This article appeared in the Dec. 14, 2006 Jewish Advocate.


A Festival of Light Bulbs

By Susie Davidson

Advocate Correspondent


This is not a joke, though it does raise a chuckle. Actually, it’s an initiative that just might bring some serious results.

COEJL, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, has launched “A Light Among Nations,” which is also affectionately known as “How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?”. The group hopes to encourage each member of the Jewish community to switch to compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs; on Dec. 11, many local synagogues participated in nationwide Chanukah installation ceremonies.

The drive to install the energy-efficient, cost-effective CFL bulbs is part of a 2006 Climate Change Campaign that COEJL embarked upon in July: “L'or v'or, L'dor v'dor: From Light to Light, from Generation to Generation.” Goals include involving the Jewish community in energy legislation, “greening” synagogues, and engaging youth in helping others make personal changes in energy usage to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

“Out of 2219 bulbs sold, $115,800 will be saved by the new owners over the life of the bulb, while 775 tons of carbon dioxide will be kept from entering our atmosphere,” said COEJL Campaign Chairperson Liore Milgrom-Elcott. “When people hear the name of the climate change campaign, they always laugh,” she added, “and then they often share a light bulb joke.” That’s OK, she says - as long as the joke contains a reference to the environment and to Judaism!

Dr. Daniel Orenstein has also recently joined COEJL as “Science and Policy Fellow,” a position funded through a Leadership Grant from the Switzer Foundation.

Milgrom-Elcott said that the installation ceremony packet, sent to each participating congregation, included a bulb prayer and press information, so that people of other faiths, politicians and the media could be invited. “The ceremonies were meant to convey to local communities and the rest of America that Jews are joining together and taking a loud, clear stance on energy conservation,” she said. Campaign brochures and CFL bulb order forms were also included, so that members could expand the drive to their workplaces, families and friends.

COEJL, a program of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), is based in New York and represents 29 national Jewish religious and communal organizations. Their Household EcoTeams of five to eight people meet seven times, about every three weeks. Following a Global Action Plan workbook and aided by a coach, they help individuals or families reduce garbage and consumption of energy, water, and toxic products. COEJL distributes sermonic environmental materials, and has secured copies of Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” for congregations that would like to hold a screening and discussion on global warming.

Rabbi Katy Allen of Temple Tifereth Israel in Winthrop is the local COEJL coordinator. Allen was ordained in 2005 from the Academy for Jewish Religion and is also a Jewish chaplain at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. “I got involved in COEJL,” she said, “because I've always been interested in nature and science.” Allen started her career as a biology teacher. “I wanted to get involved in COEJL as a way to connect my Judaism and my love of the environment,” she said.

Local congregations that have joined the CFL bulb drive thus far include the Hebrew College Rabbinical School; B'nai Or of Boston; Temple Isaiah, Temple Emunah, and the Lexington Federation of Temple Youth of Lexington; Beth El Temple Center of Belmont; Temple Beth Zion of Brookline; Temple Shalom of Newton; Temple Israel of Natick; Temple Tifereth Israel of Winthrop; Congregation Sha'aray Shalom of Hingham; Temple Beth David of Westwood; Temple Ohabei Shalom of Brookline; Temple Israel of Greenfield; Ahavas Achim of Amherst; Beit Ahavah of Northampton; and Congregation Knesset Israel of Pittsfield.


“The Tikkun Olam Club is encouraging people to purchase CFL bulbs,” said David Axelrad, Tikkun Olam Advisor at Beit Ahava Congregation in Northampton. Axelrad explained that teenage members of the Tikkun Olam Club are bringing information as well as purchase order sheets around to friends, families, and neighbors in the community. “We are participating in this important project in an effort to help conserve energy and better protect our environment,” he said. “We are also hoping to provide a simple way in which each person can make a difference, and help to repair our world.”

“I joined the campaign at the suggestion of my synagogue's ALEPH liaison, Ken Rosenstein,” said David Grinstein of the Watertown Jewish renewal congregation B'nai Or, a which, fittingly, means “Children of the Light.” (ALEPH is the Philadelphia-based Alliance for Jewish Renewal umbrella organization.)

Grinstein said that up to that point, the Tikkun Olam committee had been concentrating on Israel-Palestine peace issues, but had been thinking about expanding the focus. Grinstein agreed to serve as point person. “People send in their bulb orders to me, II order them, and distribute them around Chanukah,” he said. Grinstein has been interested in environmental issues for many years, and his house has mostly compact fluorescent bulbs already, but he had not previously been publicly active on environmental concerns. “This campaign seemed like a ‘bite-sized’ step to help my synagogue to act on its environmental awareness,” he said.

"Our Rabbi, Jonathan Kraus, made a plea to the Beth El Congregation on Yom Kippur, to work to stop climate change because it is a mitzvah to care for creation and not waste its resources," said the Belmont synagogue member Miriam Weil. "The congregation responded and is ordering CFL bulbs that will arrive in their homes by Chanukah."

At Temple Beth David in Westwood, the Social Action committee strives to involve all synagogue members in making "tikkun olam" a part of their daily lives, according to Linda Noonan, Social Action Co-Chair. "We also aim to apply Jewish values in our decisions as citizens and consumers," she said. They have adopted the COEJL campaign with these motives in mind. "We hope it will educate and motivate our congregation to be more aware of the impact of their choices on our environment," said Noonan.

Some synagogues are going above and beyond. “In addition to participating in the light bulb drive, we've kicked off a larger initiative which includes replacing all the light bulbs at the synagogue with low power bulbs,” said Stephen Schuster, President at Temple Sinai in Worcester. The synagogue is also replacing, and rededicating, the ner tamid bulb with a solar energy source. Their December 1 “Synaplex Shabbat” is titled "Greening our Synagogue, Greening our World." “It will include a candlelight dinner and candlelight service to symbolize our long-term and ongoing commitment to these local changes,” said Schuster.

Arfa, a storyteller and specialist in Judaic environmental teachings, organized a screening of "An Inconvenient Truth" at four synagogues: Shir Hasharim in Brattleboro, Vermont on Nov. 9, Temple Israel in Greenfield on Dec. 3, Beit Ahavah in Florence on Dec. 10, and B’nai Jacob in Longmeadow on Jan. 7. Each screening will begin with Arfa’s own introduction, “The Everyday Miracle of Air.“ (“Try breathing on Venus or Mars!” he quipped.) Arfa said the program will also include liturgy and structured conversation, in small and large group dialogue. “I hope to bring communities together in dialogue, sharing a taste of Judaism's ancient, abundant streams of environmental teachings, exploring the spiritual dimensions of the environmental crisis, and sharing with folks that national organizations like COEJL are strongly dedicated to environmental issues,” he said.

The events have been quite instructive. "In Brattleboro, we were all amazed at the ability of the teens to understand the issue,” he recalled. “The adults were able to teach the incredulous teens why the auto industry might sue California for wanting to raise fuel efficiency standards a few miles per gallon.” In turn, he said, teens shared their hopes for the future. “This inspired and moved all the adults," said Arfa.

As a graduate student in environmental education in the early 1990's, Arfa became involved in Jewish environmental education when he worked one summer at Shomrei Adamah, the first Jewish environmental organization. As the education director for the Shalom Centers Eco-Shalom Corps, he worked for two summers with college students at Elat Chayyim, the Jewish Renewal Retreat Center in the Catskills, on the connections between Jewish and environmental identities. Arfa started up the first Jewish Environmental group at UMass Amherst, and has led many Judaic environmental programs throughout New England.

Arfa also enjoys sharing Judaism's storytelling heritage. “On Tu B’Shevat, I relate the Tales of Honi Circlemaker, and stories of the Shretlech, ‘our little people‘, while searching for them in forests and parks with groups of children,” he said. The multifaceted raconteur tells stories throughout New England. “I’m also renewing the role of Maggid at Temple Israel, Greenfield,” he says, explaining that there, he shares stories at services and family programs. Arfa’s first CD, “The Birth of Love, Tales for the Days of Awe,” contains stories he tells at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, as well as ancient mythology, and re-telling of Old World Yiddish tales (set in the Berkshire foothills). "These stories are not traditional Maggid fare, 'finger-wagging' admonitions, filled with incitement to behave,” he says. “Instead, they are offered as gifts, to be perceived and revealed in ways unique to your own heart and imagination.“ Just in time for Chanukah, A CD party is being held on Dec. 14 at Mocha Maya's, an art and coffee house in Shelburne Falls.

Emily Messinger, who is the Youth Educator at Temple Isaiah in Newton, posted a notice that Isaiah had joined the COEJL campaign on the synagogue website. “This modern day commemoration of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, will bring the issue of global climate change front and center in Jewish public life,” she wrote. Messinger asked congregants to buy and install the CFL bulbs, which will be offered for sale at cost at Isaiah’s Holiday Marketplace on Nov. 19, the Book Fair on Dec. 3, the Brotherhood Breakfast on Dec. 10, and the Family Hanukah Contest and Safam Concert on Sunday, Dec. 17.

She provided conscientious tips as well: “Get an energy audit of your home, consider a hybrid for your next car purchase, insulate your home, don’t idle your car for more than five minutes, save water, and get involved to help educate others.” Messinger stated that the CFL bulbs would pay for themselves in energy savings within two to three months, based on a five hour per day use. She included links to COEJL, the EPA’s Climate Change link as well as Lexington Global Warming Action Coalition and Sustainable Arlington.

COEJL offers other environmentally-related Chanukah programs, which can be viewed at

"I'm excited that COEJL's campaign is opening the door wide open, bringing dialogue about sustainability and everyday ecology to the forefront of our communities in new and powerful ways,” said Arfa. “My hope is that this program might spur small sustainability circles to form to continue learning together and supporting each other in lessening our everyday impact on the environment."

“We hope to distribute all the bulbs at that time when we light the menorah and celebrate miracles,” noted Axelrad.

For more information, please contact Milgrom-Elcott at or at 212-532-7436.To be a Sponsor of the Light Among the Nations Campaign, please send in a $100 contribution, with a note stating that you would like to be an official campaign sponsor.

To help form or for more information on an EcoTeam, contact Jennifer Kaplan at

Rabbi Katy Allen can be reached at 508-358-5996.or at