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Jewish Journal

Orthodox schools share concern for greener world

By Tamar Sofer

June 5, 2008 | 2:30 pm

"Everyone really excited about going to the dump?" David Chameides shouted as he led a group of Shalhevet High School students on a trip to the Puente Hills Landfill near Whittier.

It is not a pretty place: According to Basil Hewitt, a senior engineer at the landfill, the trash rises 500 feet high, and 2,000 tons of garbage are processed every hour. For that reason, the tour always has an impact.

An Emmy Award-winning director who blogs his attempts at living sustainably, Chameides includes the tour to the world's largest landfill as part of his seminars for students on renewable energy and sustainability. For the past two years, he has specifically targeted Orthodox Jewish schools, including Maimonides Academy, Shalhevet and Yavneh Hebrew Academy.

Global warming and greenhouse gases are all-too-familiar concepts for many people these days, but within Orthodox day schools they still represent a brave new world. But now these schools are making a concerted effort to catch up to a greener landscape, from creating a Web site that measures a school's greenhouse gas output to introducing Master Solar and Madam Geothermal -- Chameides' creations -- to students on an environment-oriented camping trip.

This spring, area Orthodox schools have sent students off site during three school days for an outdoor education program. Chabad's Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach has installed 189 solar panels on its roof and is even looking for ways to store energy for the school's future. (Yavneh, ahead of the curve, has had solar panels up and running since 2005.)

When some Shalhevet students stopped using disposable water bottles after the trip to the landfill, the school asked Chameides to return for another seminar on sustainability -- for the parents.

"These programs start them thinking critically. At Maimonides a boy asked me, 'Does it make sense to drive an SUV?'" Chameides said. He told the student it might make sense if the vehicle was filled with passengers.

Orthodox schools are using a Torah-based approach to going green. Traditional sources include Genesis: "And the Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden, to work it and to protect it [l'shomra]," (Genesis 2:15); the principal of not cutting down a fruit tree during wartime (Deuteronomy 20:19); and the Chasidic philosophy of illuminating the world.

"If you believe in God, and you believe He created this earth, then it's a sin to destroy His planet," said Chameides, who is also known as "Sustainable Dave."

But Chameides says he is frustrated because he has made more inroads in private schools other than Orthodox Jewish ones.

"Kids need to be at the forefront. Recycling was started by a group of teenagers who 'guilted' their parents," he said.

Up until now, although Orthodox communities have established thousands of charitable g'machs -- an acronym used for organizations that recycle goods from pacifiers to bridal gowns -- many believe that they have been much less involved than other Jewish organizations in saving the environment. The reasons cited include the Land of Israel as a priority, or that the community is stretched economically, with other priorities like high tuitions and large families.

Orthodox leadership historically has been uncomfortable with environmentalism. For many years, the Torah-based view of working the world for man's purposes has been at odds with secular environmentalism that puts nature first. The extremism of some environmental groups has even resembled a form of paganism in the Orthodox community, as traditional sources point to man's dominance, while some environmental groups believe that every living thing has its own "deity," and thus should not be disturbed by man. A tree-sitter may organize a protest to save a tree, while the Talmud allows a tree to be cut down for wood if its value is greater than the fruit.

But now that saving the environment has become more mainstream, it has also become more acceptable in Orthodox schools.

Evonne Marzouk is executive director of Canfei Nesharim, a national organization based in New York that has spearheaded the environmental effort in the Orthodox community. "The environment is not a natural issue, like Israel," Marzouk said. "You need to speak the language of the Torah-based community. Otherwise, it won't resonate with them."

"No one has really tried to educate the Orthodox community. As early as 1990, you can find rabbis who tried, but there was no structured, strategic effort. It's an infrastructure problem," said Marzouk, who received an Unsung Hero Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where she also works.

"As soon as we said we are Orthodox Jews who care about the environment, we found the people. And now we're creating the materials to empower them," she said. Canfei Nesharim is planning to launch a program in Orthodox schools using traditional Jewish sources to teach modern environmental issues, funded by the Covenant Foundation.

"It's hard to think long-term when you're struggling with day-to-day costs and giving out scholarships," said Rabbi Yitzchok Newman, dean of the Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach, who worked with HelioPower to assess the viability of the school going solar when the cost of a new roof was funded by a school donor.

That school is one of a handful of Jewish schools to go solar -- Yavneh also has panels that sit atop its gymnasium -- because of a "combination of environmental issues, respect for [God]'s creation and safeguarding our energy costs," Newman said. The installation this spring spawned an Earth Day celebration and environmental efforts initiated by students.

The school's buildings face south and sit on 11 acres close to the ocean, an ideal site for solar panels. The school installed Sharp USA panels for a net cost of $150,000, after a $70,000 federal rebate. It anticipates saving nearly 30 percent of an annual $70,000 electricity budget and recouping costs within a decade.

Going solar should also become easier for other schools to follow, Newman said, since new Israeli technology has developed solar foil for more compact installation.Other organizations are looking toward bringing urban kids closer to nature to help them understand the importance of protecting the environment.

This spring, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles (JBBBS), turned to the Rabbinical Council of California to make kosher the Max Strauss Camp in the Verdugo Mountains near Glendale, thereby opening the doors to students from Orthodox schools. Yavneh, Maimonides and Shalhevet fifth- and sixth-graders attended the pilot environmental education program, which was offered free this year.

"Once they heard it was RCC kosher, the school needed no convincing," said Lindsay Gordon, a fifth-grade teacher at Yavneh who accompanied the students for the Big Mountain program, which included night hikes, astronomy lessons and Chameides, such as Master Solar. She volunteers Sundays at the camp, which was previously used only for weekend mentoring programs or a summer camp for children who have never taken a hike. Big Mountain has partnered with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority to run the nature programs.

Boys and girls are housed at separate ends of the 112-acre campsite, meeting Orthodox needs for gender separation, and the camp was restructured to enable separate prayer times.

"We wanted to make it more accessible to the Orthodox community. Next year, we hope to have a full year of outdoor education for schools of all shapes and sizes. We'll do whatever it takes to make everyone comfortable," said Dan Witzling, JBBBS director of communications.

Added JBBBS camp director Barry Vigon, "We give the students a new sense of ownership to their responsibilities to the outdoors. We hope the schools will follow up using Jewish sources."

Even though the fifth-graders from these schools have a good knowledge of the concepts, "many were inexperienced at being outdoors," said Keith Jobson, naturalist and a camp director. "But the fear was replaced by a lot of excitement. We'd like to see them make nature a bigger part of their lives."


Tamar Sofer lives in Los Angeles and writes about nutrition and disease prevention.

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