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Thursday, December 18, 2014

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Synagogues, schools and sustainability

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What does it mean to be a sustainable Jew? That question was the headline of my first CJN column in September 2010. Since then, we have explored many aspects of sustainability in this monthly column. What have we learned so far?

A small segment of our Jewish community that is receptive to this precept of tikkun olam and its interpretation by the many streams of Judaism is still motivated to focus on the environment and take action to leave the world in better shape than we found it.

Keeping Jewish students motivated and connected to environmental concerns is easier in younger grades. Challenges in extending that interest through middle school into high school and on to post-secondary education have not been overcome.

Is there a connection between synagogues, schools and sustainability?

When you talk about sustainability to people involved in the running of these institutions, thoughts quickly turn to affordability and the ability to sustain a viably sized synagogue membership or school student population.

Over Pesach, I discussed the issue of sustainable operations with family and friends. Through those encounters, I’ve brought together different community views from various cities and countries. Common to all of the discussions was an ongoing increase in labour costs because of the need to pay a living wage to those who teach our children or run our religious institutions. That is not solvable in this column.

However, if you are a member of a board of directors for a synagogue or day school, you have the opportunity to understand how ongoing operational sustainability is affected by energy utilities such as electricity, natural gas and water.

Are you running your own building or are you a tenant, renting part of a larger facility? Do you ever see a utility bill at a board meeting or just a cost number? Does the board have a focus on consumption? Do you know which cost drivers you have control over?

Most boards will see a single number, the amount spent on utilities. Sometimes the number will be broken into three parts, separating the costs for electricity, natural gas and water.

How many boards look at consumption numbers, understand what is connected where, know how much each connected item consumes, and how long the consumption take place?  Very few from what I’ve seen.

What are the variables that need to be considered that can directly affect consumption? Weather can affect the amount of heating or cooling required. Sunlight hours can affect the number of lights required in rooms that face the exterior. Building occupancy schedules can affect the number of hours an area has to be lit, heated or cooled.

It is this kind of knowledge that can lead to informed decisions to improve efficiency and use, which in turn can help the utility portion of operating costs of a synagogue or school stay steady.

Next month, we will look at how informed decisions can be made and consumption reduction achieved, resulting in costs that can be held steady or rise at a slower rate.

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