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Allegheny College Student Helps Synagogue Become Carbon-Neutral

An Allegheny College student's senior project has resulted in what is believed to be the first carbon-neutral synagogue in the country. Located in Erie, PA, Temple Anshe Hesed neutralized its carbon footprint--the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions for which it is responsible--by collaborating in a carbon-offset program with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, located in the desert of southern Israel. The institute prepares future Arab and Jewish leaders to cooperatively solve the Middle East's environmental challenges.

A carbon-offset program allows an organization to reduce its carbon footprint by paying for technology to meet another organization's energy needs without creating carbon emissions. Temple Anshe Hesed purchased solar panels that the Arava Institute will install to generate electricity for its campus.

Because of its remote location, the institute currently must purchase electricity produced from fossil fuels at a facility 150 miles away, with an estimated 15 percent of that power lost during transmission.

Temple Anshe Hesed already had taken steps to reduce its carbon footprint by installing energy-efficient light bulbs and retrofitting parts of the synagogue's heating and cooling system. The synagogue enlisted Tara Fortier, at the time a student at Allegheny College, to develop a plan to participate in the Arava Institute's offset program, which its rabbi had learned about during a summer 2007 visit to Israel. Fortier, a double major in environmental studies and religious studies, found that Temple Anshe Hesed emitted 36.5 tons of carbon dioxide in 2007 from the use of electricity and natural gas.

She then calculated the cost for the synagogue to offset its emissions and developed a series of recommendations for them to fund solar panels at the Arava Institute. Fortier's senior project culminated with an event for the congregation held on Tu B'Shvat, known as "the Jewish Earth Day," to encourage interest in the institute and the offset program.

"The congregation was very welcoming on every level," said Fortier, who studied at the Arava Institute in summer 2007 and graduated from Allegheny in May 2008. "The monetary cost of progressive action can be substantial, but ultimately the congregation understands that the environmental cost of passivity is much more, and their beliefs drive them toward action."

Fortier's senior project built on existing ties between Allegheny and the Arava Institute. Eric Pallant, an environmental science professor who helped direct Fortier's study, taught as a Fulbright Scholar at the institute in 2001 and serves on the institute's board of trustees. In 2004, four student interns from the Arava Institute spent six weeks at the college working on local projects that promoted sustainable environmental practices.

"We have a strong relationship with both the Anshe Hesed congregation and Allegheny College and are very happy to have found a new and unique way to strengthen those ties," said David Lehrer, Arava Institute president. "The Temple Anshe Hesed initiative is a first for the Arava Institute. It is a kind of pilot project that, if it works, we hope to repeat with other congregations around North America in order to reach the ultimate goal of a carbon-neutral campus."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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