The Festival of (Energy-Efficient) Lights

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006

Jewish environmentalists want to know: "How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?"

Ba-da-bum. Although this sounds like the start of a corny joke, it's actually the name of a campaign engaging hundreds of synagogues across the country this week as Jews mark Hanukkah, the festival of lights. The campaign is organized by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

At least a dozen synagogues in the region are among 500 nationwide that are adding a tradition to this holiday dating to the 4th century B.C.: replacing regular light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Hanukkah, an eight-day holiday that ends at sundown Saturday, marks the Jewish rebellion against forced assimilation by the Greeks. The central tale of the holiday involves a lamp in a liberated temple burning for eight days when the Jews had enough oil for only one day.

As a result, Jews light a nine-armed candelabra, often called a hannukiah or menorah. Eight arms represent the days, and the ninth is for a symbolic candle used to light the others.

The past year has seen an unprecedented environmental push in the U.S. faith community, which sometimes has been wary of a movement seen as liberal, possibly pantheist and without scriptural roots.

But synagogues this Hanukkah are celebrating the light-oriented holiday by launching energy audits, giving out CFL bulbs to congregants and chanting a newly written "installation prayer" for the changing of the bulbs.

"Changing light bulbs in here is an adventure. The ceilings are very high," said Shoshana Danon-Perkins, administrator at Kesher Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown that is raising money to clean up a river in Israel and this year promoted the use of cornstarch-based, and thus biodegradable, utensils for Passover, a holiday when Jews use a separate set of kitchenware to honor dietary codes.

There have long been environmentalists in the faith community who saw pollution and recycling as sacred subjects, part of their vision of caring for God's Earth. But the past year or two has seen this philosophy take off, particularly with many evangelical Christian leaders for the first time calling global climate change a concern. The Regeneration Project, a faith-based environmental advocacy group with branches in 20 states, showed the global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" in 4,000 congregations this year, according to the group's founder, the Rev. Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest in California.

"I see a major change in the past year," she said, adding that Hurricane Katrina's impact on the poor was another factor. "I don't hear theological arguments against environmentalism anymore. I think mainstream religion now believes we are the stewards of creation."

Using CFL bulbs, which last up to eight times as long as standard incandescent bulbs, has become a rallying cry, according to the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. The group says that if every U.S. household switched a single bulb, it would have the same impact as taking 1.3 million cars off the road.

Environmentalism is particularly new among Orthodox Jews. The Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox organization, passed its first resolution on the issue this spring, saying rabbis should recognize "that the Torah commands us 'to work and to guard' the Earth."

Evonne Marzouk, executive director of the Orthodox Jewish advocacy group Canfei Nesharim, said Jews are discussing what Jewish law and tradition say about environmentalism.

The book of Deuteronomy, for example, forbids warriors attacking a place to destroy its trees, "for the tree of the field is man's life." Jewish tradition also forbids the causing of needless pain to animals and mandates "sending away a mother bird before taking her eggs, to protect her feelings," said Marzouk, whose group began in 2003 but picked up steam this year.

Some people "light" electric menorahs during Hanukkah. This is often done for convenience: no dangerous flames, no messy wax. Also popular are traditional menorahs, which use wicks and oil, said Leslie Kanner, owner of Israeli Accents, a Judaica store in Rockville. The small bulbs used in electric menorahs come in the energy-efficient variety, said Barbara Lerman-Golomb, executive director of the coalition.

"Change is hard," she said, "but changing a light bulb is easy."


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