Going green should not be scary. I feel like so many people are intimidated by the vastness of the ecological movement, of sustainability, of the color green. In his TED conference talk, “The paradox of choice,” Barry Schwartz explains how too many choices can paralyze us from making a decision. I learned the same theory from my marketing professor in college, who explained why psychoeconomics is so important to businesses. Given similar conditions between two grocery stores, for example, the store with 15 varieties of chips will ultimately attract more business than a store with 75 varieties. Interesting.

These days, it’s overwhelming how many articles and people and blog posts and news stories are giving us ways to go green. Perhaps it is this inundation with information that is holding so many of us back from actually making the choices. Where do we begin? In What About Bob, one of my favorite early 90s comedies, Bill Murray, the main character, uses the mantra “baby steps” to help sort out his life. It worked for him, and it can work for us. Do some research, but not too much at first, and pick one or two changes that you can stick with. This is much more manageable than trying to green the world all at once. Below are my four suggestions, all of which not only reduce the oft-cited carbon footprint but are also economically justifiable (they will save you money!):

1. Stop buying bottled water.

A chilled plastic bottle of water in the convenience-store cooler is the perfect symbol of this moment in American commerce and culture. It acknowledges our demand for instant gratification, our vanity, our token concern for health. Its packaging and transport depend entirely on cheap fossil fuel. Yes, it’s just a bottle of water–modest compared with the indulgence of driving a Hummer. But when a whole industry grows up around supplying us with something we don’t need–when a whole industry is built on the packaging and the presentation–it’s worth asking how that happened, and what the impact is. And if you do ask, if you trace both the water and the business back to where they came from, you find a story more complicated, more bemusing, and ultimately more sobering than the bottles we tote everywhere suggest.

I understand that bottled water is convenient, but seriously folks, it’s a scam. You are paying for something that you have access to already (at least in a handful of the developed countries). If you want to read more about the industry and its negative effects on the environment, check out “Message in a Bottle. If you are looking for a stylish, eco-friendly water bottle to get started, check out www.mysigg.com.

2. Change all your light bulbs in your home/office to CFL.

Sitting humbly on shelves in stores everywhere is a product, priced at less than $3, that will change the world. Soon. It is a fairly ordinary item that nonetheless cuts to the heart of a half-dozen of the most profound, most urgent problems we face. Energy consumption. Rising gasoline costs and electric bills. Greenhouse-gas emissions. Dependence on coal and foreign oil. Global warming.

The product is the compact fluorescent lightbulb, a quirky-looking twist of frosted glass. In the energy business, it is called a “CFL,” or an “energy saver.” One scientist calls it an “ice-cream-cone spiral,” because in its most-advanced, most-appealing version, it looks like nothing so much as a cone of swirled soft-serve ice cream.

CFL – meaning compact fluorescent lamp – lightbulbs are the way to go. They emit the same amount of light as regular bulbs but use 75-80% less energy. To learn more, check out “How Many Lightbulbs Does it Take to Change the World. One. And You’re Looking at it.”

3. Spend less time in the car.

If you have not heard already, China, in preparation for the August Olympic Games, recently put into effect an even-odd license plate law that will help lessen the effects of traffic congestion on the environment. While we probably couldn’t get away with something like this in America, damn it’s a good idea. Sure, I’m a bit upset that gas prices are so high, but hopefully this will force us all to change our habits. Carpool. Bike. Take the bus! I highly recommend WalkScore.com, an interactive map that grades your location based on how many common services – grocery stores, libraries, schools, etc. – are within walking distance. When I lived in St. Louis, I used the site to find nearby bars and even came across a used bookstore that I never knew existed.

4. Start an indoor/outdoor garden.

You don’t have to become a locavore, but cultivating a few plants is a good idea. Indoor plants absorb toxins and can create healthier living spaces, while outdoor plants can yield fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables that can spice up your cooking. Check out The GRS Garden Project to see how growing your own food requires little labor but can help offset the rising cost of food.

I challenge you to discuss these suggestions with your local Jewish community. Urge your synagogues to use CFL lightbulbs and sponsor a community gardening project. It’s a lot easier than you think. The evidence is overwhelming. In the face of too many choices, sometimes we need a little guidance to take action.

Please send any success stories to pitaronpark [at] gmail.com!


I recently received an email from Jacob Richman, a fellow WordPress.com user:

Hi !

This week I launched a new website called:
Solar Energy in Israel

Solar Energy in Israel is a free, on-line, educational resource
to learn about solar energy developments in Israel

The site features include:

Frequently Asked Questions – The FAQ sections provide
you with answers to the common questions people ask about
solar energy systems in Israel and abroad.

The Solar Energy in Israel Blog – The weekly blog updates will
keep you informed about developments and news related to
solar energy in Israel and about updates to the website.

Videos – A selection of online, educational videos about
solar energy in Israel and abroad.

Companies – An index of solar energy companies in Israel

Glossary – Basic solar energy words and terms with easy to
understand explanations

English – Hebrew Dictionary – A dictionary of Hebrew
solar energy words and terms with English translations and

Links – Solar Energy resources in Israel and around the world.

Feedback is welcome.

Please consider informing your readers of this new educational
site. Thank you!

The site looks great. It’s user-friendly, easy to digest, and contains a wealth of introductory knowledge on solar power. Jason’s aggregation of solar companies in Israel is particularly interesting; for such a small country, there sure are a lot of companies in the solar power industry! The FAQ, video and link pages provide resources for further study and are pages that I will certainly take a closer look at.

Jason, best of luck to you and your site. Pitaron Park supports your cause!

An orthodox Jew might wake up at sunrise to say shacharit, while a very reform one might get up at eight to catch the train; they may put on different clothes, live in different neighborhoods, and even speak in different languages. However, there is one important ritual they will likely share that morning: grabbing a cup of coffee.

As Jews, social activists, and environmentalists, we have a responsibility to seek out the most sustainable coffee available. But what is that? Until now, there have been very few options. Organic is nice, but it gives no guarantee about the treatment of the coffee farmers or their community. The only socially-aware option seemed to be Fair Trade. While helpful to many, Fair Trade does not address the key issue affecting coffee-growers: power. The power to set the prices still resides with the wealthy buyer, and not in the hands of the poor, dependent farmer.

A new organization, Crop to Cup, seeks to change all that while still offering quality coffee to all of us caffeine addicts. Their website, croptocup.com, describes their service as such:

“C2C is a service provider for farmers: we buy directly from farmers and represent them in overseas markets. We reinvest 10% of our profits in farmer communities … The better price we get for their coffee, the better price they get for their coffee. Simple as that.”

“This is true,” adds co-founder Jakob Elster. “Five percent of every sale gets back to the farmer, too.” The website goes on to illustrate the monetary benefit to farmers over both conventional and Fair Trade methods- it is significant- as well as their dedication to empowering the farmers by putting them in direct contact with the consumers.

That once-or-twice-a-day brew may not seem like a top-priority sustainability issue in the face of global warming, swelling landfills, and topsoil erosion. However, as Jews, we are in a unique position to be aware of the large influence of small choices. In the secular, political world, these issues are often tackled separately. However, Judaism inherently interweaves many small practices into a larger spiritual framework. A blessing after dinner comes only once a day, shabbat once a week, a Yom Kippur service once a year, a schmita every seven. Yet each small ritual does not stand alone, but is incorporated into the greater cycle of the year, the earth, and the spirit.

Similarly, small acts of sustainability are integral to the larger structure of our ethical code. Having a sustainable mindset, rather than addressing environmental and social problems as unrelated, builds community. Large coffee corporations have disenfranchised farmers by isolating them from the global market; creating a direct community of coffee growers and consumers, a la Crop to Cup, empowers both. Judaism long ago realized the importance of the minyan, the community, for prayer and spiritual growth. We must take that lesson and apply it to the growth of truly fair trade.

Being ethical about your daily coffee is tikkun olam, plain and simple.

Taglit-Birthright Israel, what an amazing experience. Any qualified candidate for this program is an absolute fool if they don’t take advantage of it. There are so many different types of trips that cater to different preferences (anything from Orthodox-based to outdoor inspired biking ventures) that it’s almost silly. Please, go if you can.

This post is actually a follow up to something I wrote a few months ago titled, “Is Tel Aviv a Sustainable City?“. While I was traveling I kept a close eye out for signs of sustainability across the country. After looking at my notes (scribbled throughout my tattered Moleskine), it looks like my report is fairly optimistic. Talking to our tour guide, I learned that even though the “green movement” hasn’t quite hit Israel yet, the framework is certainly there. The country, through it’s remarkable technological resources and innovations, continues to draw in solar and energy-related companies, and it seems as if it’s only a matter of time before a tipping point sends Israel to the forefront of the sustainable movement.

Two particular things I noticed:

1) Many of the places that we stayed have toilets with two options for flushing. The smaller button produces a water flow just great enough to flush liquids, while the larger button, well, it gets rid of the bigger stuff. I had quite a fun time experimenting with both! It seems like this technique saves a lot of water, which in Israel is certainly a concern. The Sea of Galilee, which supplies roughly 30% of Israel’s water, is drying up more and more each year. Israel, the founder of drip irrigation – which saves a significant amount of water – is definitely ahead of the game when it comes to water conservation. I haven’t heard about this toilet technique anywhere else in the world…have you?

2) Strewn throughout the country are several large recycling areas for plastic bottles. The bins, usually placed on street corners, are supported by Aviv Recycling Ltd. The site explains that up to 50 such constructions exist in a given municipality. I saw another web address on the outer label, but the site is completely in Hebrew. Can any of our readers, or other authors, translate this (http://www.ela-el.com)?

For me, the Tree of Life is a banyan tree.

If you went to see the Great Banyan Tree in India, you would come across a large, old-growth forest. After searching four acres of woods for the Great Banyan itself, you would find a sign informing you that this forest is not a forest at all, but a single, ancient tree. Every one of the (apparently) separate, fully-grown trunks is in fact a branch of the Great Banyan, which propagates through an elegant method called layering.
In layering, an extremity of a plant is bent back into the ground and buried. Once underground, it becomes the root for a new, genetically identical plant to grow. Above ground, the plants appear to be entirely disconnected, individual entities. However, if you could look below the ground, you would find that they share roots; they are, in fact, the same plant.

Sitting back on my dirt-stained knees after a few hours picking peppers in the sun, I had time and opportunity to consider the growth of plants. I was participating in a program called Adamah (earth), a three-month Jewish farming fellowship. Over those first few weeks, I had packed so much information about farming, Judaism, and the members of my new community into my head that there had been no space or time to assimilate all these new experiences.

So as I stretched out my sore knees, everything I had taken in began to coalesce. The previous night, I had learned the Hebrew word for layering: l’havrich. Yet despite the relevance of the botanical concept to my farm work, what occurred to me now was the second meaning of the word. Bet-reish-chet, the three Hebrew letters which make up its shoresh, or root, also spell baruch, meaning blessing.

As I bent forward to pick another pepper, I asked myself: how is a blessing like a banyan? I dug my fingers into the dirt beneath the tiny plant and felt the slight give of a ripe pepper. Suddenly, I felt a pang of overwhelming gratitude, almost violent in its intensity. The entire life and purpose of this plant was being given to me in the form of its fruit, and I was being entrusted with its guardianship. A plant is like an infant; a bond of unspoken love is formed between it and the caretaker upon whom it is wholly dependent. Yet it also possesses the maturity of extreme age, its suffering nearly silent, its generosity complete and devastating. Touching a plant is like I imagine it will be to have a child, and also like speaking to the ghost of a great-great-grandfather. It connects me firmly to this moment and place.

I had the sensation that my fingers, cool in the dirt, were taking root. Beneath the ground, I discovered that they were not my roots but banyan roots. When I went below the obvious surface of separateness, I was not only myself but part of the pepper plant and each of the hundreds of its fruits, of the other Adamah fellows and of the ground at that moment and the sky at that moment, and part of all plants, and all people, and all the ground and sky everywhere at every moment that has ever been or ever will be. The strong roots of Hashem run beneath us, birth us and sustain us and define us all, regardless of how separate we may seem. I felt small and huge, like a small single branch of a Great Tree, and I found myself on my knees, and this was praying, this was blessing.

That was how I learned the art of blessing. Until that moment, I had approached Judaism from an intellectual, classroom standpoint only. Yet when I bent my knees to do physical work, I learned how to spiritually kneel down. I discovered that I have to immerse myself physically in the greater spiritual concept before stepping back and applying my rational mind. Thus, I cannot divorce my Jewish identity from my relationship with the earth. Spirituality and physicality, like so many other things, only appear separate. As such, sustainability in my lifestyle is a form of prayer. Ethical eating is a form of kashrut. Physical healing of the earth is tikkun olam. And, when I go to synagogue to pray, I am feeding something in my body and the earth as well as in my spirit. For me, being a Jew means I will no longer miss the Tree for the forest.

Food prices are beginning to soar. Wheat prices have more than doubled in the past year, while rice prices have almost doubled. The slope of the price increase is unprecedented, and while you may not have noticed any significant changes at your local supermarket, the pressure is being felt around the world by the poorer half. According to AJWS, the current food crisis threatens to plunge 100 million into hunger (100 million who were not previously starving). Those just getting by are the most vulnerable. The crisis is sowing social unrest in several countries, including Haiti, where rioters shot a U.N. Peace-keeper.

Needless to say, the Talmudic reaction to the current state of affairs is one of alarm and dismay. Faced with relentlessly soaring prices, Jewish charities are struggling to keep up with the demand. SOVA has reported that the USDA has cut back their contributions. On the ground, it is becoming harder and harder to fulfill our obligation to feed the needy. From their perspective it is simply getting more expensive for everyone to buy food. They haven’t addressed the cause of the crisis: biofuel. Yes, the once-touted solution to peak oil and green-house gasses is currently threatening 100 million people with starvation. Countries such as the U.S., Canada, France and Brazil are granting large subsidies for farmers to grow crops that can be converted to biofuel. The predictably catastrophic result of pegging the world’s oil demand (87 billion barrels a day) to the planet’s agricultural output, is that the demand for food sky-rockets and starvation increases. Instead of growing food for people we’re growing gas for our cars, and 100 million more people go to sleep hungry.

What can you do? Call your Congressmen and demand that they move to cut all subsidies for biofuel production. Notify the candidates for the Presidency that you are passionately concerned about this issue. Most simply, sign this awesome petition; when you select your country, it will even automaticallly draft the letter to your head of state!

A Jewish response to rising food prices resulting in increased global hunger: tzedaka. Continue supporting charities that feed the hungry in order to provide relief on the ground and take the aforementioned political action.

The religious and psychological reasons for keeping Shabbat are widely understood, but not many people recognize the environmental principles underlying the laws of a day of rest.

When I received the Facebook invitation for Earth Hour I immediately associated the idea with keeping Shabbat. Since the laws of being Shomer Shabbat dictate that one cannot drive or use electricity, it is essentially a mitzvah (commandment) on Shabbat to use as little energy as possible for an entire 25 hours! On Shabbat we take a whole day simply to appreciate the world around us, recognizing the importance of time over space (ie- material possessions). We take a break from creating physical, consumable things and instead create and enhance intangible things like relationships. It’s as if we “recharge our relationships instead of our cell phones”.

My environmental student group Hayerukim decided to teach about this concept as part of the University of Michigan Focus the Nation sustainable lifestyles fair. Most of the non-Jews we spoke to about the idea were sold, but the Jews were a little more skeptical. One guy made the extremely salient point that most people he knows who are Shomer Shabbat keep their lights on all of Shabbat and leave the stove on to heat up their food for lunch. When you add up all of the energy that’s wasted overnight, it’s not really any better than any other day of the week.

However, the concept of sustainability is so inherent in Shabbat that just because some current practices waste energy doesn’t mean there isn’t room to translate the Mitzvot of Shabbat into a model for sustainable living. There are two extremely simple ways to reduce your energy consumption on Shabbat to almost nil. First, you can choose only the lights that are most necessary, like one bathroom, the kitchen, and one common room, making use of natural light wherever possible. Second, you can use timers. You can put timers on any light switch and most appliances (such as an air conditioning unit or an oven/stove that you only need for a couple of hours). Limiting the amount of energy we use on Shabbat can inspire us to do the same during the rest of the week. Earth Hour? We have Earth 25 Hours every week!

In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Sabbath he suggests that Shabbat, which celebrates freedom, individuality, and nature and disregards weapons of destruction, technical civilization, and economic struggle is the institution that holds out the greatest hope for human progress. For environmentalists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, progress and sustainability go hand and hand, and Shabbat can be the perfect model for this.