Hanukkah, time to see the light

Energy-saving bulbs are modern connection to ancient tale

December 15, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

As Hanukkah begins at sundown tonight, a Jewish environmental coalition is using the Festival of Lights - commemorating how one day's worth of ritual lamp oil miraculously lasted for eight days - to promote energy conservation.

Members of about 500 Jewish congregations and groups across the country will install compact fluorescent light bulbs in their synagogues and homes as part of a campaign to increase awareness about global warming.

"The question is, how long will our oil last?" said Barbara Lerman-Golomb, executive director of the New York-based Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. The group worked with the Jewish Council on Public Affairs to launch the effort.

During winter, which is generally the darkest and coldest time of year, "you're thinking a lot about light. We're looking at our fuel bills," Lerman-Golomb said. "It's really a very natural time to be thinking about this connection."

In Maryland, nine synagogues or groups, including Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, University of Maryland Hillel and East Bank Havurah, are helping members switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs to reduce the amount of electricity needed, which in turn would lower greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. At Baltimore Hebrew, for example, members of the women's group sold fluorescent bulbs this fall, some as Hanukkah gifts.

More and more faith communities have embraced environmental issues, advocating for policy change from a theological perspective, said Eric M. Woodrum, a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University.

"There is an expanding awareness of environmental issues by religious institutions as with other institutions," he said. "Some of them forge or identify connections with various kinds of religious tenets."

Though a minor holiday, consciousness of Hanukkah is often amplified because it is celebrated close to Christmas. It marks the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after the overthrow of second-century Syrian invaders.

During the eight-night festival, candles on the menorah are lit at sundown - one for each night. Foods fried in oil such as doughnuts and latkes, or potato pancakes, are traditionally eaten, and small gifts are exchanged.

The coalition's program is the first phase of a larger campaign, "A Light Among the Nations," intended to raise awareness of global warming.

"It's the idea that taking this small step of changing to the compact fluorescent light bulb is really the first step in many larger actions that we hope people will take," Lerman-Golomb said.

Coalition staff designed activities for different groups, including families, youths and congregations. They anticipate selling as many as 50,000 fluorescent light bulbs, offered at a discount to participating groups.

Each fluorescent bulb uses 75 percent less energy than incandescent lights, Lerman-Golomb said. Fluorescent bulbs cost more to purchase initially, but the energy savings make up the difference.

They also take about eight times longer to burn out, she added.

Some congregations made menorahs fitted with fluorescent lights in honor of the campaign. Other groups plan to install the light bulbs in their homes and synagogues while reading "Let there be light" blessings.

The Sisterhood, a women's group at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, has sold at least half of the fluorescent light bulbs the group ordered for its annual holiday boutique in October, said Naomi Benzil, a past president who organized the campaign.

"We thought that this would be an unusual or innovative Hanukkah gift idea," she said.

The environmental campaign is "really giving new meaning to the holiday in a way," Benzil said. "We talked about the candle and making one light last. Here's a way of conserving the light of a bulb."

As part of a broader environmental education, some religious groups, such as Baltimore Hebrew and East Bank Havurah, a congregation that meets in members' homes in the Baltimore area, have presented screenings of An Inconvenient Truth, a film about the threat of global warming.

East Bank Havurah also held study sessions around the ideas of conservation and Jewish texts, said member Stephen Siegel.

At the University of Maryland, Hillel has begun to educate its members about topics such as composting and water conservation as interest in environmental issues has grown on campus, said senior Yael Kletter, who coordinated the light bulb project.

Members began selling the light bulbs in front of the student union about a month ago, she said.

Tomorrow, students will gather at Hillel for a light bulb installation ceremony before lighting menorahs at sundown.

Humor has been part of the strategy for increasing awareness. The student group played off the tongue-in-cheek alternate name for the campaign - "How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?" - by sponsoring a Jewish-themed light-bulb joke contest, Kletter said.

They will announce the winning entry at tomorrow's installation.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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