Green Hanukkah: oil-conservation miracle inspires environmentalism

Click photo to download. Caption: Solar power pioneer Yosef Abramowitz (left) is pictured here with his children Ashira and Zamir as the family uses its bicycle-shaped Hanukkah menorah. Credit: Courtesy Yosef Abramowitz.

By Robert Gluck/JNS.org

The miracle of Hanukkah is an epic story of conservation, as one day’s worth of oil lasts for eight days in the Jewish Temple. Now, in some circles, energy conservation and energy independence are increasing hallmarks of modern-day Hanukkah.

One of the first organizations to emphasize this concept was the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), a leading American Jewish environmental group and a program of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. For Hanukkah in 2003, COEJL asked its members to consider ecological concerns alongside the role of enjoyment and aesthetics.

“We had a light-bulb campaign to get folks to change their bulbs to CFLs (compact fluorescent light),” Jared Feldman, COEJL’s vice president and Washington, DC director, tells JNS.org. “We came up with the idea of Hanukkah as both a holiday of liberation, but also a holiday of resource scarcity. We built off the idea of the limited amount of oil for eight days and how conservation plays in.”

Moving forward, COEJL is working on more actively engaging Jewish community relations councils (JCRCs) around the country on these issues, according to Feldman.

“We’re thinking about how to use some of the Jewish holidays as a platform to also discuss environmental issues,” he says. “This has happened before and it is included in our longterm plans.”

This Hanukkah, Feldman suggests buying more fuel-efficient cars like hybrids or electric vehicles, buying Energy Star-compliant appliances for homes, and thinking about energy usage at Jewish communal facilities.

Click photo to download. Caption: Solar panels. The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life notes that Jewish communal institutions have set up environmental and sustainability committees to look at their facilities, such as the installation of green roofs and solar power. Credit: Eric Delalonde via Wikimedia Commons.

“Make sure your communal facilities are built in a way that is energy efficient, because that not only reduces the amount of energy but lowers the energy bill,” Feldman says. “We’d all rather put the money into Jewish community education or JCCs or having Shabbat dinners with our friends than huge energy bills. A lot of synagogues and Jewish communal institutions have set up environmental and sustainability committees to look at their facilities. They are now installing green roofs and solar power. This makes a big difference.”

According to David Krantz—president and chairperson of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism, which runs the Green Zionist Alliance, Jewcology.org, and Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth projects—Hanukkah is the original holiday of energy conservation. 

“Think about it. One day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days. Imagine if we conserved energy like we did during the first Hanukkah and only used one eighth as much energy as we do today,” Krantz tells JNS.org

“Like Passover, Hanukkah reminds us to rise up, to challenge the status quo,” adds Krantz. “Today, we need to fight for what our ancestors took for granted: clean air, clean water, and clean land. We need freedom from fossil fuels. Learning about the environmental lessons of Hanukkah can help light the way.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Change incandescent light bulbs to LED bulbs like the ones pictured (from Philips) is a sustainability measure that can be taken for Hanukkah, Jewish environmental activist David Krantz says. Credit: Geoffrey A. Landis.

In what specific ways can Jews celebrate a green Hanukkah? Krantz suggests taking on a new environmental commitment for each day of the holiday: On the first day, change incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent or better yet, LED bulbs; on the second day, commit to wearing sweaters in the winter instead of turning up the heat; on the third day, plan a garden for the spring; on the fourth day, make a donation to an environmental organization; on the fifth day, disinvest your stock portfolio from fossil-fuel stocks and invest in renewable energy instead; on the sixth day, contact your collegiate alma mater, your synagogue, your local Jewish federation, and other institutions to ask them to follow your example of disinvestment and reinvestment; on the seventh day, commit to eating less meat, which is the largest contributor of greenhouse gases; on the eighth day, call your local member of Congress to advocate for climate-smart policies.

Krantz recommends additional measures that he calls “low-hanging fruit”: unplug appliances and chargers when they aren’t in use; turn off lights when you leave the room; use fans instead of air conditioning when possible; walk or take public transit instead of driving when possible; and use timers rather than leaving lights on for the duration of Shabbat and Yom Tov.

Solar power pioneer Yosef Abramowitz, cofounder of the Arava Power Company and CEO of Energiya Global Capital, uses a Hanukkah menorah shaped like a bicycle each year. It was a gift from Nigel Savage, head of the environmentally focused Jewish non-profit Hazon, after Abramowitz’s wife and daughter rode in Hazon’s annual bike-a-thon. “This year the festival of lights is about trying to make Israel a renewable light unto the nations, especially as we get solar energy into underprivileged parts of the world,” Abramowitz tells JNS.org.

Rabbi Michael Cohen—a founding faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, an Israel-based research and education institute that offers accredited academic programs on cross-border environmental issues for undergraduate and graduate students—says the “timeless message” of Hanukkah’s oil-miracle story is not to give up hope, even when things seem hopeless.

“Certainly when we look at the state of the world’s environment, that can be the case,” he tells JNS.org. “But we can’t give up hope. The miracle lies in our hands.”

The average Jew can prioritize conservation not only during Hanukkah but year-round, according to Cohen, who suggested turning off the lights in the room where the Hanukkah menorah is lit and performing an energy audit of one’s home.

“Make changes so less energy is needed,” he says. “Buy a better fuel-efficient car and find the best heating system that is better for the environment. Compost. Use low-energy light bulbs, don’t idle your car. Reduce consumption. Hanukkah means to dedicate. The holiday is a good time to step back and take stock, and dedicate the decisions we make in our lives to affirm the health of our shared planet.”

—With reporting by Deborah Fineblum Schabb

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Posted on October 13, 2014 and filed under Hanukkah, Special Sections.