STAMFORD – Just before Erev Rosh HaShanah this September, a light switch will be flipped in the sanctuary of Temple Beth El (TBE) in Stamford. The ner tamid – eternal lamp – that hangs in front of the ark will flicker for a moment, and then continue to glow – but from that moment on, it will be powered by the sun.
As the Jewish year commences, TBE will officially dedicate its solar-powered building, the culmination of a year-long energy overhaul that started with changing a light bulb and peaked (so far) with the installation of 845 photovoltaic solar panels on the synagogue roof.
Meanwhile, on July 12, Temple Beth El was the site of a celebration as the first of the solar panels, adorned with a mezuzah, was lifted by crane onto the synagogue roof. The event marked the culmination of a three-phase project initiated by TBE’s board of trustees to reduce the synagogue’s operating costs and promote environmental stewardship through the use of sustainable energy and other energy-saving technologies. The project, one of the largest of its kind on a U.S. house of worship, is expected to provide 70 percent of the synagogue’s annual electricity needs.
“In building this solar panel system, we perform our religious duty and mitzvah of ‘tikkun olam,’ of repairing the world and protecting the environment,” Sylvan Pomerantz said at the inauguration, his first TBE event since becoming TBE president. “We perform our civic duty in reducing our demand for electrical power and significantly reducing our carbon footprint. We perform our patriotic duty to lessen our reliance on imported energy and finally, our financial duty to our Temple members to always be mindful of the cost of operating our facility.”
Like TBE, many Connecticut synagogues have painted green their tikkun olam efforts since “global warming” and “climate change” made their way into the national political discourse. From commissioning energy audits and implementing recycling programs, to installing more energy-efficient windows, insulation, light bulbs, and HVAC systems, to planting “mitzvah” gardens, congregations can turn for guidance to utility companies and non-profit organizations like the West Hartford-based Interreligious Eco-Justice Network.
Large scale change is an incremental thing, and re- or retro-fitting an entire facility require time and funds. Some Connecticut synagogues have begun to go beyond the basics, stepping up their environmental game. These efforts are often inspired by a line from Ecclesiastes: “One generation goes and another generation comes, but the earth remains forever,” and from the mitzvah of the mitzvah of bal tashchit, “don’t destroy or be wasteful.”
In 2006, just in time for Tu B’Shvat, Beth El-Keser Israel (BEKI) in New Haven completed installation of a 48-solar panel array on its roof, one of the first Connecticut houses of worship to go photovoltaic. The effort was spearheaded by Tsvi Benson-Tilsen, son of BEKI’s Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen, as a bar mitzvah project. The then-seventh grader was assisted by SunlightSolar Energy, Inc., who provided technical and installation services. Major funding for the array was provided by the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, with funding for the associated educational activities from the Legacy Heritage Innovation Project of the Legacy Heritage Fund. Additional funding was provided by more than 150 individual donors
“I think the solar panel installation was great in terms of BEKI members seeing the shul put into practice a very real and powerful step towards sustainability,” says congregant CJ May, who served for more than two decades as Yale University’s recycling coordinator and is part of BEKI’s year-old Green Action Team, led by Alice Kosowsky. The group has implemented a composting program and increased recycling efforts throughout the synagogue.
Seven years on, BEKI is seeing a ripple effect from the original solar panel installation, says Rabbi Tilsen. “BEKI’s solar array has saved the congregation thousands of dollars in electric costs and accordingly reduced our consumption of fossil fuels,” he says. “The project has helped our members and supporters gain experience and awareness of solar and other energy sources. Currently the congregation is contemplating a private offer to finance a large new array that could replace between 50 percent and 110 percent of our electric consumption, partly inspired by the earlier effort. Several members have installed their own solar systems and other alternative systems, largely or in part in response to the synagogue’s experience.”
A BEKI family established the Eric I.B. Beller Environmental Endowment Fund, which provides for projects to improve energy efficiency and to make the synagogue more environmentally friendly. In addition to ongoing improvements, this year will see the replacement of two roof sections and enhanced insulation.
When one organization makes an environmental change, the surrounding community can feel the impact as well, says Carole Bass, BEKI’s immediate past president. “The solar array has made a real dent in BEKI’s consumption of fossil fuels, thereby reducing our carbon footprint and our contribution to the soot and smog caused by oil-burning power plants,” she says. “While climate change may be the most catastrophic environmental problem facing us, plain old air pollution is also a serious and immediate health threat in an urban area like New Haven. On ‘bad air days,’ heart attacks spike and people die unnecessarily. We’re doing our best to mitigate that.”
The TBE project was initiated last year, when congregant Elliot Isban informed executive director Steve Lander that CL&P was offering grants for building upgrades and suggested that the synagogue commission an energy audit. As a result, CL&P put together a package of suggested improvements and financial incentives. The synagogue complied, starting with the installation of energy-efficient light bulbs and a sensor-driven lighting system, and upgrading its electromechanical equipment.
Phase Two saw the replacement of the synagogue roof with a high-performance “cool roof” made of a white reflective surface and extra-thick insulation.
TBE’s photovoltaic roof will help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and other environmental pollutants and reduce annual emissions totaling more than 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, 29 pounds of nitrogen oxide, and 59 pounds of sulfur oxide. CL&P estimates annual energy savings of $31,000 and 24,000 kilowatts.
Going solar reduces the need for new centralized fossil fuel-based power plants, new power-transmission lines, and the potential for service interruptions. Most significantly, on hot or cold sunny days, when the demand on the power grid is highest and when power companies turn on the dirtiest and least efficient backup generators, the array is busily and quietly producing pollution-free electricity for the grid. Photovoltaic generation can be a direct replacement for the most expensive and dirtiest power plants.
The solar panel project is dedicated by the Mann family to the memory of longtime TBE congregant Norma Mann, who died last year.
“Norma and [her husband] Milt have been very active in our congregation,” says Lander.
“This project reflects Norma’s deep concern for environmental sustainability, her
boundless energy, and her ability to think big. As a leader at TBE, she was the first woman to have an aliyah and to serve on our board. In the community, she was the first female president of United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien. So it is fitting that this bold venture is in her name. Just like Norma did, this project will make a big difference.”
The installation was made possible by a partnership between TBE, CL&P, the State, and two Fairfield County companies involved in the energy field.
An $800,000 Zero-Emission Renewable Energy (ZREC) grant from CL&P is administered by Old Greenwich-based Altus Power Management, which invests in, owns, and operates clean energy projects. TBE will buy its power from Altus at a 15-percent discount off a pre-determined rate.
CL&P provided TBE with an additional grant of $60,000 to cover the installation of the new roof that would support the installation of the solar panels. The utility company had provided the synagogue with a $47,000 Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund (CEEF) grant to complete Phase One of its energy overhaul.
Isban is CEO of Stamford-based American Solar & Alternative Power in Stamford, which guided TBE through the grant-application and tax-credit process and designed and installed the solar-panel array.
“Our goal is to be a model congregation, aiming high to make a difference in repairing the world,” says TBE’s Rabbi Joshua Hammerman. “For those in our area who are unaffiliated, as well as our own membership, this project is more evidence that their values are our values. Together, we can accomplish so much.”
Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden may be one of the next Connecticut synagogues to go solar, after a second energy audit is conducted this year, says Matthew Levine, chair of CMI’s building and grounds committee. With many basic energy-saving measures already in place, synagogue administration looks to its utility bills as a guide.
“We watch them carefully not only for financial reasons but also as an indicator of undetected equipment failure and/or opportunities to address increased consumption,” Levine says. That vigilance has allowed us to not only save money but also be more environmentally friendly. When there is increased consumption, we use it as an opportunity to remind people to be conscious about their utilization and cut back whenever possible.”
There is always a learning curve when it comes to changing behavior. “Congregants at BEKI share warmth and enthusiasm for honoring the environment; our ears perk up at the thought that, perhaps someday, we will save money too,” says Kosowsky. “But the thought of changing behavior is not fun for anybody, especially when there are no guarantees that any one person has the best idea about why and how.”
For those synagogues wishing to go further or get started, BEKI’s Tilsen recommends free energy audits offered by utility companies and other agencies. “We generally did what offered the best return on investment or effort, what was the easiest to accomplish, and what was most fun,” he says. “There is a lot more to do, though.”
On Nov. 7, Temple Beth El will take its roof project on the road, when Rabbi Hammerman leads a breakout session at the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network’s Climate Stewardship Summit. For more information: irejn.org / (860) 595-2321.
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Photo credit: Aviva Maller Photography