Our Leaders Today: Interview with Lee Wallach of Faith2Green

Jewcology’s “Our Leaders Today,” is a monthly colum interviewing environmental leaders and activists in Jewish communities near and far. Through personal stories, the columnm, like Jewcology.com, serves not only to generate exposure for important initiatives, but in helping you and I reflect, re-invest, and connect our own efforts, values and goals among our communities.

Lee (Far Left) with the Los Angeles Mayor and City ControllerAs both a business leader and non-profit professional Lee H. Wallach is active in his community. He is a founding board member and President of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California (CoejlSC), Co-Chair of the Interfaith Environmental Council (IEC) and currently a Managing Partner in a court/deposition reporting firm, Rocket Reporting Network, which services litigation attorneys. In addition, Wallach holds executive and board member positions with the State Bar Examiners Committee, Legal Cabinet of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Children Uniting Nations, and the state Jewish Public Affairs Council. He also serves on the Los Angeles Business Council’s Energy Commission, the Los Angeles Clean Energy Coalition, and is on the board of the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters.

Q: How did you get involved in Faith2Green?

A: Well over 10 years ago, I started in the development of the national COEJL (Coalition on the environment and Jewish life), and early on, understood that the model COEJL National was using may not work as effectively here in the west coast. Over time,I became less involved with COEJL national and on the west coast we decided to create our own 501©3 which is now under the umbrella of FAITH2GREEN, and this has been quite successful in our programming, and advocacy, both at the local, state, and federal level, and with Israel. I’m quite excited and it has been a blessing to do this work.

Q: How has Judaism fit within your personal and professional development?

A: Because we as Jews have the Tikun Olam gene ingrained in us, many of us are attracted to doing work that fulfills this moral value of “fixing the world.” Through implementing Jewish values into my career I have been able to advocate and engage an entire community. Working on environmental issues in the Jewish community specifically, has been a little tougher. There’s still a lot of green washing going on, a lot of habits that we need to change in order to really push our community forward into changing behavior, not just changing some practices. And there is a big difference between changing a practice and a behavior. While it’s been a joy to work with the Jewish community, it’s also presented some challenges. Quite frankly, we have a lot of needs we focus on as a Jewish community that are not inconsequential; issues including feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and housing the homeless. Those are much more tangible for many in the community. It’s still difficult for many to wrap their arms around issues like CO2 and its consequences.

Q: What organizational and/or outreach approaches have you found to be most effective in supporting your environmental efforts?

A: Faith2Green still does its fair share of beach cleanups, tree planning and educational programs. But we found that with many of the one-off efforts –everyone just wants to do the tree planning a half-mile away from their home or shul, or just want to pull out their checkbook –classic Jewish Tzedaka– but not go into the communities that might make them a little more uncomfortable and change the way they behave. As a non-profit we have started focusing more on changing behavior; let’s help you to make systemic changes in your shul, hospital, school, senior center. We take these institutions beyond just getting a recycling program going, we help them look at their purchasing and the overall life-cycle. This type of environmental work is much more difficult, but this is where we’ve decided we would focus and feel can have a greater impact. We also focus in a few other key areas where we’ve found success, and some of that is legislative. We write and sponsor a number of regulations at the local level, and sponsor bills at the state and federal level. These are bills that really change the world. It’s the “stick” in the carrot-and-the-stick approach we use. It’s an important approach because it mandates the change. For example, it creates a tax incentive, a bill we sponsored provides tax incentives for adopting solar energy. Last but not least, because Israeli technology is coming to the U.S., we decided to write a Memorandum of Understanding for Governor Schwarzenegger between the State of California and Israel. Through our efforts, the governor went to Israel and signed an agreement just this last year. We are looking at digging a little deeper, going after some of the root issues where we can realize some very significant change. We have a much more business style approach to what we do now. For example our Green Sanctuaries Program – it’s not just “let's change a bulb here or there,” we’ve started aggregating programs and service partners, so we can provide a much more comprehensive environmental service for less cost.

Q: What are some of the specific challenges or resources that have come from the Jewish community relating to your environmental efforts to-date and ideas for the future?

A: At the very beginning, creating a broad Green Team at an institution and buy- in is very hard. We’ve learned that the Green Teams that didn’t work were the ones that didn’t have buy-in at all the levels. From the board members and senior staff, executive directors, to the teachers, students, members, and maintenance staff. We changed mid-stream to be able to say, this is really important and if this is something you would like to do, all these parties need to be at the table, that it is critical to our success.

We also have to look at some very comprehensive short and long term goals. We want our partners to see some success, but we also want them to be reaching towards something bigger.

The other piece goes back to what I mentioned earlier. Everybody wants to “go green”, and be recognized for doing so. It’s very difficult for institutions to make the move to being sustainable and “green” ; there are a lot of people, inertia, and boards that are set in their ways. Again it’s the principle of changing behavior not just actions. A lot of institutions say, “We recycle, we’ve done our part.” We try to take this further and expand. It's a long journey that is hard for many institutions. For example we had one institution in Los Angeles that decided they wanted to address their CO2 level; they wanted to make a difference. So they decided to buy carbon credits. Instead of changing any behavior and actually reducing their carbon emissions, they bought the credit, and felt they had done their environmental work. At Faith2Green we help institutions do a little bit more and help them go beyond a ceremonial action and actually engage in working towards becoming more sustainable.

We also work in solar energy, and when we do, we mandate that energy efficiency be addressed at the same time. It’s important to us because energy efficiency is difficult for institutions, because donors don’t want their name on a light bulb, however a solar system is very sexy – the efficiency part isn’t.

Q: How do you view your particular efforts and goals in light of the larger Jewish environmental movement and, “the global environmental movement?” What have you found useful that we each might learn from to amplify our efforts?

A: Most of us Jewish environmental programs are talking. We don’t work hand-in-hand on a daily basis, but we do conceptually build programs and work on larger issues together. For example Faith2Green works with Teva Center and other entities on a national level – there really are a lot of incredibly wonderful programs around the country, and while we have not been as involved, we’ve tried to be part of the dialogue and help as we can.

It’s really a lot of the leadership just getting together to talk on a regular basis. From Rabbi Waskow at the Shalom Center, to Nili at Teva Center, and me as a board member of the Green Zionist Alliance, it’s a whole bunch of these people coming together. There are a lot of key leaders who are extraordinary in organizing our community, but there is no single core entity, it really is fairly diverse though it works together very well.

We really love the work, we are much more focused on the core issues these days and we love sharing with other people. The one thing we haven’t been very good at is PR, because we are so busy doing the work. People tell us all the time, we didn’t even know that you existed or that you are doing this! They have no idea that we wrote this agreement between Israel and California, they have no idea about our federal bills, or the state bills that the Governor has signed or about the green business seal program Faith2Green created. We take trips to Israel with venture capitalists and business leaders to focus on Israeli technologies. People don’t know about these things and really, it's a failing of ours. As Jew’s we’re supposed to be great communicators, we’re always talking, but, we’ve just kind of focused on getting the actual work done and not yelling about it so much.

Q: It seems that often Jewish Environmental Activism is simply environmental activism applied within our Jewish community. Specifically, how has culture and in particular, Judaism and religion played a role in your current work?

A: What’s interesting is that most of us Jewish activist do apply ourselves across the board because the teachings and moral basis for what and why we do this is not limited to Jews. It’s in the Koran (which I’ve read), the Bible, and it's the same in the Torah. Because we are Jews, and because we are so diverse within this community, we don’t get out there to proselytize, so what we do as Jews is we get out there and lead with our kishke. And I think that's what I’ve spent a lifetime doing. We tend to lead and teach with our kishke – and that is innately Jewish, I’d like to think that ours are a little stronger, especially when it comes to protecting the world.

Contact Lee by visiting the Faith2Green website http://www.coejlsc.org/


Brian is based in Beijing at Bluepath City Consulting. If you know someone you think should be interviewed, please let us know at jewcology@brish.com.

1 Reply to "Our Leaders Today: Interview with Lee Wallach of Faith2Green"

  • Evonne Marzouk
    February 16, 2011 (9:10 pm)

    Excellent article – great job Brian and Lee!

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