Jonathan Wittenberg
Jonathan Wittenberg

Eco shul must be start of urgent, radical shift

I’m thrilled about the launch of Eco Synagogue. This is an inspiring and important cross-communal initiative to enable synagogues to become more sustainable. Representatives of 19 shuls have indicated interest. It’s an excellent start, but it’s only the start. Now we must act.

One of the most moving moments was when the Reverend Dr Chrichton Limbert, a vicar in Southgate, showed us the bronze medal he’d been awarded by Eco Church. It was a beautiful circle of wood, fashioned from recycled church pews.

His entire congregation had been involved, separating and composting food waste instead of putting it in the general rubbish, ensuring that only easily biodegradable or recyclable materials were used in communal catering, and changing the church’s electricity provider to a renewable energy one. This was slightly more expensive, he noted, but “ had to be done”.

We must now look urgently at what has to be done in our synagogues. The very same steps taken by the reverend’s church are top of my list.

I feel ashamed at what sometimes goes into bin bags after kiddush. My plan is to stop this practice, and soon. I also want to see the
farmers’ markets held at the New North London develop further.

I want to end the use of products that are cruel to animals, bad for the environment or produced in exploitative ways. I want to emulate what is now widely practised by churches and synagogues in the USA: the creation of close ties with local farmers or growers.

I’m also aware that Eco Synagogue is not just about what happens at shul, but about what each of us takes home and makes part of our personal life, including how we travel and use energy. Eco Synagogue’s online survey asks not only how the community consumes, but how it uses its opportunities to teach and reach those for whom it has responsibility. Are we giving clear, frequent and urgent messages and doing enough personally ourselves to transform lives?

There may be easy gains. When we did a home audit, a kind of Yom Kippur for our house, we found we had no roof insulation, and no fill-in insulation in our cavity walls. We’ve put these matters right. But there are other areas where adjustment will be harder.

Yet we can’t do nothing. We owe it to the future. And, as Dr Rowan Williams made clear at the launch, whereas technology may be an ally, misuse of our environment is a moral and spiritual issue. We are not entitled to despoil God’s earth and deprive the poor and future generations of resources.

I have my own ideas about what the community should do next. But that’s only a small part of what counts. What really matters for all of us whose congregations are and will be part of Eco Synagogue is that our whole community becomes enthusiastically engaged.

Early adopter shuls have created Green Teams to initiate projects, research best suppliers of biodegradables and inspire everyone else. We need children and young people to be part of these teams too. We will only succeed in changing our communal habits if we do so as committed communities.

“You must not waste,” teach both the Torah and the Talmud. One resource we can certainly not afford to waste is time. It’s God’s world. As Rabbi Tarfon said: “The master of the house is urgent.”

The earth, nature itself and those populations set to suffer most from climate change need our urgent action.


About the Author
Jonathan Wittenberg is Rabbi at New North Masorti London Synagogue
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