At his first meeting with other Jewish Greening Fellows, Kenneth Soloway said, “You should know, I’m not a tree hugger.”
The Russian-born and Brooklyn-raised former Marine was initially skeptical about the program, which aims to cultivate environmental change leadership among Jewish communal professionals and reduce the environmental impact of Jewish organizations in the New York area. As for the Kings Bay Y in Sheepshead Bay, where Soloway serves as assistant director: “Green wasn’t really on our agenda or on our minds,” he said.
Today the Kings Bay Y uses energy-efficient light bulbs and motion-sensor lights that turn off when not in use. It has sponsored beach cleanup efforts, and its new location in Windsor Terrace boasts a greenhouse.
But for Soloway, the most significant impact of the Y’s participation in the Jewish Greening Fellows program — funded by UJA-Federation of New York and run by the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center — is in “making a cultural change” within the agency and among the community it serves.
“We’ve incorporated the concept of how is this activity or program going to affect the environment, and how can I incorporate greening into it,” he said. “Every time we order supplies, we think about the carbon footprint.”
Established in 2008, the 18-month program last week graduated its second class of 18 fellows, a diverse group of professionals from different types of Jewish organizations throughout New York.
Initially limited to professionals at Jewish community centers and camps, the program now includes those at Jewish day schools, synagogues and senior programs as well.
The $375,0000-a-year program provides training, mentoring and grants ranging from $7,000-$15,000 to support large and small greening projects within the organization, ranging from capital improvements to recycling programs to paper reduction.
Among the many changes implemented as a result:
n The Staten Island JCC installed a solar thermal heating system.
n Brooklyn’s Temple Beth Elohim began using china, rather than disposable, dishes at its Kiddush.
n The Suffolk Y expects to save almost $70,000 a year in energy bills as a result of infrastructure changes.
n Seventeen of the 18 participating organizations in the just-graduated cohort created organic gardens.
“It’s really a misnomer that it’s a fellowship,” said Mirele Goldsmith, the program’s director. “We’re working with the whole organization.”
Fellows lead a “green team” within their institution to work in three areas: energy efficiency, making their organization’s practices more environmentally sustainable and creating environmental education programs for their constituents. Since participating in the fellowship, many organizations have reduced paper use by shifting from printed catalogs and letters to online communications, Goldsmith said. Others have begun using “green” cleaning supplies.
At Solomon Schechter School of Queens, the green team was composed of students.
Christopher Koestner, a middle-school English teacher who served as Schechter’s greening fellow, said that students began composting, launched an effort to promote awareness about energy efficiency and started a garden, partnering with an organization that teaches people to grow vegetables and herbs on chain-link fences.
The school integrated some of the greening projects into the curriculum: engaging the science teachers and having students apply math skills to charting the school’s energy usage.
“The fellowship provided this open forum and opportunity to learn,” Koestner said, adding that the projects have been very popular among the students.
The fellowship program has engaged senior citizens as well.
The Educational Alliance has launched a gardening project with its senior citizens and, instead of distributing printed schedules to each senior, it displays them in a central location.
“The seniors really liked it, because it was easy to find, and if they wanted to bring the schedule home, they would just take a picture of it with their cell phone,” Goldsmith said.
While professional development is not the program’s primary goal, it has been a nice byproduct, Goldsmith said.
“Because environmental issues cross all departments, fellows have to put together a green team working with people in every department,” she said. “It’s a great stretch assignment that can bring out the leadership potential of people.”
Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield, the founding director of the program, modeled much of its approach on her experience at the Riverdale Y, where she had helped make environmental stewardship “part of the ethos.”
Jacoby Rosenfield’s activism at the Y, where she was director of program development and Jewish life, was initially inspired by watching “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 documentary about global warming.
“I thought if Jewish organizations aren’t taking the lead in demonstrating constructive ways” to prevent climate change “then what are we waiting for?” she recalled. “We need to be taking the lead in the everyday ways we run our institutions and in educating our constituents.”
Organizations often lack funding to make energy-saving capital improvements, like installing solar panels and that short-term concerns can trump long-term ones, she said.
“With the economy in the headlines and on everyone’s mind, it’s hard to be visionary and focus on issues that don’t necessarily impact us day to day but will affect our children,” she said.
The fellows program helps ensure that environmental issues stay on an organization’s agenda, however.
“This is a great example of the way human beings can do such incredible good that impacts institutions and the Jewish people but also impacts the whole world,” Jacoby-Rosenfield said. “It’s incredibly inspiring and gives me so much hope.”
Applications for the 2013-14 cohort of Jewish Greening Fellows are due Nov. 15. For information, go to http://isabellafreedman.org/environment/greening