representing Jewish environmental concerns. Instead of promoting the development of local affiliates, COEJL will now be working to build relationships between congregations and the national offices, headquartered in New York and San Francisco. One aspect of this is the Greening Synagogues program, designed to help synagogue buildings move from just buildings to buildings that are just.

Rabbi Fred Dobb of Adat Shalom led Institute participants in a tour of his synagogue discussing the environmental aspects of its construction. While some like to call it a green building, Rabbi Dobb reminded us that compromises still had to be made. With each new synagogue (or church) built with environmental concerns in mind, the market for earth friendly products expands, contractors and architects are educated, and congregants get to own their building as an expression of values, not just as a piece of real estate. In this way, each synagogue greening represents an opportunity for consciousness raising and real community participation.

The emphasis on working directly with congregations and rabbis was further discussed at a lunch meeting with the rabbinical seminary students.

A number of speakers addressed the problem of climate change. Deb Calahan of the League of Conservation Voters said that while spending $3 million on television advertising in Florida during the presidential campaign, she learned that fear of climate change was not enough to move voters. Not even voters recovering from a series of devastating hurricanes made worse because of changes that have already occurred.

Instead, she pointed to the link between environmental and energy issues. Talk of energy independence and the relationship between our consumption of oil from the Middle East and our national security was far more persuasive on the average voter. In particular, she noted that environmentalists are often seen as protecting the environment as a special interest not quite identified with the general welfare.

Calahan spoke before Rep. Henry Waxman, who received an award from COEJL for his support of environmental legislation in Congress. In response to a question from the audience, he affirmed the link between the war in Iraq and our overuse of oil. It was good to hear a Jewish politician speaking to a Jewish audience about the folly of invading Iraq in the first place.

My own presentation was about peak oil, global scorching and the relationship between the US and the Muslim world. While most of the audience knew about energy independence and the problem of US consumers becoming even more dependent on oil in Muslim countries, few had heard of peak oil. In the minds of many, the environmental discussion on climate change should take place in one room, while the problem of oil depletion and Middle East wars should take place somewhere else. This is changing, and there was a lot of receptivity to addressing these related issues together.

On the last day of the Institute, Senator John McCain spoke to a combined session of COEJL and the JCPA (Jewish Council on Public Affairs). While his stump speech focused primarily on foreign policy issues (re: Israel and the Middle East), most of the question were about his role in advancing the Climate Stewardship Act which will begin to address global scorching. Judging by the applause he got after some of the questions, Republicans are likely to win more support from Jewish voters based on environmental leadership, rather than competition over support for Israel.

The final session of the Institute was a talk by Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center. He shared some behind the scenes stories about how the RAC was able to advance its agenda even with partners presumed to be on the other side of the fence such as evangelical Christians. This community has become much more willing to support human rights as a political issue than in the past; and they are in the midst of a radical change on environmental questions. Rabbi Saperstein said that the tipping point on addressing climate change may be taking place right now. His enthusiasm was infectious, and all of us hope his words prove to be prophetic.

Final Notes on COEJL

Many of the participants were from organizations such as Teva, the center for Jewish environmental learning, and from Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization that uses bike rides to raise consciousness and promote Jewish values. It was interesting to note however, that only a small number saw themselves as COEJL activists or were active with a COEJL affiliate. This was a major change from the Institute I attended four years ago, where I met a number of activists from around the country proudly wearing a COEJL identity. One board member recognized this shift, suggesting that the Institute was the last remnant of COEJLs grassroots focus.

In conversations before and during the conference about the relationship between COEJL affiliates and the national staff, I was told many times about the disappearance of funding for local affiliates. It felt odd, as I have been part of many local groups that did not receive funding yet were part of a national organization or network. The Institute did not feature any sessions devoted to local COEJL affiliate activities. Many of the mealtimes featured a workshop or speaker, which further reduced the connecting time available to us.

As a member of a local COEJL affiliate, I was left with many unanswered questions but not the kind a titled staff member could answer. Some questions are there for exploring with a group of peers, to see what we come up with. I appreciate having a national organization able to exert significant pull within the Jewish community, and on the Hill, in support of environmental legislation. I also enjoy being active as a Jewish environmentalist with my friends in Philadelphia.

It would be great if next years Institute featured an open conversation about the relationship between those two poles, to see what emerges. Clearly, a change has taken place; but the reasons for that change arent documented publicly or discussed as part of the conference. I look forward to being part of the continued evolution of the Jewish environmental movement.

A report on the Institute from the Washington Jewish Weekly