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Responding to the Environmental Crisis as a Community–By Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield

In 2006, I grasped the gravity of the environmental crisis, sitting in the theater of the Riverdale Y. The credits rolled at the end of “An Inconvenient Truth” and then we were urged to confront this enormous problem by… buying a hybrid car. I was dismayed.

I looked around to gauge the reaction of the audience. Surely many of these people, like me, suspected that building the political consensus required to reduce carbon emissions globally might be an elusive dream. And yet, individual actions like changing light bulbs, insulating my house, becoming a vegetarian, or buying a hybrid car seemed woefully inadequate to address the global scope of climate change.

I considered my sphere of influence. I could do more. I could mobilize my community. As the director of program development and Jewish life at the Y, I had the potential to exert multiple layers of impact far beyond individual action. Perhaps we could improve the energy efficiency of our facility. We had the resources of a talented staff and a caring community. And our mission was rooted in the Jewish value of caring for one another, generation to generation. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that climate change could speak to every aspect of Jewish communal life.

A few weeks later, clipboard in hand, I was navigating the pipes in the Y’s boiler room and discussing the merits of T-8 light bulbs with an engineer. Not exactly what you would expect from the director for Jewish life! Soon we installed recycling bins at the Y’s entryway, with signage from Ecclesiastes: “One generation goes and another comes, but the earth remains forever.” I dubbed our bins as “eco-mezuzahs” that displayed our environmental stewardship.

Six years later, the Riverdale Y’s greening initiative includes an annual collection day for electronics and textiles, a garden with compost, and ongoing programs to teach our community about energy audits and incentives. Last summer the Y launched a farmers’ market and upgraded to a salt-water pool, eliminating toxic chemicals. The Y’s embrace of environmental responsibility became the model for the Jewish Greening Fellowship, a program of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, which trains Jewish professionals to lead “green change” within their communal organizations. This fellowship has transformed 38 New York-based Jewish organizations including the JCC of Staten Island, Surprise Lake Camp and Jewish Home Lifecare. The energy audit at the Central Queens Y inspired a local church to follow suit. The leadership demonstrated by each of these organizations created a ripple effect within their local communities. And collectively they have substantially reduced their carbon emissions.

Embracing environmental responsibility has multiple positive impacts on communal organizations. Greening initiatives lower utility bills, improve the health of the maintenance staff, galvanize the next generation for whom environmentalism is a popular cause, and enhance the leadership capacity of mid-level professionals, all while living our Jewish values. Limiting our energy use curbs our dependence on Middle East oil and secures our grandchildren’s energy futures. And perhaps most profoundly, working for environmental change stirs our souls and moves us to regard our brick-and-mortar operations as tangible expressions of our ethical commitments. From the food we serve to what we mean when we “throw things away,” embracing “green change” is an immediate opportunity to rethink how we can fulfill our mandate to heal the world.

It is a hard sell to ask our communal organizations to focus on energy efficiency and environmental stewardship, but the pay-off is enormous in both tangible and intangible ways. Jewish organizations are confronting formidable challenges. High unemployment and the skyrocketing costs of healthcare and other basic living expenses have increased demand for social services. But communal action is what is needed. 2011 tied 1997 as the warmest year since data was first collected in 1880, and the second wettest year on record. Just this week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that links these trends directly to human emissions of greenhouse gases. At this moment, after this very warm winter, it is imperative that we use our power as community.

Individual action is part of the solution, but only part. How else can you make a difference? Change the world by changing your own community. Push your organizations to commit to reducing emissions, advocate for better policies and lead by example. Your organization can make a tangible commitment to reducing greenhouse gases by joining the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life’s (COEJL’s) Campaign to reduce energy use by 14% by 2014. Advocate for the Solar Jobs Act that would generate green jobs and make it easier for non-profits to adopt renewable energy. Identify and mobilize others who recognize the gravity of the environmental crisis and the Jewish imperative to act.

Together we can and must stand up and take on this sacred task.

Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield serves on the Governance Committee of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. She was the founding director of the Jewish Greening Fellowship, a program of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

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