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 hidden places like supply closets, roofs, and the boiler room. To bring greening out of the shadows, it is important to make it a visible part of your programming.
For synagogues, weekly kiddushes offers 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 bettwe way to sanctify the sabbath day than creating a healthier and 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, there was a lot of waste.
“In the sanctuary we hear about doing all these mitzvot (Torah commandments) but then we go to kiddush next door and defy the mitzvot, we do the opposite,” said Rabbi Valerie Lieber, Kane Street’s Director of Education & Family Programming.
Rabbi Lieber and the green team decided to bring kiddush more in line with the synagogue’s values.
Step 1: Audit your Waste
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 from all the uneaten cakes, fruits, and crackers.
Step 2: Make Well Informed Changes
To address these problems, the green team made two important and highly visible changes. The first change they made was to replace disposable tablecloths with reusable one. They also installed a custom built, attractive waste sorting station in the social hall.
Other steps included:
- Creating a cooking team to prepare healthy and delicious food 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
- Creating signs showing where each food 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 $4,000 for custom made, washable tablecloths. They ordered enough tables to last two to three weeks so that they didn’t have to send them to a cleaner every week.
Contrary to expectations, there was virtually no price difference between strofoam plates and compostable ones.
The green improvements were very well received, members raved for months about the sustainable kiddushes and they especially liked the fresher food. Congregants clapped and cheered when the green team unveiled their new green colored reusable tablecloths during a Shmita themed Shabbat.
Kane Street has made tremendous strides in creating a healthier, less wasteful, and less environmentally damaging kiddush. However, the green team still dreams of making further improvements. Someday, they hope to renovate the synagogue kitchen and add a dishwasher so they can use metal cutlery and ceramic dishes.
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,” said Rabbi Lieber. “Everything we do is a little bit holier and more meaningful.
A local CSA takes Kane Street’s compost in exchange for fresh vegetables.
Step 3: Use the Momentum in the Bigger Picture
Organizing a sustainable kiddush or oneg is an ideal first step for synagogues like Kane Street that have had little experience in greening. It was easier than a facility upgrade and required less upfront effort and investment. It helped the congregation get into better habits and built momentum for additional projects. Even for synagogues already steeped in greening, the kiddush, with its large and 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 and structural greening upgrades we are making, but having a green kiddush is a really great way to make a statement, and it’s not hard to do.”
Important Notes for a Successful Green Kiddush
- 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 their sermon as well.
- Clear signage is critical to the success of a green kiddush. One idea is to 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, its 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 a 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 light bulbs 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.
“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, 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, former JGF 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: Former 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. Use kiddush time to announce this kind of initaitive and collect such supplies from member families.
- Clothes Swap: Before the holiday of Purim, Riverdale Y hosted “Esther’s Closet,” a costume swapping-event. This and other clothing swaps or donations can be collected during your weekly kiddush with the support of members and volunteers.
For more resources, go to our greening resources page and look under the Institutional Change Tab.