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February 17, 2012

One Activist's Vision Becomes Community Article of Faith


Longtime Sierra Club member Jan Freed of Los Angeles has for years been making efforts to conserve energy and reduce his environmental footprint. But the former high school science teacher had a larger vision: that his synagogue, Temple Sinai in Glendale, California, go solar.
After the synagogue had an energy audit a couple years ago, Freed asked Mark Lavender, the president of the congregation's lay leadership, what they were paying monthly for electricity. "We'd installed compact fluorescent bulbs," Freed says, "but still our electricity costs were way too high."

Fast-forward to January 29, 2012, when Glendale Temple Sinai dedicated its new 125-panel solar array, which will produce up to 44,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year and ultimately save the congregation an estimated $1,000 a month.


Above, the new Temple Sinai solar array nears completion. Below, members of the congregation ceremonially cut the cost of their monthly electricity bill. That's Freed in red shirt, right of center.


“We are all here because of the vision of one man who started us on the path of true environmental sustainability,” said Rabbi Richard Schechter, below left, at the solar array dedication ceremony.


When Freed met with Lavender two years ago to broach the idea of the temple going green, he was already considering installing solar panels on his home. "I'd done some pretty extensive research, and I explained to Mark that the energy savings for Temple Sinai, over the loan costs, would make the system cash-positive from the start"
Lavender said Freed should take the matter to the board of directors, which he did, bringing in a representative from a solar company who outlined an actual proposal for the project and answered questions. But the board balked at the up-front cost.

"He came to the board and we looked at him like, 'You’re insane,'" recalls Eddy Polon, the temple's executive vice-president.

Freed says one board member, a procurement officer at Cal Tech, was quite positive—"she felt the project was a no-brainer. But others thought it was pie-in-the-sky, and that we simply couldn't afford it."
So Freed formed a committee of like-minded congregants, including the math-savvy son of a contractor who'd done large-scale solar installations, to convince the board that the project was feasible. Below, Solar Sinai committee members David Gross and Preston Oppenheimer (left), and Freed talking to Victoria Kirschenbaum of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign and Allis Druffle of California Interfaith Power and Light.


Undaunted by the board's skepticism, the committee gave multiple presentations over the next year-and-a-half. And in late 2010, Freed decided to make the move and put solar on his own home, partly to help convince the board it was a rational thing to do.
Meanwhile, he wrote an open letter to the congregation in the temple's newsletter, laying out his motives, his reasons, and how the project would work. "I talked about Jewish values and our obligation as a community to take action," he says. "We have to walk the talk"
He ended by saying, "If you don't support this because of climate change, support it because it will save money."
Slowly but surely, the board of directors came around. "The reason the project finally happened is because Mark, the Temple President, didn't close the door," Freed says. "He saw the proposals, he saw the Solar Committee was unanimous in supporting the move, and he saw that the project fulfilled the requirement of being cash-positive very quickly."


The Solar Committee solicited bids from five different solar companies, and the board of directors eventually awarded the contract to Moore Solar. Installation commenced in December, above, and the system, which will provide over one-third of the temple's electricity, was dedicated on January 29.


Above, congregants gather for the dedication ceremony. Below, Freed is recognized for being the catalyst for the project.

The solar panels, which have a guaranteed life of 25 years, and typically last closer to 40, were activated on February 6. That day, Mark Lavender penned a letter to other non-profit religious organizations considering solar electric power: "It is a wonderful thing to see at least one of our GWP (Glendale Water & Power) meters running backward," he wrote. "Our community is proud to have completed this project."

That's Lavendar below, second from right in light blue shirt, at the solar dedication ceremony; Rabbi Schechter is at far left.

Temple Sinai, which has a lease arrangement with Moore Solar, will immediately begin seeing average savings of $350 per month. Once it buys out the lease in seven years, the temple will save approximately $1,000 a month. If there is no rate increase, the savings over 25 years will be roughly $200,000. But rates have historically increased by about 7 percent annually, which would bring the 25-year savings closer to $900,000.

At left, below, Eddy Polon, the congregation's executive vice-president, who organized the successful fundraising campaign to raise the down payment for the lease. "Eddie did a lot of work once the contract was signed, and was always supportive," says Freed. "More than half the congregation has contributed to the project with donations for the down payment."

Ultimately, Freed believes the spiritual benefits of going green are every bit as compelling as the cost savings. "There's a clear public benefit in getting us off coal that kills thousand of people every year," he says. "Our business as a religious community, if there is one, is to do what's right. What a great joy to find so many at Temple Sinai who enthusiastically supported that view!"

Freed invites other churches or temples considering going solar to contact him at <>.

Photographs by Leonard Coutin


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