How to green a synagogue

Adat Shalom member Shelley Rudick demonstrates the Bethesda congregation’s storm basin improvement project at the Sacred Grounds Workshop.
Photo by Josh Marks

From free trees to rain garden rebates, Montgomery County’s faith community learned how to green their congregations on the Sunday before Earth Day at Adat Shalom in Bethesda.

More than 60 people representing nearly 40 houses of worship participated in the Sacred Grounds Workshop where they heard about funding and resources for creating environmentally friendly landscapes that help to reduce stormwater runoff and restore local watersheds.

“The number one source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay from urban and suburban areas is stormwater runoff,” said Kolya Braun-Greiner, program manager at Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, one of the event’s hosts along with Interfaith Power & Light, the National Wildlife Federation and Montgomery County’s Department of Environmental Protection RainScapes Program. The event was funded by the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

RainScapes Program Manager Ann English said that many congregations in the county don’t have any way to manage stormwater and that it costs the county $2 million a mile to repair the damage from runoff – 70 percent of which comes from congregations and other private property, primarily from rooftops, parking lots and driveways.

“People think it’s the roads but the roads are catching the water from private property. The runoff starts on private property,” said English. “So if we can catch it close to the source, we actually have a much better chance that if any one little part fails it’s not a catastrophe. If we wait until the end of the line and that fails, it’s a big problem.”

Added English: “It takes a long time to restore a biological system called the watershed.”

Drainage projects eligible for the RainScapes Rewards Rebate Program include planting rain gardens, conservation landscaping with native plants, planting a new tree canopy, replacing hard surfaces with permeable pavers, removing pavement, installing a green roof and reducing rooftop rainwater runoff with rain barrels, cisterns and dry wells.

Workshop participants walked around the grounds, past Adat Shalom’s Mishnah Garden – a vegetable garden managed by congregants – to a storm basin that is now rimmed, in part, by a rain garden. The work was done over the past two years.

Adat Shalom members Shelley Rudick and Bill Halpern explained the process of gaining community support for the storm basin project and also taking advantage of the county’s rebate program.

“It’s a program that builds as you start talking about it at your congregation. Excitement builds. And when they see it happen that’s when they get really excited,” said Rudick.

The rebate program provided $6,000 that allowed the congregation to place 2,500 native plants in a 2,500 square foot area. The financial incentive paid for the plants, mulch, compost and hiring a landscaper to take out the existing lawn.

“We found out that if we can connect with the county that we can gradually transform that area not just into wildlife habitat but into a rain garden with the intention of absorbing more water and more pollutants and in doing so we would help our watershed but we also could get a financial rebate to do this work,” said Adat Shalom member Naomi Edelson, who is also the director of state and federal partnerships at National Wildlife Federation. The organization worked with Adat Shalom on the storm basin project through its Sacred Grounds faith-based certified wildlife habitat program.

Edelson suggested easy ways to attract wildlife to congregations. For example, planting milkweed can help restore the population of the monarch butterfly because it is a host plant for the butterfly, whose population had dropped markedly.

She said NWF is collaborating with U.S. Forest Service and University of Delaware on a smart phone app that identifies native plants by zip code.

This fall, Montgomery County’s new tree program will be providing free trees to congregations, homes and businesses. The county will plant the shade trees and take care of them for up to two years at no cost.

Concluding the workshop, Interfaith Power & Light Director Joelle Novey posed a challenge to the participants as they headed back to their congregations to pitch projects like green roofs and permeable pavers to sometimes skeptical clergy, congregants and lay leaders.

Said Novey: “I am pushing for all of you to be the kinds of prophetic religious leaders that can reframe greening projects and caring for creation as expressions of the core mission for which your congregation was created and in order to do that you need to think about what the mission of your congregation is in the world.”

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