Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

85 Harrison Street, New Haven, CT 06515-1724 | P: 203.389.2108 |

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Conservation And Renewable Energy

Kol Nidre 5767

See also: How Many Jewish Leaders Does it Take to Screw-In a Lightbulb?
See also: Environmental Responsibility at Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

My Grampa Ed began Twin City Building & Improvement Company in 1938, and later operated under the name Tilsenbilt Homes. Over the years Ed, and then my father and then my brother, built thousands of homes in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area. Over the years, many family members were involved in some aspect of the business.

One time someone asked, “How long has your family been in construction?” Grampa Ed answered, “Since 1,938 B.C.E.” He was not far off, since we built the Pyramids in Egypt. Or at least the grain silos.

We are all builders, and that is why I am so proud to be at BEKI. This is a congregation of builders. We build our facility, we build our schools, we build our youth groups and programs. We are building a community, we are building a future for our children, for our People. I am so proud that this is not a group of indifferent, selfish, miserly people, but rather a community of caring, giving, generous people.

We know that it is much easier to destroy than to build. Others may destroy; we build.

When anti-Semites vilify Jews and Israel, part of our response is to keep building our Jewish community. When they send missiles against Israel or bombs against our community centers, part of our response is to keep living and keep building. When they organize boycotts of Jewish scholars and divestment campaigns against Israel at Universities, we increase our studies and build our schools.

Continuing to build is not our entire response, but it is central to our response. No matter what, we must not be consumed by conflict; we must continue to build our future and further our mission.

Grampa Ed’s company was “Twin City Building & Improvement.” Some of our construction is new, and some is renovation, or revising what was built in the past. We have to pay attention and be thoughtful as to whether we need to renovate or build anew. We have to be thoughtful of our impact on our other projects and our neighbors. What we do affects each other. So to care, we have to be aware.

This year, our Congregation is placing special emphasis on a campaign to raise our awareness of conservation, and in particular energy conservation and the use of renewable energy, as a Jewish value. We are doing this because our energy consumption issues have become somewhat of a crisis. We are very fortunate, that the Legacy Heritage Fund is providing major funding for our efforts to use our family education approach, which is a BEKI specialty, to address this issue, and to help improve the way we all work together at BEKI. This presentation tonight is just one part of that effort; and in order to learn what methods are effective, and in order to satisfy our granting agency, and with the hope of winning further support, we will be conducting surveys or interviews in the coming weeks. You will be tested on this. We also will work with other partners such as the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener at the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network, The Rabbinical Assembly, Lauri Lowell Cooper at the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center among others.

We appreciate the vision of the Legacy Heritage Foundation in supporting us, particularly as one of the other Jewish agencies we sought help from declined because they didn’t see anything Jewish about energy conservation or alternative energy production. You see, in the mind of some, gefilte fish is Jewish, but energy conservation is not. We now realize that many self-respecting Jews do not realize that implementing conservation and alternative energy is an expression of a fundamental Jewish world-view and represents the implementation of specific halakhot, Jewish laws. So we have our work cut out for us. Tonight, I want to be sure that all of us understand, in short, why this is a very Jewish project, and why it is so urgent. You also deserve to know why we are speaking about this at Kol Nidre, of all times.

We begin…in the Beginning. God creates the heavens and the earth. The human is made out of mud gathered from around the globe and placed in Gan Eden. We are given an assignment, instructions about our role on earth: “The Lord God took the human and placed it in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it” (Gen. 2:15).

Notice: “Till and tend,” care for and mend, protect and defend, not plow under, not plunder. Not to deforest, not to pollute, not to destroy.

Along comes Noah and the flood. Although the individuals get destroyed, each and every species must be preserved.

Fast forward to the time of Moses and Joshua. The Torah specifies that we may not wantonly destroy physical features of the natural environment even during times of war (Deut. 20:19). This mitzva, this Biblical, Torahitic, deOraita commandment, is understood by our ancestors to mean that it is prohibited to destroy any feature of nature without cause. This law carries the authority of a basic Biblical mandate.

Biblical law also prohibits cruelty to animals. And other laws protect us from causing economic harm to one another, and set up court systems to allow us to peaceably recover losses inflicted by others. Jewish law develops detailed zoning laws so that industries that pollute will not harm residents of towns and cities, and extracts payment if industrial pollution causes damage. This all goes back to the times of the Mishna and Talmud and represents and extensive field of laws.

In very broad strokes, I am painting a picture of caring for the world and the ecosystem, and the evolution of a large body of law and rules regulating our impact on the environment, as traditional and central Jewish values and practices. It is only a distortion of the twentieth century that created the false notion in the minds of many that Judaism is about ritual law and gefilte fish. Judaism is a civilization based on law and ethics that developed over centuries from the systems and principles established in the Torah and by the prophets, rabbis and judges. If every Jewish household could understand this one idea for just one Friday night, the Mashiah would come. Mamash. Miraculously, Judaism as we know it is the product of both “intelligent design” and evolution.

Energy conservation and alternative energy is one field in that larger nexus of law and values. It intersects several urgent concerns. Such as:

1. Israel. One of the greatest existential threat to Israel is, apparently, Iran. The source of Iran’s power is the combination of its oil reserves and our deep dependence. European, Asian and American foreign policy are grotesquely distorted due to our oil addiction.

2. American Foreign Policy. Some of us think that American foreign policy should be based on security, human rights or at least commerce. But insuring our supply of imported oil overwhelms all other considerations. My fellow Minnesotan Thomas Friedman rails about this in his New York Times columns, and he is essentially right. American democracy and its role in the world is at stake.

It bothered me when Venezuelan President Chavez came to the UN in New York and called President Bush a “devil” who makes the room stink. Now, I might think that Bush is a nincompoop, or a sadly misguided man, or even a criminal, but it is not right for a foreign “dignitary” to come here and speak with insolent and contemptuous rudeness. Chavez gets away with it because he does not need American good-will; he has us over a barrel – of oil.

3. Israel (again). Israel is resource-poor. It has only of sand, salt and sun. But it has one of the world’s best collections of brilliant scientists and entrepreneurs. Israel can meet its own energy needs and export solar and wind technology around the globe, and thereby find another way to be a “Light unto the nations”. Some of the biggest solar arrays in the world are being built by Israeli companies.

4. Global Heating. We have to stop calling it “Global Warming” as if we were just warming up a bagel. We are talking about a human-driven dynamic that is likely to bring vast climate changes, drought and flood, economic disruption, and make more parts of the globe largely uninhabitable. It promises to put major cities under water; those would include Tel Aviv and Haifa, not to mention New York and West Haven. The more we understand what is happening, the worse it looks. We thought we cooking a delicious dinner, until suddenly we realized we are standing in the pot. Global heating is driven largely by our patterns of energy consumption.

5. Pollution. Our use of fossil fuels is the major source of air pollution, the despoilage of habitats, and the occasional disastrous oil spills. Remember the Exxon Valdez, the oil tanker that spilled 25 million gallons of oil in Alaska in 1989, killing a quarter million birds including bald eagles, thousands of otters and seals, and billions of salmon and herring eggs. Oy, think of all that lost herring! It was one big, bad, spill. Less oil, less pollution. Less coal, less pollution.

6. Radiation. Nuclear power has its own issues. Can it be safe? Can you trust our government or that of other nations to regulate them so they run safe, and to protect them from terrorists who would bomb them or divert their fuel? The Chernobyl disaster of 20 years ago is believed to be responsible for thousands of cancer deaths. 300,000 people had to leave their homes, never to return. Basically anyone within 18 miles had to move.

7. Electromagnetic Radiation. To accommodate the increasing demand for electric power in our area, new high-voltage power lines are planned. Some scientists believe these represent a public health hazard. Ironically, the JCC and B’nai Jacob (which houses Ezra Academy) purchased their sites specifically because they were near the power lines. Now rate payers — that’s you! — will have to spend hundred of millions of extra dollars to relocated the new high-voltage lines away from places like the JCC and Ezra, and we still don’t know what the real threat is.

8. Blackouts and Brownouts. Shortages of electric power can cause massive economic loss, as businesses and factories close and food spoils. Public health is endangered as fans and airconditioners don’t work and elevators stop running; this usually happens on the hottest days because the demand exceeds the generation or distribution capacity. Don’t forget that 35,000 Europeans died in August 2003 when the heat wave — mostly elderly who were not able to run airconditioners due in part to the limits of the distribution system. Remember how hot it was in New Haven this summer? See “Global Heating” above.

We must, we must, use energy more efficiently, and we must, we must, use energy that is less harmful.

Things must change at the level of national policy and international policy. We cannot be like Noah and sail to safety in our own little ship.

And we must act locally, right here in Connecticut, in our homes and synagogues.

You might object, “Even if I turn everything off in my house, it will not stop global heating!” Of course. But I will tell you that Jewish law makes certain demands of you, regardless of whether others comply. If others murder, or cheat, or pollute, it does not make it right and it does not give you permission to do the same.

You might also say, “What is uniquely Jewish about averting ecologic or political catastrophe, or about energy conservation and alternative energy?” I will say, What is uniquely Jewish about justice, or human dignity? These are widely-held values. But they are not universally held. And they are a fundamental part of the Jewish world-view. Even Torah study: Christians and university students read our sacred scriptures; nevertheless, talmud Torah is clearly uniquely Jewish. What is unique is that our approach to these energy and environment issues is based on Torah and mitzvot. What is unique is that our law and lore equip us with the tools to face these problems. What is unique is that our value system and legal system demand that we care about this and that we do something about it. What is unique is that we believe that the focus of our lives is on this world, and therefore we must be responsible for it. What is unique is that our law says what each of us does matters, that we are responsible to God and to each other for everything we do, that we have to do things that are for the common good even if there is personal cost. Something doesn’t have to be “uniquely” Jewish to be “Jewish.”

Is there anyone here who lived through the Great Depression? (I don’t mean Jimmy Carter’s last year in office.) You were taught, “Waste not, want not.” You didn’t have money to waste. For you, wasting food was a cardinal sin, if you’ll pardon my Catholicism. For you, wasting energy was a sin. You might have thought wasting was bad because it meant your family or another family would have to do without. You might not have known that wasting is a sin according to Jewish law.

Is there anyone here who grew up in the 1950s…1960s…or 1970s…or 1980s… or, O my God, the 1990s? I remember the Northern States Power Company jingle from the 1960s: “Electricity is penny-cheap from NSP to you!” When I grew up, we were encouraged to consume more. It was so cheap, why be concerned with efficiency? That is part of the consumerist culture. The consumer is king. Well, the world changed, and we are now in quite a mess.

Some things are as easy as remembering to turn out the lights. We don’t even have to change our lifestyle to accomplish a lot. Even if you don’t turn down the heat in the winter, you can turn it down when you’re not home. We have to stop wanton waste by turning things off that we are not using.

We can also save by taking advantage of more efficient products. We have many Prius, Insight and Civic Hybrid cars and other efficient vehicles in our parking lot but few or no Hummers. We can use the newer CFL bulbs, which produce better light and use only 1/4 the electricity. They are so much cheaper that it is ridiculous to use the old incandescent bulbs any more except as heaters in fish tanks. And in a few months we will see a new line of LED bulbs that will be even less expensive and more efficient. If your refrigerator is more than 15 years old, throw it out and buy a new one, and you’ll save so much in electricity that you will quickly pay for your new fridge.

We have taken many steps toward greater energy efficiency at BEKI through our renovations project and through ongoing updates. For example, the illuminated exit signs have been updated to use 1/3 as much electricity. The money saved on electricity will pay back the investment in one year. We have installed new bulbs for our Memorial Tablets that will cost about 1/1000 as much as we were spending before. We have installed new control valves to make our heating and cooling system a lot better.

Let me say something about our new Solar Array on the roof. You may know that as part of his bar mitzva observance, our son Tsvi initiated a project to fund and install a 10,500 watt grid-tied photovoltaic array on the synagogue roof. Paul Israel, along with Jason Ross and Alex Fox, of SunlightSolar Energy, Inc., served as our contractor. The array is on the roof above the classrooms, above the new Claire Goodwin Youth Room and new George G. Posener Daily Chapel.

The electricity produced by the array reduces the wattage that the synagogue draws from the power grid. When the array is producing more than the synagogue’s demand, it literally runs the synagogue’s electric meter backward and pumps electricity into the grid.

The solar array reduces pollution and the detrimental effects on public health associated with the burning of fossil fuels. It reduces production of greenhouse gasses, which contribute to global heating. The array reduces the need for new centralized fossil-fuel based power plants, new power transmission lines, and the potential for service interruptions. Where in Connecticut are we going to build big new power plants? Where are we going to string giant high-voltage power lines? Most significantly, on hot or cold sunny days, when the demand on the power grid is highest, when power companies turn on the dirtiest and least efficient backup generators, the array is busily and quietly producing pollution-free electricity for the grid. Photovoltaic generation can be a direct replacement for the most expensive and dirtiest power plants.

Of course, this one array is not going to completely accomplish all that. It is one little ark for Noah and his family. But now that we have built one ark, we can build a fleet. We have used just 1/10th of the available roof surface on this building; so if you want you can put one on your own roof or you can pay for another system on BEKI‘s roof. And we have already begun working with other local organizations to promote solar and alternative energy.
[Tsvi and Paul, photo by Allan Appel, August 2006,]

Major funding was provided by the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, and funding for the associated educational activities by the Legacy Heritage Innovation Project of the Legacy Heritage Fund. Additional funding was provided by 180 individual donors, many of whom are here this evening. Thank you! And thanks to those who helped with the actual installation, such as Carl Goldfield and Matthew Wightman, and Charlie Ludwig who climbed to the roof to snap some photos (don’t tell Vi), and Seth Pauker and Hugh Fryer who offered expert guidance, and to Tsvi for inspiring us and doing a lot of the work. We can all be proud of BEKI‘s leadership on this issue.

Our electric rates may be going up 20% to 40% next year; who knows. This is a great time to invest in solar. The “dollar rate of return” for BEKI’s investment is on the order of 6%, and it will become more if electric rates rise a lot. That’s better than you’re getting on your CDs and bonds. I feel like Noah: “Get on the boat!”

Conservation and solar energy are part of the new system we must build. There are a lot of practical steps one can take, and during the course of the next year we will be exploring them in some detail and in various forums, including a Shabbaton retreat at beautiful Camp Isabella Freedman, in a few weeks. Likewise, we will come to understand, in more depth, the writings of the sages on these topics. Our intent is to create a campaign like the seatbelt campaign, or the anti-litter campaign, that will indoctrinate children and adults to adopt a new attitude, internalize a set of Jewish values, and change behavior. When a child leaves a classroom on a Sunday morning, he or she should know to turn out the light. And if asked why, he or she should be able to say, “Because wasting electricity harms God’s world” or “because it will help others” or “It is a mitzva” or “Because that is what Jews do.” We do this because it is demanded by our religious view of the purpose and meaning of our lives as human beings and our mission as the Jewish People.

Earlier, I said something about how we have to learn to work together in new ways at BEKI. My hope is that this campaign for conservation and alternative and renewable energy will be a catalyst for that kind of change. When we plan our campaign for children, we are sitting together with the people who plan our Shabbat Children’s programs and the people who run our religious school, so that the campaign can be coordinated. And in doing so, we will create a pattern and a precedent for those work groups to collaborate more generally. If we have a kashrut captain at each cholent-bake, we should have an energy efficiency overseer at each event. Energy efficiency is just as much a requirement as is kashrut. We now realize that energy use affects all aspects of our lives; we now have to understand that each of our synagogue activities affects the others, too — not just in energy use — and that we can do better by coming together in new ways.

I am so proud that this community has taken major steps already, including making energy efficiency one of the priorities in the $1.5 million Phase I & II renovations campaign, and by including energy efficiency programs as part of our operating plan and budget for this new year.

In past decades we built an energy distribution system based on coal, oil, nuclear energy and centralized power plants. We are builders, and we now must build a new system, based on Conservation and Alternative & Renewable Energy as an expression of Jewish values and law.

Kol Nidre is a moment for us to resolve to change our ways and to set priorities for the next year. We can’t bring back the energy we have wasted in the past; we can only change today and tomorrow. In this New Year, we will better understand the mitzvot associated with our energy consumption and comply with them. Al het — this is one of the sins we have to worry about this year.

We say in the Unetane Toqef, “On Rosh HaShana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” This is a matter of life and death, for the planet, for Israel, for the dream of American democracy, for our children. If we determine in our own hearts and minds to change, then indeed it can happen. When many of us make a shared commitment, we will build a better future for ourselves and our children.

Thank you for your kind attention. Now, a message from Donna R. Levine, President of Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel.

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