Walking into the annual Summit Interfaith Thanksgiving service — this year held at Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit JCC — meant walking into an environmental fair. At seven stations representing local environmental organizations, attendees could learn about water usage in producing meat, get information on alternative energy sources, or take a survey to assess their knowledge of environmental stewardship.
During the Nov. 23 service, the theme continued, woven through all the readings and texts and delivered in the keynote address given by the Rev. Fletcher Harper, founder and executive director of GreenFaith, the national faith-based environmental organization headquartered in Highland Park.
Wearing a white robe with a dark green clergy stole adorned with symbols of different faiths, philosophies, and the environment, Harper, according to Ohr Shalom member Mimi Zukoff, told the gathering of about 200 worshipers that “it’s not too late to do something about the environment — but there’s not much time left.”
Turning the service into an environmental event was the brainchild of the Summit GreenFaith Circle, a collaborative interfaith effort involving six local congregations. Summit is one of just two communities piloting the GreenFaith idea; Ohr Shalom, which committed to GreenFaith’s rigorous certification program in May, agreed to spearhead the local effort, launched over the summer.
“It’s a way for other faith congregations in Summit to engage with environmental issues without having to commit to certification,” said Zukoff, cochair of the certification process.
She added, “The opportunity to pilot a brand-new program that would encourage interfaith and inter-generational involvement throughout our town was too wonderful to pass up.” The synagogue’s goal in undertaking certification, she said, “is to bring our congregation to an understanding of what we can do as individuals and as a community to change the current trajectory of our environment while it is still possible.”
“We see the GreenFaith Circle as an opportunity to expand the education and the collaboration in a way that will make a much bigger impact,” Zukoff said. “Also, jointly, we can undertake much larger projects because we have more people who are willing to work together and lead these efforts.”
“The project is in its very early stages,” said Harper. “It’s the early pilot phase of a new local organizing platform.”
Zukoff credits a “fantastic” and “unique” interfaith clergy association that “provides an underlying framework for interfaith action and engagement” with Summit’s ability to succeed in the effort. It doesn’t hurt that Ohr Shalom’s Rabbi Avi Friedman is a past president of the association.
Since it hasn’t been done before, there is no blueprint or even specific expectations for the circle. This group is experimenting to see what works.
“At the first meeting, it was us, representatives of some other churches in the area, and Fletcher Harper,” said Zukoff. “We just said, ‘Let’s see what happens.’”
The group held two previous events: a vegan minimal-waste planning dinner at the end of July, so members could get to know one another, and joint participation in the People’s Climate March — the mass event advocating global action against climate change that took place Sept. 21 in New York City. Zukoff said other possible initiatives include adopting the practice of using only recyclable materials for serving at events — a step that might be part of the certification process. One church has committed to stop using disposable cups altogether; every member has brought in a personal mug to use at church events. Zukoff pointed out that at a Conservative synagogue, such a practice would be “more complicated, with kashrut issues, of course.”
And they are dreaming big. “We’d love to have a GreenFaith Circle CSA or farmers’ market,” Zukoff said.
Ohr Shalom is among the first 100 congregations and faith communities to commit to the certification process. The two-year program starts with an extensive survey of current environmental practices of the congregation in its physical building, education and curricula, rabbi’s sermons, and even advocacy outside the congregation, and ultimately concludes with implementing changes in all of these areas, with guidance and supervision from GreenFaith. About 65 houses of worship, 28 in New Jersey, have either completed certification, or are somewhere in the midst of the process. Of these, 13 are synagogues, including three local congregations that have completed certification — Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston — and one in addition to Ohr Shalom in the midst of the process, Temple Shalom in Succasunna. Ohr Shalom is the first congregation of any faith in Union County to take part.
For Zukoff, participation has been a labor of love. Many of the representatives from the other houses of worship, she said, have been involved in environmental advocacy in a secular capacity, including Ohr Shalom’s chair, Marjorie Fox, head of the Summit Environmental Commission. “But for me,” said Zukoff, “it’s all new people” and a new mission.