A thick autumn fog enveloped Temple Emanuel of Maryland on a recent weekday morning. Wet leaves clung to each other in scattered piles on the front lawn of the temple’s campus as cars and trucks whizzed by on slippery, congested Connecticut Avenue. A persistent drizzle fell on this stately, tree-lined Montgomery County hamlet near Washington, D.C., and a slight chill filled the air. Squirrels collected acorns furiously by the congregation’s “Biblical Park,” featuring plants mentioned in the Torah.
Inside the nearly empty, serene sanctuary of Temple Emanuel, a sense of the natural order of things — albeit without the rain, mist, squirrels or sporadic gusts of wind — permeated the environment as well. While large, clear windows displayed the greenery and wonders of the exterior world, the sanctuary itself offered a decidedly outdoorsy motif.
Potted plants and medium-sized rocks dotted the lip of the all-tulip poplar wood bimah. A large memorial wall, made of a locally quarried stone and evoking the Western Wall in Jerusalem, served as a backdrop for a towering Torah ark, bearing a colorful fiber tapestry featuring scriptural passages and resembling a large banyan tree. The faux tree’s limbs and vines stretched across the bimah to other “trunks,” or lecterns.
“This really is the Tree of Life — dor v’dor [generation to generation],” said longtime congregant De Fischler Herman. “We wanted to get that across. You should feel like you’re in a forest here.”
While a “Shabbat root” stump serves as the congregation’s traditional spot for lighting Sabbath candles every week, a ner tamid, or eternal light, resembling a bird’s nest and powered by a solar roof panel, hovers above the bimah. Replicated stumps also hold the Torah scrolls inside the congregation’s ark, which looks like the innards of a tree. Even the wooden case holding kippot and congregational pamphlets and materials near the sanctuary doors resembles a small tree covered in vines, and homemade siddurim feature prayers and special services for the protection and preservation of the environment.
But this infatuation with the ecology is no mere gimmick or attempt to jump on the environmental bandwagon, say Ms. Herman and other Temple Emanuel congregants. Nor is it a desperate grab for younger, perhaps “green-minded,” prospective members.
While it might, in a cynic’s mind, in some ways resemble the interior of a Rainforest Café, the bimah, congregants say, is the physical manifestation, centerpiece and statement of Temple Emanuel’s message and mission to help fulfill Judaism’s mandate for adherents to serve as stewards in the Creation process.
“There was an energy here about changing the bimah and making it a symbol for the coming decades,” Ms. Herman said about the bimah’s renovation and eco- “makeover” in the mid-1990s. “The environmental issues are so big, we felt there had to be a way to make a statement. This is one of our statements.
“It’s not that our congregation doesn’t get involved in other activities, but the environment is very important to us,” she said. “As someone who worked on this effort since the beginning, I always say that we may have been innovative but there’s a lot more we can do. We try to be symbolic so people can take the lessons and do it in their own homes and in their own lives. We all just have to change our behaviors because the planet won’t sustain the use of resources at this kind of rate.”
‘Ahead Of The Curve’
At the heart of the 500-family Reform congregation’s eco-engine is its spiritual leader of two decades, Rabbi Warren G. Stone. An amiable, energetic man, Rabbi Stone is a leading light in Jewish environmental circles, a point of pride among Temple Emanuel members.
“Our rabbi had a very strong commitment to the environment, so Emanuel gave him a place to pursue his strong interest,” said Al Grant, a past congregational president and co-chair of the temple’s Green Shalom committee, which oversees eco-initiatives and platforms. “Warren brought the temple leadership into the environmental arena, so after he got settled here, he got down to work. We started developing a temple policy on the environment that has been through two versions, and we’ve gone from there. We’ve been way ahead of the curve.”
Joan Lorber, the temple’s current president, admits that being known as a congregation with an environmental bent doesn’t hurt these days. “There are a lot of unaffiliated people in this area, so it helps to have a little marketing niche,” she said. “Every temple has a personality. So if someone has an environmental interest, they may come to us. We talk about it a lot.”
When stepping into Temple Emanuel’s administrative office, visitors immediately pick up on the congregation’s eco ethos. On the walls are framed photographs of congregants at global warming rallies in the nation’s capital; plaques from carbonfund.org and the Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light for the temple’s efforts to reduce carbon dioxide levels and impact climate change; and even portraits of a wooden Star of David framed by leafy tree limbs, a group of impoverished women in the Sudan, and a frog on a lily pad. On other walls are photos of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching and praying together, and a sweeping Clyde Butcher panoramic view of a moody, ethereal swamp scene in the Florida Everglades.
The message of these images, according to Rabbi Stone, is simple — to think beyond oneself and one’s immediate community, about the planet at large, for the generations to come, as a way of working in concert with God.
“The world is changing. We’re all interconnected,” he said during a recent Monday evening when the temple featured a presentation by a representative from Kibbutz Lotan, Israel’s leading eco-friendly kibbutz. “Jews need to be out there, as a light of goodness, to show that we care, not only for Jews but for the larger world. We have to be morally and spiritually relevant.”
A native of Boston’s South Shore, Rabbi Stone said he has been interested in the environment since childhood, when his family maintained a second home off the Massachusetts coast.
“We used to wake up and collect shells in the sandbar,” he recalled. “Nature and my Jewish connection are the two loves of my life. [Environmental concern] has always been a part of me.”
His environmental activism began in earnest as a college student during the first Earth Day in 1970. The annual observance served as the rabbi’s catalyst for considering the health and future of the planet.
In 1990, he became a founding board member of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). He also served as co-chair of the Religious Campaigns for Forest Conservation and the Religious Coalition on Creation Care.
“Being Jewish means being connected to a larger sense of sustainability, for the community not to use things up,” Rabbi Stone said, “and to preserve for the future.”
Just a quick look at Temple Emanuel’s Web site (templeemanuelmd.org ) demonstrates the deep commitment of the rabbi and congregation to environmental matters, such as the 22-page Green Shalom Action Guide, FAQ sections about Jewish eco-activism and links to information and other sites regarding the subject. The temple’s green efforts were featured last March on a segment of NBC’s “Today” show, and have garnered such honors as the Green Menorah Environmental Award from the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center and the Caring for Creation Award of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.
Perhaps Rabbi Stone’s crowning glory moment — so far — as a Jewish eco-activist came in 1997 when he served as the only Jewish delegate at the United Nations conference on climate change in Kyoto, Japan. At that groundbreaking conference, held at Kyoto’s largest Buddhist temple, he blew the shofar, a clarion call to wake up people about an issue that at that time was only starting to be understood. He said he hopes to attend a similar gathering in Copenhagen next year.
Rabbi Stone came to Temple Emanuel after the passing of the congregation’s spiritual leader of 35 years, Rabbi Leon M. Adler. The temple, which was founded in 1953, was experiencing a diminution in membership and somewhat of an identity crisis, according to Rabbi Stone and congregants.
Although described as always “warm, inviting and haimish” by several members — who also noted that the membership tends to be professional, multi-generational and middle-class, with relatively no wealthy “angels” — Temple Emanuel needed a raison d’etre.
“Warren was trying to kick-start life into the temple. We were trying to find ourselves,” recalled Ms. Herman, a Takoma Park resident who joined the congregation 28 years ago. “It had become a quieter place, and Warren wanted to revitalize it.”
Said Rabbi Stone: “We were redeveloping our social justice emphasis, and the ecology was a very personal thing for me in my rabbinate. So I took it to the synagogue community. There was a real need there, and I was becoming interested in climate change issues and involved in COEJL.”
Ms. Herman, a hospice chaplain at Washington Hospital Center and co-chair of the Green Shalom committee, said interest in ecological matters was low on the totem pole in Jewish circles at that time.
“[Environmentalism] wasn’t really prominent in the Jewish community, but I had been an environmental activist for a long time and wanted to see it happen [at Temple Emanuel],” she said. “We were doing environmental things even before COEJL existed, before anything was really going on. We put together an environmental policy statement, which was passed by [the temple’s] board. That let us do things other congregations couldn’t do, because we had the full support of our leadership.”
Al Grant concurred. “Our temple board developed an environmental policy as its own, and that was a critical step,” he said. “That made us totally committed.”
A Temple Emanuel member for 10 years who now serves on the board of trustees, Dr. Dian J. Seidel, a research meteorologist who lives in Chevy Chase, said the congregation’s environmental orientation was a major drawing card for her and her family.
“I think [congregants], in general, feel that even if they’re not directly involved with the Green Shalom committee, they understand that the temple stands for environmental protection,” she said. “People like the green concept, even if they’re personally focused elsewhere.”
Among the myriad ways — large and small — in which Temple Emanuel has become a more “green-friendly” institution over the years include:
- The establishment of six “energy zones,” or climate-controlled, thermostat-regulated areas in the building in which energy is saved. “If you’re not using it, turn it off,” Rabbi Stone said.
- The use of recycled linoleum in the temple’s lobby, as well as the installation of bamboo floors in the new HaMakom auditorium.
- Instead of meeting in his office or at other places, Rabbi Stone said he now tends to hold “heart-to-heart” pastoral sessions with congregants while walking outdoors, to enjoy nature, save energy and get exercise.
- Holding services in the temple’s outdoor pavilion. “When you do Shabbat out there,” said Rabbi Stone, “you’re surrounded by trees and feel closer to God’s presence.”
- Selling compact fluorescent light bulbs on Sunday mornings to congregants, to encourage energy efficiency and eco-mindfulness. These bulbs are also used by the temple on its Chanukah menorah.
- Using eco-friendly cleaning supplies in the building’s maintenance.
- Installing a bicycle rack this year to encourage congregants to ride to synagogue, to commune with nature, get exercise, and save energy and the environment.
- Using flatware and paper plates at Friday night oneg Shabbatot made from biodegradable sugar cane.
- Participating in a Global Mitzvah Project — the temple has adopted a Guatemalan village as a tikkun olam endeavor.
- The religious school curriculum includes lessons about the environment and field trips to the Chesapeake Bay region.
- Observing such agricultural-based holidays as Tu B’Shevat and Sukkot with special activities like a green seder and visiting farms.
- The Green Shalom committee publishes a column in every monthly temple bulletin on green events and issues at the congregation and in environmental circles.
More than anything else, Temple Emanuel congregants say their overall mission is to make people comprehend that environmental awareness and activism is a key component of Jewish tradition and values.
“I try to remind people that our Bible is replete with examples of how our religion is committed to environmental stewardship,” said Mr. Grant, a retired civil engineer who lives in Potomac. “The environment is connected to social justice and everything. It’s part of our religious tradition.”
Concerning those who dismiss today’s environmentalism as a fad, and furthermore minimize the imperativeness of such matters as global warming and over-consumption, Mr. Grant said, “You can always find some people — increasingly few these days — who will say this is a bunch of stuff. I’m an engineer, and the whole engineering world knows this is a problem. I’ll put my chips on them over the people who say it’s not so!”
In difficult economic times, Rabbi Stone said the urgency to conserve and avoid waste is greater than ever. “There have been more Jews in the malls of America than in the sanctuaries over the last 20 years,” he said. “It’s a shande, but the mall became the sanctuary. We’re getting our deepest satisfaction from the world of things, not the spiritual. Synagogues also got caught up in this ‘bigger is better’ [mind-set]. But our grandmothers all saved aluminum foil.… This is not just about environmentalism but about simplifying our lives. We don’t have to all live in mansions.”
The call to save the environment, the rabbi said, “is not just going to go away. The decimation of the forests, sustainability, these are issues here to stay. Climate change is an actuality, and the world needs to respond. It will bring refugees in numbers unimaginable. Food and water will be major issues. This is the greatest issue facing the world, and it will continue into the next century. The world population will double in 50 years. How will we sustain?
“We, as a congregation, have been doing this now for 20 years, and one thing we know — it’s not going away. We all have to live more simply.”
No Tree Hugging
Despite the congregation’s emphasis on environmental matters, Temple Emanuel members are careful about not being labeled or pigeon-holed. Some even noted that, in some respects, Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in nearby Bethesda, would more aptly fulfill the designation of being a “green shul,” especially in the construction of its facility.
“We’re always a work-in-progress,” said De Fischler Herman. “We’d like to do more with solar energy, but solar collectors are not cheap. I see us as a process.” Said Dian Seidel: “We don’t always live up to our goals, but we try.”
She and others note that, like many synagogues, Temple Emanuel has “a ton” of programming, activities and services, ranging from Torah classes and adult education to a thriving religious school (approximately 240 students), a speakers’ series, cultural events, tzedakah projects, interfaith outreach, brotherhood gatherings and even Israeli folk dancing lessons.
“The environment might be a prime example of our congregation’s activities and values, but we do so many things here,” Ms. Herman said. “We’re about far more than just the environment. People think it’s just ‘crunchy granola,’ but we don’t see it that way. We feel all of these things are linked together.”
Rabbi Stone said his predecessor, Rabbi Adler, viewed Temple Emanuel as “a caring community,” and he said ecological concerns fall perfectly into that appellation.
“I see it as part of the congregation, as one of our many pieces,” Rabbi Stone said. “We’re looking at where Judaism is heading, and trying to engage young Jews. Jews want to feel like the synagogue is morally relevant to the most pressing issues of the day. Young people want to see us engaged in the larger world. We’re all in this boat together. It’s not an either/or — it’s both.”
What other congregations can learn from Temple Emanuel, said Joan Lorber, is that to connect with congregants and potential members, they need to determine what really matters to them and forge a clear identity while providing a spiritual, friendly and nourishing milieu.
“We always try to remind ourselves what it’s like to be new, so we encourage our people to talk to others that they don’t necessarily know [at services and programs],” she said. “We want to be a very inclusive, warm place. We’re not pretentious or flashy, or extremists. We are who we are. We’re a group of individuals who come together, who want to grow and pray and learn to live Jewishly in the world. And we do what we believe to be the ethical things to do. We’re just trying to find the right balance.”
Temple Emanuel’s chazzan for the past eight years, Cantor Rosalie Boxt, admits that it’s sometimes difficult for visitors and newcomers to see the forest for the trees on the bimah.
“It is difficult, and we have some explaining to do. People say, ‘What’s this place all about?’” she said. “But we’re not tree-huggers. People have taken note of what we’ve done. But we’re not the greenest congregation out there and can just rest on our laurels. We just want to be part of the conversation.”
Taking The Leap
“Not everything,” says Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, “has to just scream green.”
That might sound a bit surprising to hear from someone who in recent years has dedicated her life to environmental matters. But Rabbi Cardin, director of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, said she feels that if congregations, groups and individuals embark upon even the most seemingly tiny efforts to be ecologically minded, the planet will be a healthier, safer place.
And that’s why she praises Kensington’s Temple Emanuel of Maryland. “God bless them for being self-conscious about it,” Rabbi Cardin said. “What they’re doing is amazing. They’re fabulous. Warren [Stone] and his congregation get it.”
Rabbi Cardin lauded Temple Emanuel members for their efforts to be actively conscious of their environmentalism, even if they’re not able to go as far as they would like with some of their green ambitions because of expenses. The symbolism of the congregation’s botanically minded bimah is an important statement, she said.
“What they’re saying is that being Jews demands sustainable living,” Rabbi Cardin said. “It’s not a discretionary choice. They’re presenting this in a more visual way. They chose to make it visual, and I think every shul needs to be committed to this.”
She said that Temple Emanuel’s focus on the ecology not only can be replicated by Baltimore area Jewish congregations, but “it has to be. We all have to be part of the solution. This is not about a particular culture. The Jewish community needs to get behind this kind of thing. This is not the tzedakah flavor of the week. We are destroying the fabric of the self-generating world that God created. If we fail to live in a sustainable manner, we fail to be a critical partner with God.
“They get all the credit in the world for saying, ‘We are committed to sustainability,’” Rabbi Cardin said of Temple Emanuel. “Environmentalism is not actually an issue but about how a human being lives in the physical world. It incorporates everything. It’s not like Temple Emanuel has an environmental ethic that they’re living out, and the rest of us are not. The question is, are we all living a self-conscious environmental ethic?”
But can Temple Emanuel translate into Baltimore? “What they said is, you have to see the environmental ethic you live,” Rabbi Cardin said. “I believe that most congregations here are interested in living a sacred life of kedushah [holiness]. But what will the Earth look like when we give it over to our children?
“This is an intellectual and spiritual revolution, and it takes time for people. You take one step, two steps, three steps, and sometimes at that fourth step, you take that leap and say, ‘I get it!’ It all starts with a leap of awareness.”