Tending Gan Eden, Curbing Climate Change
Author, practitioner and pioneer in the field of microsavings, Madeline Hirschland has directed Save the Children's microfinance office and has consulted to the Ford and Gates Foundations, UNDP and the World Bank. Hirschland holds a BA and MPA from Harvard and has served as President of the Board of Congregation Beth Shalom, Bloomington, Indiana. Deeply concerned about the impact of climate change on the poor in countries in which she's worked, Hirschland now works full-time to engage faith communities in reducing their energy use.
Congregation Beth Shalom heeds Genesis 2:15 - God placed humans in the Garden of Eden "to till and to tend it" - by helping our members greatly reduce their energy use. Half of our households and eleven Board members have already signed a "To Till and To Tend Pledge" to reduce their household energy use and/or participate in the synagogue's "If Not Now Then When? Task of the Month Program." The program breaks home energy reduction down into bite-size pieces (like changing light bulbs and air drying laundry) and provides comprehensive support for each measure, from how-to information to hands-on help.
Leading the way, Board members have insulated pipes, caulked windows, and wrapped water heaters in each others' homes, and teens are doing the same for retirees. As a role model, the Board President has cut his own household energy use by 50%. An interactive synagogue bulletin board features members' energy reduction stories, posters and info sheets on each monthly task, news coverage of these efforts, and copies of the pledge - with a pen to sign on the spot. After Pesach, a cohort of members will join members of other local congregations to explore home options for "going solar."
The Board also aims to halve the synagogue's energy use. The thermostat is set to 82 in summer and 55 in winter when the building is empty, and to 65 and 73 when only staff and the preschool are present. Lighting has been adjusted, light bulbs changed and solar motion-detectors tested. A professional energy audit led volunteers to seal air leaks in the ceiling and an energy monitoring device helps identify "energy hogs."
In addition to the Board's remarkable leadership, many other elements have contributed to the success of our work:
Keeping our eye on the ball. Beth Shalom has focused assiduously on energy use, adopting a three-fold mission:
- Motivate and enable the majority of members to cut their household energy usage by 25% to 50%,
- Cut Beth Shalom's utilities consumption by 50%, and
- Inspire other congregations in Bloomington and across Indiana to do the same
We focus on measures that yield the greatest energy reduction for their cost. Maintaining focus can be tough - but we find that members appreciate knowing that their actions make a noticeable difference.
Not just a committee, all of us: Signers of the Till and Tend pledge are considered part of the team. Pledgees help maintain the bulletin board, write monthly newsletter columns, pay for greening supplies for those who can't afford them, participate in weatherization teams, and organize related holiday programs. A recent Board President, the To Till and to Tend chair has reached out personally to many members of the community.
Employing simple, effective tools to engage members and help with our work:
- Members who participated in a four-session "Low Carbon Diet" Workshop have played key roles in our subsequent congregation-wide work. With the Low Carbon Diet workbook as a guide, this workshop is simple to facilitate.
- Designed for congregations, The "Task of the Month Toolkit" provides posters, information sheets, organizer tips and more for twelve high-impact monthly actions.
- Our "To Till and to Tend" pledge has been invaluable in engaging members in this communal endeavor. With it, we can measure the proportion of members on board - a quarter just before the High Holy Days, a third shortly after, nearly half now - and reach out to individuals.
But it's not perfect - the pledge also has posed a challenge. While pledges motivate some people - creating a sense of community - others find them off-putting.
Working with other congregations: Beth Shalom helped start a city-wide interfaith group - Earth Care Bloomington. We benefit greatly from its events and tools, such as Task of the Month and the "Let's Go Solar" initiative.
We find this work meaningful, exciting, challenging, and enormously community-building. We are committed to helping build and broaden the cohort of Reform congregations engaged in this work, and will happily share tools and ideas. Please contact us with suggestions, questions or comments - we look forward to hearing from and working with you!
Spotlight on Greening Reform Judaism: During the month of April, the URJ is highlighting resources that help our congregations in their greening and tikkun olam efforts. Visit Greening Reform Judaism to learn more.