NEW YORK - JR Rich was working in communications at the Staten Island Jewish Community Center when he was offered the chance to become a Jewish Greening Fellow. Never mind that Rich wasn't Jewish. Raised Catholic, he had come to consider himself a pantheist. But he was big into conservation, often suggesting to colleagues that they recycle office materials. "I was the green nudge," he said.
Rich joined the first group of Jewish Greening Fellows, an 18-month-long program offered by the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and held at UJA-Federation of New York in midtown Manhattan. The program's aim is to help the federation's network of agencies become savvier about energy efficiency and sustainability. When Rich started the program, in 2009, he hoped to learn about new ways to green the JCC. What he didn't anticipate was how it would transform his personal life, as well as the JCC's bottom line.
The Jewish Greening Fellowship is one of a plethora of Jewish green endeavors that have sprouted up over the past dozen years or so. Some have grown into significant organizations; others have not. Now the American Jewish green movement has reached a critical moment. Three of the best-known groups - Hazon, the Teva Learning Alliance and the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center - are merging, with the hope that they will be able to scale up for greater reach. A new network called The Green Hevra has been established, to facilitate collaboration between the heads of Jewish environmental groups. And a week after announcing its merger, Hazon reported that major Jewish funders, including the Jim Joseph and Schusterman foundations, had given it $230,000 to study the Jewish green movement's overall impact.
All these are indicators that the Jewish green movement may have arrived at its tipping point. But questions remain. Will these groups, which focus on food, the environment and sustainability in Jewish contexts, become part of the American Jewish mainstream? Or will they remain interesting but marginal?
There seems to be popular interest. Even as synagogue membership and other forms of affiliation are down, "everything having to do with sustainability in the Jewish community is growing strongly," said Nigel Savage, who founded Hazon in 2000. In 2001, Hazon had a budget of $130,000 and two people on staff. In 2013, it will have a budget of over $2.5 million and a staff of 24. It will run food festivals and conferences across the country and fund-raising bike rides in New York, California and Israel, as well as one across the United States.
Eden Village Camp, in Cold Spring, New York, is the first Jewish environmental overnight summer camp. It opened in 2010, and by its second summer had waiting lists, according to Vivian Lehrer Stadlin, who founded the camp together with her husband.
At the Pearlstone Center's farm, just outside Baltimore, "people were calling us to schedule field trips before we planted our first crop," said Jakir Manela, executive director of the nine-acre farm and retreat center. Now, 5,000 people visit the farm and its Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew calendar gardens each year, he said.
Other programs, from Berkeley, California's Urban Adamah to the Pushing the Envelope Farm, a Jewish education site near Chicago, are being seeded around the country. And the annual Hazon food conference, at Isabella Freedman in Falls River, Connecticut over Hanukkah, was oversubscribed.
Yet virtually every green Jewish organization remains financially vulnerable, said Savage. "Even though we've all grown, the whole sector has been significantly under-resourced by the Jewish community. None of us has an endowment or reserves. All of us are understaffed."
While Jewish green groups' visibility has grown, funding remains scarce. "People are more aware that we're here, that there's a Jewish voice on the environment," said Sybil Sanchez, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, which began in 1992 and was the first major Jewish environmental force. "In terms of financial backing, it continues to be a challenge."
"There's a frustration that the community has not grabbed onto it the way some of us had wished," said Rabbi Steve Gutow, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and COEJL's co-chair.
At the same time, there is evidence that the movement's values are being integrated into the most mainstream parts of the American Jewish community.
UJA-Federation of New York, for instance, has an internal "green team" that promotes modest changes, like having staff use mugs for beverages rather than plastic water bottles, or replacing plastic disposable utensils with those made of potato starch, which decomposes instead of becoming a permanent part of landfills. The American Jewish Committee not long ago offered employees $1,500 to $2,000 to buy hybrid cars. And in 2011, it became the first American Jewish organization to earn a gold LEED rating by retrofitting its Manhattan building to become more efficient, said Ken Bandler, AJC's spokesman. As a result of the changes, the organization reduced its power consumption by 45 percent and its water use by 20 percent, according to its website.
"We're moving to the point where a focus on the environment is becoming part of the common language" of American Jewish groups, said David Weisberg, Isabella Freedman's executive director. "I used to be a JCC director and it didn't even have recycling bins. Someone would bring it up and it was regarded as an annoyance or an afterthought." Now, he said, "We're developing a generation for whom it will be second nature to think sustainably. Getting to that point is a real turning point for the Jewish community."
Part of the American Jewish community doesn't have much interest in going green, however. In the politically conservative Orthodox community, environmental concerns are often viewed as being part of a liberal agenda. Last spring, Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Abrams conducted a survey of 1,000 American Jews for The Workmen's Circle and found that only 20 percent of Orthodox Jews consider global warming very important, compared to 56 percent of Conservative and Reform Jews. Less than a third of political conservatives surveyed viewed the issue as very important, compared to nearly three quarters of liberals, Cohen said in an interview.
Evonne Marzouk, who founded Canfei Nesharim a decade ago to bring environmental education to the Orthodox community, lays the blame, in part, on the media consumed by Orthodox Jews. "Environmental skepticism is likely to be part of the mix in the messages an average Orthodox Jew gets on a regular basis" from those sources, she said.
She has found making an impact in the religious community an uphill battle. "It's been very, very challenging to find grants to support this work," she said. "Orthodox funders are focused on Israel, on the day school challenge, on community welfare kinds of things, and this just hasn't come onto their radar screen yet," she said. Moreover, "Jewish foundations funding innovation don't necessarily see Orthodox communities as innovative."
The Pearlstone Center's Manela, however, said that in the Baltimore area, which has a large Orthodox population, he has found traction among "the funky frum demographic."
Back in New York City's Staten Island, JR Rich continues to work to make the JCC more environmentally friendly. There are now tree giveaways and a composting project, and a costume exchange called Esther's Closet. Parents bring in outgrown Halloween costumes and, before Purim, trade them for other used costumes.
The JCC also installed a solar-thermal system for heating the hot water used throughout its main campus. As a result, the JCC used zero natural gas last summer and has reduced its annual water-heating energy use by 74 percent, Rich said. Nearly the entire cost of the installation was funded by state and city sources.
The agency is currently installing a photovoltaic system to reduce its energy consumption, with the cost again covered by grants. And it is exploring installing a massive additional photovoltaic system that would put solar panels on parking lot poles and send the resulting electricity into JCC buildings. Even before that is installed, the changes are saving the JCC about 20 percent on its energy costs, Rich said.
But perhaps the biggest impact of the Jewish Greening Fellowship was on Rich's religious identity. As many do, he found environmentalism to be a doorway into Jewish engagement. "The more I studied and realized that what we studied came from text, it opened up something in me," said Rich, who last summer converted to Judaism and is now an active member of a Reform synagogue. "It just spoke to me and opened this whole new way of thinking. It changed me in the most profound ways."