Diaspora Jews, Israelis team up to build a cleaner Israel

Throw 30 environmentalists into a room and they're going to want to fix something. At least that's what Lisa Gann-Perkal is counting on.

The former director of the San Francisco Israel Center was back in the city recently to check on the progress of the Jewish Global Environmental Network, a new program that aims to match up environmental workers and activists from around the world with their Israeli counterparts.

"What we identified is that a disproportionate percentage of environmental leadership is Jewish. What we're working to do is not so much take people who direct Jewish environmental organizations but Jews who are working in the environmental world and just happen to be Jewish," said Gann-Perkal, who now resides in Jerusalem.

"This is not unlike the programs we used to do at the Israel Center. It's a living bridge."

Gann-Perkal is now the program director of the Jewish Agency's People-to-People center, one of several organizations that have combined to launch the environmental program. Israeli and worldwide environmentalists will meet in Israel from Nov. 9 to 16. Contact Shanna Pittman at (510) 839-2900 ext. 275 for more information.

In addition to being Jewish, many of the U.S. environmental leaders are also Bay Area residents — so it's no surprise that the program's North American coordinator, Shanna Pittman, works out of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay in Oakland.

Interest in the program is running high in Israel, where, according to Pittman, far more environmentalists are applying for the 15 or so spots on the program than there is room for. Stateside, Pittman feels she has already "locked in" about seven environmental professionals and is confident that number will easily double.

Once in Israel, the group will focus on "whatever motivates them" according to Gann-Perkal. In the first year, programs are expected to be Israel-related, but, in seasons to come, the international teams of environmentalists could focus on any spot in the globe from Argentina to Zanzibar.

Pittman notes that Bay Area Jewish environmental professionals have enthusiastically brought possible projects to the table, and David Goldstein is no exception.

The co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's energy program in San Francisco, Goldstein played a large role in the national adoption of minimum-efficiency standards for buildings and appliances, which has not only aided the environment but saved Americans billions of dollars.

He feels similar work could be a huge benefit to Israelis.

"The kind of projects we've done in California have had a demonstrable value for other regions of the world, and in particular, improving the efficiency of buildings and appliances will be important for Israel," said Goldstein, the winner of a MacArthur Foundation "genius award" last year.

Asked to list environmental projects that would be of use to Israelis, Goldstein doesn't skip a beat.

He's highly interested in lobbying Israeli developers to avoid American-style suburban sprawl, which necessitates car ownership, and he would also like to promote the establishment of utility companies akin to California's, which encourage conservation and alternative energy.

"More people have been killed on Israel's highways in the last two years than with bombs," he notes.

His No. 1 priority, however, is pushing energy-efficient buildings and appliances.

"Heating, cooling and water-heating appliances use over a third of the energy in the United States. Everyone thinks of cars, which use 18 to 20 percent, but forgets about the buildings, which are almost twice as big. As a result of [state building energy-efficiency standards], most people living in California don't even know their buildings are different from the rest of the country, and they've saved tens of billions of dollars and avoided a lot of pollution."

Goldstein, who has been to Israel several times, noted that "just from visiting and looking casually, it's clear that the level and insulation and the quality of windows in Israel is not what it ought to be."

The program immediately grabbed his attention because "I've had a strong interest over the years in doing international collaborations, because they are generally the areas where you get the most bang for your buck as far as environmental improvement for the amount of time and effort you put in it."

Engaging minds like Goldstein's is what the program is all about, said Gann-Perkal. Through the Jewish Global Environmental Network, Jews who might not have done otherwise are given a chance to make Israeli connections and work for a better Israel.

"This is not a one-shot thing," she said. "It's about building world ties."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.