Our Green Shul

mishkan-day-view-1.jpgPlease allow me to brag just a bit about my synagogue, Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, which is currently constructing a brand new building in Evanston, IL. We’re looking to earn a gold rating with the US Green Building Council, which would make it the “greenest” synagogue in the country!

Here’s a recent Chicago Tribune article describing our project:

October 27, 2006

Temple Plans Eco-Friendly Makeover

An Evanston congregation hope to become the nation’s first “green” synagogue.

By Deborah Horan

Tribune Staff Reporter

By building a new home with salvaged brick, low-flow toilets and solar-powered lights, the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston hopes to become to first certified “green” synagogue in the nation.

Congregants said they drew from Jewish teachings on respecting God’s creation when they decided to construct the $6.5 million house of worship according to U.S. Green Building Council “gold status” specifications.

“Anything we can do to help the environment is in our best interest and in our children’s best interest,” said Alan Saposnik, the synagogue’s board president.

The congregation held a groundbreaking ceremony Sunday to celebrate ambitious plans to replace an older synagogue at 303 Dodge Ave. with the new one at the same spot. The old synagogue is being demolished, and the green-friendly one is slated for completion by the end of 2007.

During a recent sermon titled, “Walking the Walk: The Sacred Art of Energy Conservation,” Rabbi Brant Rosen told the congregation that God created the world to be inherently sustainable and that sustainability depends upon human behavior.

“To put it simply, the future of our world is up to us,” Rosen said, according to a transcript.

Sapsosnik said the new synagogue will feature energy-efficient boilers, heavy insulation, flourescent lights inside the synagogue and solar ones in the parking lot – all designed to reduce energy consumption by about a third from the usual standards.

Sensors will automatically shut off lights if they detect no movement in a room. Large windows will maximize natural light, and a white roof will deflect sunlight to reduce dependancy on air conditioning in the summer, Saposnik said.

The landscaping won’t require permanent irrigation, and about 80 percent of the building material will come from recycled sources, including old bricks from the demolished synagogue. Architects plan to use recycled cypress wood to build the facade.

“We want to use material that might have gone into a landfill,” said Michael Ross of Ross Barney Architechts, which designed the new synagogue.

Each element of the desgin that conserves energy earns points toward Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, said Helen Kessler of HJ Kessler Associates, a consultant working with the synagogue.

A score of 39 qualifies a building for gold status; a score of 52 confers platinum status.

The synagogue went for gold because many of the features that would have counted toward a platinum rating – such as a geothermal heat pump system – were too expensive, Kessler said.

In January, the synagogue became the first in the nation to register with the Green Building Council to become LEED certified. Only one place of worship – the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Wooster, Ohio – has earned gold status, according to Caitlin Bennett, a council spokeswoman.

The council will not grant certification to the synagogue until it can inspect the building after completion, Bennett said. But according to the design, it is on track to earn 40-odd points, Kessler said.

Few non-profits and places of worship seek LEED certification because going green can be expensive, Saposnik said. The green-friendly features of the Evanston synagogue, for instance, will add $650,000 – roughly 10 percent of the building’s total costs.

The synagogue received a grant of $105,000 from the Illinois Clearn Energy Community Foundation to help defray those costs, said Bob Romo, program officer at the foundation.

The synagogue will have to raise enough money to foot the difference.

The congregation expects to recoup some of the expense through lower heating, air conditioning and electricity bills.

Jesse Greenberg, a domestic affairs associate at the Jewish Community Relations Council in Chicago, said he doubted many synagogues would seek to become green enough to qualify for LEED certification.

But, he said, his organization has started an envirnomental awareness campaign to encourage synagogues to do what they can to conserve energy by installing flourescent lights, carpeting and new windows.

“It really comes from our sacred texts, the Torah and the Talmud,” Greenberg said of his council’s environmental push.

The campaign, only three months old, includes a flier with a slogan taken from Ecclesiastes to drive the point home: “See to it that you do not destroy my world, for if you do there will be no one else to repair it.”

“Our Jewish values (encourage) us to take care of our environment,” Greenberg said.

On Fair Trade and Rabbinical Authority

cffee.jpgOn October 17, in the blog “A Blog from the Underground” libertarianwannabe discussed my 10/11 post “Mirembe Kawomera.” Here’s what libertarianwannabe had to say:

I happenned to stumble on a blog through wordpress’s list of the fastest growing blogs. It seems interesting and well-written although it comes from a left-wing Reconstruction (redundancy?) viewpoint and four posts in it shows. Take the second post abput some over-priced Fair Trade coffee (that seems to be the popular phrase to use by the rich when they either rip the poor off or decide to massage their conscience by overpaying them)

<<Why is a rabbi going on about Fair Trade Coffee? Because I believe it’s a mitzvah to drink it. After all, Judaism teaches us over and over again to be socially responsible consumers, to act justly toward workers and to alleviate poverty in our world. So what could be more Jewish than drinking Fair Trade Coffee?>>

He essentially fingers the problem facing the Reconstruction and Reform movement, namely what authority does the Rabbi have and in fact what’s the reason to listen to him. So they turn to left-wing activism and such causes and then claim that the Torah makes it a mitzvah to do such a thing. Of course no claim would be made about what a person who drinks free-trade coffee (a product for us invisible handers) is doing. However the website is very interesting and readable.

To libertarianwannabe:

First of all, thanks for reading and thanks for the compliments. “Interesting” and “Readable” are definitely two things I want my blog to be.

One important point of clarification: the name of the Jewish denomination to which I belong is “Reconstructionism,” not “Reconstruction.” I encourage you and other readers to learn more about my movement – click here for more information. (“Reconstruction,” on the other hand, refers to a period of American history immediately following the Civil War. Click here if you’d like to learn more about that).

Though perhaps I did the cause of Fair Trade a disservice by raising and discussing it in a very short post, I have no interest in getting into an economic shoving match with a libertarian on this subject. I will only say it is difficult for me to understand how anyone can claim poor coffee growers could possibly be “overpaid” or that Fair Trade “rips them off.” I encourage readers to learn more about Fair Trade, what it stands for, and it is such a critically important global movement.

By what authority do I make my claims? Your very use of the word “authority” is an interesting one – and it betrays your traditional bias regarding the sources of religious authority. As a Reconstructionist rabbi, I do not purport to be a religious authority figure. We Reconstructionists believe that in the contemporary world, religious authority more appropriately resides in educated decisions made by individuals and communities. We also believe that most Jews today do not desire their rabbis to be authority figures, but rather Jewish teachers, advocates, resources and leaders. My studies at the Recontructionist Rabbinical College trained me in this regard, and as a rabbi I can only hope these roles provide sufficient cause for folks to “listen to me.”

In a comment to your post, “Rachel” responded:

The guy doesn’t even bother to work in relevant Bible Quotes, he just assumes we don’t need anything other than our leftist ideals.

Fair enough, Rachel. I agree with you, actually. I share your impatience with rabbis who short shrift Jewish tradition and assume that their mere title will give their words the necessary Jewish gravitas.

So let me expand on my claims a bit. Yes, I do passionately believe that it is a mitzvah to buy Fair Trade coffee – but not simply because of my “leftist ideals.” After all, Judaism teaches that:

1. We are obligated to be responsible consumers.

As Maimonidies taught in the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Theft 5:1):

One may not buy from a thief the goods he has stolen and to do so is a great transgression because it strengthens the hands of those who violate the law and causes the theif to continue to steal for if the thief would find no buyer he would not steal, as it is written, “He who shares with a thief is his own enemy.

While purchasing coffee is not literally the same as buying stolen goods, we can and should make the case that consumers have an obligation to educate themselves about the source of the goods they purchase. It is thus reasonable to infer that consumers should not purchase any goods that the seller has obtained unethically or unfairly.

2. We are obligated to insure that workers are treated justly.

In Deuteronomy 24:14-15, we learn,

You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends upon it.

We should underline here the line “urgently depends upon it.” Poor workers depend upon a reasonable wage for their very livelihood. If coffee farmers work hard to produce a product that we want and need, we have an obligation to insure they receive a fair wage that will allow them to live a sustainable life.

3. We are obligated to help the poor.

In Midrash Exodus Rabbah 31:12 we read:

There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty – the most terrible of sufferings. Our teachers have said: if all the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.

And how do Jews help allieviate poverty? The primary Jewish method is through the giving of tzedakah. Maimonidies famously taught that the highest level of tzedakah is by entering into business partnerships that help the poor become self-sufficient. When we buy Fair Trade coffee, we are doing just that.

For those who are interested in Fair Trade and grassroots sustainable development from a specifically Jewish point of view, I highly recommend the work of American Jewish World Service (who helped educate me on much of the above).

Thanks again for reading!

Parashat Noach 5767

noahs-ark.jpgWhile Noah’s Ark is a popular Bible story for children, there is nothing particularly childish about it. It often occurs to me, not completely facetiously, that Noah’s Ark isn’t a very appropriate story for kids.

The Noah story is actually a very adult cautionary tale about the human penchant for destruction and the spiritual consequences of violence. These themes are presented vividly at the outset: in Genesis 6:11 God sees that the “earth had become corrupt” (“vatishchat ha’aretz”). It is notable that the Hebrew word for corruption (“shachat”) also means “destroy” or “slaughter.” It no coincidence that the same word is used for God’s destruction of the world (6:17) suggesting that humanity’s destructive tendencies ultimately became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Following the Flood, God indicates an acceptance that violence is an indelible part of human nature (8:21) and creates laws designed to help mitigate its humanity’s bloodlust (see 9:4 and 9:6). In this regard, the Noah story teaches hard lessons about the darker aspects of the human species as well as the ongoing need to keep them at bay.

When I teach this story to children, I usually find that they are less disturbed by humanity’s behavior than God’s. Sure, people behave badly – but why should God? Why does God respond to destruction and violence with more destruction and violence?

Short of apologetics, there are no good answers to questions like these. (“I don’t know, Annie, why do you think God behaves this way?”) But, yes, it is difficult to ignore the fact that that God exhibits a markedly human frustration and impatience in the Noah narrative (see 6:6). In some ways, God’s “bloodthirsty” behavior seems to be a powerful mirror reflection of humanity’s. Even the rainbow sign itself might be viewed as a reminder for God to mitigate God’s more destructive impulses.

Though different readers will draw different theological conclusions from the Noah story, the essential imperative is clear for us all: we must learn to face and transcend our penchant for violence and destruction. The ultimate stakes – the very future of life on our planet – remain the same for us as they did for Noah’s generation.

The Jewishness of the Long Distance Runner

marathon-man.jpg“Schindler’s List?” “The Chosen?” “Fiddler on the Roof?” Naaahhh…

I like “Marathon Man.”

Yep, for my money, one of the great Jewish movies of the last thirty years. You’re dubious? I’ll explain.

“Marathon Man” (1976) is the story of Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman), a Jewish graduate student and long distance runner. A series of complex events set him at odds with an ex-Nazi death camp doctor named Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) who has come out of hiding in South America to travel to New York City in order to retrieve a fortune in stolen diamonds.

Most remember this movie for the infamous scene in which Szell tortures Babe with a dentist’s drill, mistakenly assuming he knows where the diamonds can be found. (“Is it safe? Is it safe?”) In the end, Babe manages to literally outrun his tormentors and he eventually turns the tables on Szell in a climactic scene at the Central Park reservoir.

In thrillers such as this, one would expect the lead to be the classic tough guy. As played by Hoffman, however, Babe, is a Jewish anti-hero: he is short, bookish, and is picked on by the tough residents of his neighborhood. But, being a marathon runner, Babe is also tenacious, driven and almost obsessively focused. As film critic Kathryn Bernheimer notes, “In the end, it is Babe’s ability to withstand pain and his endurance – products of his running as well as his heritage – that allow him to triumph over his Nazi persecutor.” Interestingly, Babe’s older brother, a shadowy secret agent named Doc (Roy Scheider) is cut more from the traditional action hero mold, but “Marathon Man” counterintuatively opts to make Babe the primary protagonist. The juxtaposition of these two Jewish archetypes provides a fascinating counterpoint to one another – but given their respective fates, the film makes it clear its money is on the long distance runner.

The ending of the movie makes a particularly powerful Jewish statement. As it turns out, the way this scene was created is something of a story in itself. In the recent book “Stars of David” by Abigail Pogrebin, Dustin Hoffman claims he refused to act in the scene as originally written by screenwriter William Goldman: with Babe shooting Szell point blank in cold blood. Hoffman’s refusal apparently precipitated a summit meeting with Goldman and director John Schlesinger, where Hoffman says he told them flatly, “No I won’t play a Jew who cold-bloodedly kills another human being. I won’t become a Nazi to kill a Nazi. I won’t demean myself.”

Hoffman’s strong convictions led to the much more dramatic and emotionally powerful scene in which Babe never loses the moral upper hand and the Nazi still gets his ultimate comeuppance in the end. This critical change in the ending lends all the more poignancy and symbolism to “Marathon Man’s” final image. It is for me, one of the classic Jewish moments in film: Babe throws his gun into the reservoir and slowly runs off into the distance. Of course, if he had shot Szell, this act would simply have meant he was disposing of his murder weapon. But with the changed ending, this image has a much deeper symbolic resonance.

In Hoffman’s words, “That’s important to me: that I didn’t shoot him in the end. Being a Jew is not losing your humanity and not losing your soul. That’s what they were unable to do when they tried to erase the race; they tried to take the soul away. That was the plan.”

To Talk or Not to Talk?

syria.jpgWhat harm is there in talking? I’m sure experts on the fine art of diplomacy would offer all kinds of complicated answers to this question, but for this non-expert, the question still remains. What harm is there in just talking? What, exactly, is the down side?

At the moment, Israel’s government is debating this very issue vis a vis the question of talks with Syria. In recent statements, Syrian President Bashar Assad has stated he is ready to talk peace with Israel, and his overtures have given rise to a remarkable spectrum of reactions from Israeli leaders. As Israeli columnist Gershom Gorenberg wrote in the Jewish Forward earlier this month, these responses are particularly fascinating because they don’t break down predictably along Israeli political lines. (Those opposed to talks with Syria include Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the dovish Labor Party member Ephraim Sneh. Those advocating talks include Olmert’s own Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, as well as the Likud Party’s former military Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya’alon).

Since I’m not a pundit, I won’t venture a guess as to whether or not Assad’s overtures are genuine. (For those interested in further analyses on this subject, I highly recommend Syria expert Joshua Landis’ blog SyriaComment). I will only ask this: what would be the harm in finding out?

The fact that this question is being publicly considered by Israel’s political establishment can only be seen as a positive and healthy sign. Alas, it seems to be a discussion our own government is incapable of having.

Indeed, the Bush administration has made no secret of its desire to isolate Syria internationally. Just last month, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice called on other nations to join the US in imposing sanctions on Syria, though she didn’t specify what exactly she had in mind. Our government has also made no secret of its goal to remake the Middle East in its image. Some suggest, alarmingly, that there is still a hope in the Bush administration for a regime change opportunity in Syria. (See SyriaComment on this point).

There are indications that Olmert’s unwillingness to respond to Assad stems primarily from US pressure. So this is what it’s come to: an ideologically-driven US administration might actively be discouraging Israel from even entertaining the possibility of talks with a potential partner in peace. These days, the prospect of the US serving as an authentic broker in the Mideast peace process feels little more than a bygone dream.

To those who believe that engaging with one’s enemies is simply appeasement, I would respond: where exactly has unilateralism gotten us? It is truly a sign of the times that none other than former Secretary of State James Baker recently remarked in an ABC interview: “I believe in talking to your enemies. In my view, it’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”

Amen to that. Where there’s talk, there’s hope.

Non-Random Acts of Kindness

sky085.jpgMany of you are familiar, I’m sure, with the ubiquitous bumper sticker that says, “Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.” I will confess to you (with all due apologies to any of you who may have this sticker on your car) that I am not a big fan of this particular message.

Of course there is nothing wrong at all with encouraging kindness and beauty. But personally speaking, I would argue the exact opposite. I would argue for “Non-Random Acts of Kindness and Mindful Acts of Beauty.” If you really think about it, kindness shouldn’t be random – frankly, it should be mandatory. (God forbid if we could only depend upon the kindness of strangers when they happened to be “randomly kind” toward us…)

Actually, I think this slogan reveals something very important about contemporary American culture. As a society that values individual initiative, it is natural that we will view compassion as a random, voluntary enterprise. So we act compassionately whenever we feel compassionate. And to be sure, we might well feel a great deal of compassion for others – for our loved ones, and even for people we don’t actually know. The problem, of course, is that feelings cannot be guaranteed. They come and go. Feelings are, by definition, elusive and transient.

Jewish tradition provides us with a different model. Compassion is not random – it is an imperative. Even love itself is commanded: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “You shall love Adonai your God.” “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

In other words, compassion should not be reduced to random feeling. Judaism teaches that compassion should be a mindful, ongoing conscious practice. We should teach ourselves how to be compassionate even if we are not feeling particularly compassionate – even if we are too overwhelmed to feel compassionate. Compassion is, for lack of a better word, a discipline.

The most well known Hebrew word for compassion, “rachamim,” comes from the root rechem, or “womb” and suggests the kind of unconditional compassion that comes with parental love. More broadly, we might understand rachamim as the kind of compassion that we show toward those with whom we have a unique personal connection. The word “chen” is usually translated as “grace.” This form of compassion generally refers to gestures of favor or goodwill.

And then there is “chesed,” a word that is usually rendered as “lovingkindness,” but might be more accurately renedered as “covenantal loyalty.” Chesed is the kind of love and compassion that comes from a deeper sense of mutual obligation and communal accountability. When people live “covenantally,” it is with the explicit understanding that the community is accountable to the individual just as much as the individual is accountable to the community.

Though the Torah presents this covenantal model in a Jewish context, I would suggest that as Americans we would do well to apply it to our national community at large. Too often, it seems, American culture venerates individual freedoms to such an extent that we often view the suggestion of communal obligation as a personal violation. In a covenantal context, however, our individual freedom is necessarily refracted through the experience of our mutual responsibility to one another.

Clearly this notion has very real political implications – and in the end, I’m not sure what it would take to create an authentic sense of convenant in our increasingly divided American body politic. But I do believe that as long as we view our mutual responsibility to one another as random or voluntary, true compassion will be in increasingly limited supply in our country. If we affirm that our compassion is not dependant on how we happen to feel, but is rather guided by a sense of obligation and responsibility to one another, then maybe, just maybe, we might find that our compassion is not as limited or arbitrary a commodity as it often seems.

So here’s my new bumpersticker: “With Compassion Comes Responsibility.”

People You Should Know About: Shoaib Choudhury

shoaib.jpgI urge readers to act on behalf of Salah Udin Shoaib Choudhury, a courageous Muslim journalist who was imprisoned for promoting interfaith understanding in his country.

Choudhury is a prominent, award winning Bangladeshi newspaper editor who has promoted religious tolerance, spoken out against Islamic radicalism, and urged his country to recognize Israel. In 2003, he was charged with sedition (a capital offense in Bangladesh) and subsequently imprisoned for 17 months. He was released in April 2005 and is currently awaiting trial.

In the meantime, Choudhury continues to advocate his positions publicly, despite the growing threat to his safety. The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that on October 5, he was attacked and beaten in his office by a crowd that allegedly included leading officials of the country’s ruling party.

Choudhury’s case has been tirelessly advocated by Dr. Richard Benkin, a Chicago-area Jewish activist. Click here to learn more about Benkin’s efforts. The American Jewish Committe website offers ways you can act on Choudhury’s behalf.