How one congregation tackled its waste
Greening our kiddush helped people feel like there’s an integrity to our actions as a synagogue. Everything we do is a little bit holier and more meaningful.
Greening often happens in supply closets. On roofs. In the boiler room.
To bring greening out of the shadows, it’s important to make it a visible part of your programming.
For synagogues, weekly kiddushes offer the perfect opportunity to highlight greening work already underway and demonstrate that greening is a Jewish value.
Kiddush, which means “sanctification,” was intended as a way to sanctify Shabbat, reminding us to take a rest from our workday labors and enjoy the beauty of creation. So what could be a better way to sanctify the sabbath day than creating a healthier, less wasteful kiddush?
At Kane Street Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, members of the green team were frustrated by how much waste the weekly kiddush generated, from plastic tablecloths to platters of uneaten food.
“In the sanctuary we hear about doing all these mitzvot [Torah commandments], but then we go to kiddush next door and we defy the mitzvot, we do the opposite,” said Rabbi Valerie Lieber, Kane Street’s Director of Education & Family Programming and Jewish Greening Fellow.
Rabbi Lieber and the green team decided to bring the kiddush more in line with the synagogue’s values.
They first identified current sources of waste at the kiddush. Kane Street Synagogue was using styrofoam plates and other disposables, much like many synagogues in America. Packaged food was also a staple. After taking a look in their garbage cans, Kane Street members realized that the kiddush generated a fair amount of food waste: all those uneaten cakes, fruits, and crackers.
To address these problems, the green team made two important, highly visible changes: they replaced disposable tablecloths with reusable ones, and they installed a custom-built, attractive waste sorting station in the social hall.
Other steps included:
- Creating a cooking team to prepare healthy, delicious food prepared on-site.
- Replacing styrofoam plates with compostable paper plates.
- Using water pitchers in place of soda bottles.
- Arranging for the farmer who supplied their CSA to pick up food waste for composting during the summer, and paying a commercial hauler to remove food waste during the winter.
- Bringing in a speaker to talk at kiddush about environmental issues.
- Displaying the ingredients next to each dish, and from where each item was sourced.
- Empowering children in the Hebrew school to teach adults how to sort kiddush waste.
In making these changes, the green team reached an important discovery: greening a kiddush doesn’t have to hurt a synagogue’s bottom line. A member of the green team paid the $4000 for custom-made, washable tablecloths — buying enough to last two to three weeks, so that they didn’t have to send them to a cleaner every week.
And contrary to expectations, there was virtually no price difference between styrofoam plates and compostable paper ones.
The green improvements were very well-received: members raved for months about the sustainable kiddushes, and they especially liked the fresher food. When the Green Team unveiled their new green-colored reusable tablecloths during a shmita-themed shabbat, congregants clapped and cheered.
A local CSA takes Kane Street’s compost in exchange for fresh vegetables.
Organizing a sustainable kiddush or oneg is an ideal first step for synagogues like Kane Street that have had little experience in greening: it’s easier than a facility upgrade and requires less upfront effort and investment…but it can help the congregation get into better habits and build momentum for additional projects. Even for synagogues already steeped in greening, the kiddush – with its large, captive audience – offers an excellent opportunity to raise the profile of existing greening measures.
“We wanted our first big push on greening to be something that people could see, something very visible,” Rabbi Lieber said. “They can’t see the ConEd utility bill, and they can’t see a lot of the other internal, structural greening upgrades we’re making. But having a green kiddush is a really great way to make a statement, and it’s not hard to do.”
Rabbi Lieber emphasized the importance of educating congregants about the green changes, and, in particular, training them regularly on how to sort their waste between trash, recycling, and (if it’s offered) compost. Ideally, children can be instructed to stand by the waste bins and remind adults where their items belong. The rabbi can discuss Jewish environmental values in his or her sermon.
Clear signage is critical to the success of a green kiddush: put up table tents that explain any changes made to the food, the dinnerware, or the waste stream, and include the Jewish values underlying each upgrade. (See here for examples.) Recycling bins (and compost bins, if you have them) should be clearly marked.
For synagogues committed to trying a green kiddush, it’s fine to start small, taking only one or two steps — like swapping soda bottles for reusable water pitchers or using a few locally-grown ingredients.
Also consider holding a vegetarian kiddush. Cutting meat out of kiddush can reduce costs, improve health, and helps to fight climate change; the meat industry is one of the largest producers of damaging greenhouse gases on the planet.
The social hall or auditorium where the kiddush occurs is also ripe for greening. An impactful first step would be to begin swapping out old lightbulbs with more efficient models; LEDs are the gold standard.
When should you put on a green kiddush? Spring and summer are ideal, since local produce is readily available. On Shabbat Behar, the parsha (weekly Torah reading) presents one of the Torah’s passages on Shmita, which the Torah describes as a time to let the land rest and to forgive debts – a year-long eco-Shabbat for the earth and its inhabitants. The Torah portion of Noah, which recounts an era of rising seas, Tu B’Shevat, the holiday of trees, and the Shabbat before Earth Day also offer excellent opportunities.
Kane Street has made tremendous strides in creating a healthier, less wasteful, and less environmentally damaging kiddush, but the green team still dreams of making further improvements. Someday, they hope to renovate the synagogue kitchen and add a dishwasher, so that they can use metal cutlery and ceramic dishes.
But Rabbi Lieber takes pride in the greening already underway. “Greening our kiddush helped people feel like there’s an integrity to our actions as a synagogue,” Rabbi Lieber said. “Everything we do is a little bit holier and more meaningful.”
“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only the trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed . . .”
– Deuteronomy 20:19-20
The Torah forbids wanton destruction and waste through the prohibition of “bal tashchit” described in the passage above. Though the Biblical commandment only forbids the destruction of fruit trees, the rabbis of the Talmudic and medieval eras extended it to include all needless destruction of resources used by humans.
In the modern age, humans have attained immense power over the natural world and its resources. In spite of this, Jewish tradition calls upon us to avoid the needless waste and destruction that our power makes possible. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) described bal tashcit as “the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position which G-d has given them as masters of the world and its matter through capricious, passionate, or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth.” (For a deeper understanding of bal taschit, see Yonatan Neril’s article on the subject.)
At no time should this value be more central than during Shabbat. One day out of seven, Jews desist from their labors. On Shabbat, Jewish tradition forbids destruction and creation; instead, we commemorate the creation of the world and enjoy the beauty of the world around us.
- Save your waste for a few days, analyze its composition, and establish a baseline to measure reduction. This is called a waste audit.
- Take a trip to a landfill or composting or recycling plant.
- Teach your students about “Baal tashchit” with the help of “Story of Stuff.”
- Be sure to display these signs from the Riverdale Y’s Green Kiddush Guide on the tables at your sustainable kiddush.
More Project Ideas
- Silverware: Josh Hanft, Jewish Greening Fellow and Executive Director of Congregation Ansche Chesed, bought metal silverware for the synagogue’s kiddushes and events, ending the synagogue’s longtime use of disposable plastic cutlery.
- Spork: Camp Poyntelle Lewis Village reduced waste at mealtimes by substituting sporks for spoons and forks at every meal, thereby cutting the number of cutlery used at each meal by one-third.
- Recycled Art: JGF Fellow Lisa Feinman announced to staff that the JCC would no longer purchase art supplies. Instead, she challenged them to make use of waste materials already on hand, from egg cartons to soda bottles.
- Clothes Swap: Before the holiday of Purim, Riverdale Y hosted “Esther’s Closet,” a costume swapping-event.
- Hazon’s Green Kiddush Guide
- “Hosting a Sustainable Shabbat Dinner” – Hazon’s Sustainable Shabbat Guide
- Riverdale Y Green Kiddush Guide
- Temple Shalom Green Simcha Guide
- Jewcology’s 12 Tips for Reducing Food Waste
- Join Hazon’s CSA Network
- Hazon’s Kosher Organic Wine List
- Tips and Resources for Hosting a Sustainable Event from the Yale Office of Sustainability