San Francisco — In its effort to elevate the issue of energy independence, the venerable American Jewish Committee has pushed for policy change in Washington, “greened” its own New York headquarters and even offered cash incentives for its employees to buy hybrid cars.
Now, the group is trying to tap the power of a new generation of young leaders, for whom green issues are central to the expression of their Jewish identity. Earlier this month in this hub of West Coast environmentalism, the AJC’s young leadership umbrella (ACCESS) held its first conference on environmental issues, dubbed “J-REC, the Jewish Response to the Energy Challenge.”
The daylong event at the Jewish Community Center here drew more than 200 people, many of them environmental experts from the Jewish community.
As the conference was taking place, simultaneous live Web casts took place in Jerusalem, Kibbutz Ketura in Israel’s Arava Desert, Chicago, Denver and New York drawing another 200 people. Conference organizers set for themselves a lofty — and likely difficult — goal: to unify the Jewish community in combating the global energy crisis.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen in one room a Jewish farmer, Jewish venture capitalists, and everyone coalescing around this one major issue,” said political analyst Ari Wallach, a speaker on one of the conference panels. He organized the “Great Schlep” campaign for Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election.
When budding clean-tech lawyer Jonathan Axelrad moved from New York to San Francisco last year, he immediately began work on the AJC conference and mission, believing that clean energy and U.S. energy independence were issues young people would be charged up about. But he knew he couldn’t do it alone.
In a stroke of luck, recent Stanford University graduate Lyuba Wolf happened to walk into Axelrad’s office in search of a pro-bono attorney for her student greening organization, Energy Crossroads. Instantly, Axelrad realized he had met his environmental other-half.
“That’s when the mission became a movement,” Axelrad told The Jewish Week. “We went back to AJC ACCESS and said that we want to organize a unified movement in the Jewish community to respond to what we’re calling the ‘energy challenge,’ which is transforming an oil- and fossil fuel-based economy to clean and secure energy sources.” In the end, the mission attracted 20 AJC young leaders to San Francisco for the conference, post-conference round tables and site visits to clean-tech business in the Bay Area.
“It’s about finding the levels of relevance to the broader Jewish community, be it security issues or response to climate change,” he added.
Axelrad, 36, works in clean-tech law for venture firm Wilson Sonsini, while Wolf, 24, is now an analyst at Tesla Motors, which produces high-performance electric sports cars. Wolf said she was initially skeptical about the project because she doesn’t typically view large Jewish federations and institutions as particularly friendly toward young people, since they likely can’t become donors anytime soon.
But she quickly warmed to the AJC and Axelrad. For six months, the two worked with a team of other Bay Area young professionals and AJC staff members in New York to bring together environmental scholars, scientists and clean-tech entrepreneurs for a day of debating and strategizing about what comes next.
“We have a tremendous potential as a community to influence the debate around clean energy,” Axelrad said. He hopes the weekend’s participants will carry the need for change back to their home synagogues and other Jewish organizations, encouraging cleaner energy practices at institutions and in the homes of individual congregants and members.
For Axelrad and Wolf, clean-tech energy policy reform is a bipartisan issue; it’s one, they say, that Jews of all political and religious stripes come together on, sometimes for different reasons. The very religious, they say, can see energy reform as a kind of tikkun olam [repairing the world], while secular Zionists can view oil independence as a way to maintain Israel’s security in the Middle East.
Conference speakers agreed and voiced the conviction that the Jewish community had the power to sway policy on the energy independence issue.
“The other world religions are really looking to us because of our history” of adapting and solving problems, said Yosef Abramowitz, founder of the Israeli solar company Arava Power. Abramowitz advocates an Israel that is 100 percent renewably powered and a model to the rest of the world — “a renewable light unto the nations,” so to speak.
Adam Werbach, CEO of the sustainability consulting firm Saatchi and Saatchi S, stressed how important it is that American and Israeli Jews contribute to what has now become a global cause. He hopes that, in turn, the United States will help mobilize other countries at the upcoming COP15 United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Copenhagen next month.
“The threat of someone dying tonight because they don’t have energy is real,” Werbach said. “[Helping solve the problem] is actually something that will be a light to the world.”
Other conference participants stressed how turning to alternative energy sources like solar and wind power will be a light unto Israel, a country surrounded by Arab nations who thrive on oil production and sales.
“We decided on Sept. 11 that the need for energy security made it more important than it might have been on any other day,” said Henry Dubinsky, chair of the AJC’s Energy Committee, who noted that AJC was having its first energy-planning meeting as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. “It is from that day that many of our initiatives on energy efficiency have come.”
During a smaller meeting with young professionals the day after the conference, participant Haim Zaltzman reminded the group that for every $5 increase in the price of a barrel of gasoline, Iran’s national budget increases by $500 million. Last year, Iran alone gave Hezbollah $30 million, said Zaltzman, who is an associate at Latham & Watkins LLP in San Francisco, and the former co-chair of AJC ACCESS NY’s Energy Task Force.
“In order to get [to energy independence] — to meet the challenges — the United States is certainly the country that has to take the leadership,” said Eitan Yudelevich, executive director of the Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Foundation, which focuses on Israeli-American energy cooperation. “We all know that and the world knows that. That’s why we think this U.S.-Israel cooperation is so important because Israel can certainly support that leadership.”
Another such organization that is focusing its efforts on energy independence is I-SAEF: Israel Alternative Energy Security Research, a nonprofit that raises money for Israeli research into clean energy sources.
“Do we want our children and grandchildren to buy energy from countries that politically feel it’s correct not to have Israel on the map?” said Galina Leytes, co-founder of I-SAEF with her husband Lev. “That really got us thinking, What can we do? What can we contribute?”
Currently, some of these alternative energy sources include solar power, bio-fuel and wind power, which the AJC younger leaders learned about in detail after the conference during a day of site visits to SolarCity and Solazyme in Silicon Valley and Pacific Gas & Electric in San Francisco. While much of Europe and Israel use a “feed-in tariff” to fund home solar energy, the United States provides a tax credit to users.
In Israel, one company at the forefront of solar energy development is Arava Power, located at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava region near Eilat. Its founder, Yosef Abramowitz, said he strongly believes Israel needs to position itself as the global leader in solar energy, particularly because of the enormous amount of sunlight available to the country. Currently, he explained, Germany is the world leader even though it has very little sunshine. Unlike Germany, nearly 60 percent of Israel is desert, and the Negev has more than double Germany’s sunlight, according to Abramowitz.
Arava Power, Abramowitz said, recently received a $15 million investment from Siemens AG in Germany. “The solar fields in the Arava are going to be the most productive.”
The Israeli government has already licensed Arava Power to use 20 acres of land on Kibbutz Ketura to build the largest continuous solar field in Israel, Abramowitz said. The project should be connected to the national power grid next summer, meeting a tiny but perhaps symbolic fraction of Israel’s energy needs.
Another solar power company, BrightSource Energy, originated in Israel but soon found a home in California, where it is installing its first 440-megawatt project. Although the project is in the U.S., BrightSource is also looking forward to making headway in the Jewish state.
“It’s hard to imagine solar without Israel,” said Arthur Haubenstock, general counsel for BrightSource, during a panel discussion at J-REC. “There’s the opportunity for Israel to be the test-bed for all the products that are desperately needed.”
Comments like Haubenstock’s were just what “J-REC” organizers Axelrad and Wolf had hoped to generate at their pilot conference.
Next stop, they say, is clean energy policy coming to a shul or JCC near you
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