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Greening Efforts Strengthening Jewish Life, Identity, and Institutions

During this last seven-year shmita cycle, UJA-Federation of New York has invested nearly $2 million in Hazon’s Jewish Greening Fellowship. It was brought into existence by Adam Berman and Rabbi Deborah Joselow and it has been very ably led, in succession, by Rachel Jacoby-Rosenfeld, Dr. Mirele Goldsmith and now Becca Linden. This week’s Leading Green gathering at UJA-Federation of New York was a moment simply to note how much has been accomplished.

JGF organizations have raised roughly $3.6 million from mostly state and local sources for green improvements and programs, and they will save – at minimum – at least $2 million over the next decade through increased energy efficiency and reduced waste. So just in financial terms, the program has been remarkably successful, at a time of significant financial stress across Jewish non-profits. But the financial impact is only a part of it:

  • 70 Fellows at 55 organizations have participated in leadership training, intensive workshops, and field trips that have enabled them to green their institutions and communicate how Jewish values are informing our response to this central challenge of our time.
  • More than 600 people have participated in Green Teams, roughly 33,000 have participated in educational programs, and over 175,000 are reached through the communication efforts of JGF organizations.
  • In the last JGF cohort, a majority of organizations conducted energy audits of their facilities, expanded recycling programs, planted new educational gardens, created or expanded green purchasing models, increased use of green cleaning products, and put in place or expanded systems to reduce both food and paper waste.
  • Every single organization in the last cohort of JGF plans to continue offering green programming after the grant.
  • JGF institutions have strengthened Jewish life through greening measures, by bringing in new members and by showing that Jewish tradition is vibrant, relevant, and socially responsible.
  • One of JGF’s major focuses over the past 7 years has been enriching Jewish education by exposing children and adults to the intersection of Jewish tradition and environmentalism, from Tu B’shvat seders to intergenerational gardens to composting programs run by children.
  • Jewish Environmental Education grants distributed in the last two years alone led to the creation of 42 new programs combining environmental education and Jewish values.
  • During this Shmita (sabbatical) year, the JGF’s educational work has continued: JGF funded over 20 different shmita-themed educational initiatives, from a Shmita Seder held at the JCC of Staten Island to an ecological greenhouse exhibit created by Israeli artist Avital Geva at the JCC of Manhattan.
  • When asked to rate whether greening has enriched Jewish learning and living in their institution, three fourths of organizations chose the highest possible response of “strongly agree.”

And JGF not only strengthened Jewish life and identity, it also strengthened institutions themselves:

The most recent cohort of 20 JGF institutions, from 2013-2014, reported the following to us in their final reports:

  • 94% of JGF Fellows said their institution as a whole actually became stronger or much stronger as a result of the Jewish Greening Fellowship.
  • Over 90% of organizations formed new partnerships in their broader community because of their greening efforts.
  • Five agencies are in the process of adding solar panel installations through a group power purchasing agreement, which allows the agencies to pool their resources and work with a single developer — a pioneering arrangement for religious institutions. (In total, JGF institutions currently own or are installing 14 solar systems.)
  • 79% of the organizations said that their reputation has improved because of their greening.
  • Thanks to JGF, 84% of organizations are saving money through energy efficiency; and half of the organizations in JGF are saving money through sustainable operations and purchasing.

And at the Jewish Climate March in September, it was JGF alumni, coordinated by Hazon, who took a lead in rounding up a significant Jewish contingent at the march – nearly 150 co-sponsoring Jewish organizations, by the day of the March itself.

What I found most gratifying on Tuesday was the level of the conversation. The headliners – Eric Goldstein (CEO of UJA-Federation of NY), Karenna Gore and Yossi Abramowitz – were all compelling and thought-provoking. But it was in small sessions that we saw the level of detail and learning that is now being applied. How does one build an effective Green Team? How has composting been successful and what can we do significantly to increase composting across Jewish institutions? How does one effect change that is both top-down and bottom-up? What have we learned about the value of energy audits? How do we connect “soft” processes (education, engagement) and “hard” ones (HVAC, insulation)?

Aliyah Vinikoor from the Jewish Theological Seminary spoke about how involvement in JGF helped JTS to recommit to sustainable practices, reducing energy usage, starting some really important Jewish environmental education programs, and shifting the culture of the institution to be more focused on environmental impact globally. Wendy Seligson at the 14th St Y and JR Rich at the JCC of Staten Island each described detailed, painstaking multi-year efforts that have today materially strengthened both institutions and had a profound Jewish impact on participants.

In the coming years we hope and intend to strengthen the Jewish Greening Fellowship here in New York. We hope to launch future new cohorts. We mean to publish some of what we have learned. And we hope to start to apply some of its lessons in other parts of the country where Hazon has staff on the ground. If you’re interested in learning more about JGF, or having you or your organization join a future cohort, please be in touch with Becca Linden at becca.linden@hazon.org.