The desire to be more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly is beginning to see some daylight at Chabad centers.

Leading the way is the Lubavitch Yeshiva-International School for Chabad Leadership in Oak Park, Mich., a boy’s high school for students around the world. Its new multimillion-dollar building comes complete with a state-of-the-art solar array on its roof, designed and engineered by, a web-based solar engineering company.

It is expected to save the school more than $300,000 in energy costs over the next 20 years, while at the same time provide a sustainable and environmentally friendly power source.

The project was funded by Alan and Lori Zekelman, philanthropists from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., who have been the school’s major benefactors for some 25 years now. The Zekelmans, along with Rabbi Mendel Stein, development director of the school, preferred the idea of using natural energy and resources.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—under whose leadership this school was founded was a strong proponent of environmental stewardship,” explains Stein. “He believed that G‑d bestowed upon us plentiful resources of energy, starting with the sun, which is freely available and much easier to harness than other resources. He also believed that harnessing this energy as a fulfillment of G‑d’s command will provide long-term stability for our country.

“As an institution that embodies these beliefs, we are proud to have installed a full array of solar panels so we can actually use one of G‑d’s magnificent resources in a physical way.”

Panels such as these require a large amount of cash up front, but it was financially beneficial for this educational institution because an investor was on hand, says Stein.

Solar panels on the roof absorb light coming from the sun and translate it into energy, enabling the building to run electricity off of it. “It goes into the main electrical box, and then whatever we use in the building pulls off of it,” explains the rabbi. “About 15 percent of our electricity comes from the solar energy; the rest is from a regular provider.”

As prices continue to fall, solar energy is increasingly becoming an economical energy choice for American homeowners and businesses, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It noted that the biggest hurdle to affordable solar energy remains the soft costs—like permitting, zoning and hooking up a solar system to the power grid.

Guarding the World

While some Chabad centers that lean towards green require substantial investments in new construction, others are being done through gradual upgrades to existing facilities.

Rabbi Zalmy Kudan, youth director of Chabad of Santa Barbara, Calif., has grown an organic garden in the past for his preschool and now has solar panels on the roof of the Chabad House. Kudan, too, had a donor in his community who favored renewable energy and sustainability, and therefore sponsored the panels and garden.

Rabbi Yosef Loschak, co-director of Chabad of Santa Barbara, Calif., was one of the first pioneers to use solar energy for a Chabad House.
Rabbi Yosef Loschak, co-director of Chabad of Santa Barbara, Calif., was one of the first pioneers to use solar energy for a Chabad House.

“Our school, shul, camp, Talmud Torah, Hebrew school are all in one building,” he says. “Everything we do is powered by Hashem’s sun.”

It helps, too, that panels have long insurance guarantees, and that, at least in Santa Barbara’s case, there have been zero maintenance costs associated with the panels since they were installed five years ago, according to the directors.

Rabbi Yosef Loschak, co-director of Chabad of Santa Barbara and one of the first pioneers using solar energy for a Chabad House, says that “it’s nice not to receive an electricity bill every month.”

He says that the building, constructed about 15 years ago, generates a very minimal monthly electric fee—about $21.

Loschak explains that they are hooked up to the grid; so even at night, when they are obviously not producing any electricity, they still have electricity from Edison. “At the end of the year, we usually break even; we produce about the same amount of electricity that we use.”

As part of a YouTube video, Loschak spoke about what this change in energy use represents: “When I look at my grandchildren and I look at the solar panels, I see that I’m helping to ensure that their future should be a future, a safer future, a more important future—a future where they can recognize how we can use what G‑d gave us in a passive way, in a way which will enable them to get the most out of the world we live in.

“We have had many people come by and look at the panels, and everybody says the same thing—how wonderful they look, these panels. And they do indeed look wonderful, and it’s a beautiful addition to our preschool.”

As for the installation, the rabbi notes that it was “as painless as possible. We’ve built other buildings before, and this was like a walk in the park.”

For Rabbi Moshe Plotkin, co-director of Chabad of New Paltz, N.Y., it wasn’t difficult to find an architect that specializes in sustainable living to build his Chabad House five years ago. In his verdant town, eco-friendly homes are on the rise.

According to Plotkin, there’s a developer aiming for zero-cost houses that produce more energy than they consume. This trend had a slight effect on Plotkin’s decision to build a new, sustainable Chabad center attached to the back of his house, but his real motivation focused on the idea that the holistic approach works best with Judaism.

“It’s the idea of bal tashchis (not being wasteful), of stewardship of the world,” explains Plotkin. “Judaism believes that people are put in this world to guard it and to work it. It says in Bereishis that Adam was put into the world in order to guard it and take care of it.”

Although Plotkin says it’s hard to prove returns and that it takes decades to see whether it’s really worth it economically, he took many sustainable leaps even without any donors specifically investing in his project.

His architect built insulation materials to keep heat down to minimize the amount of oil needed for heating and placed the kitchen at the center of the house so its heat transfers throughout the building. Also installed were bamboo hardwood floors instead of the commonly used oak or maple; bamboo grows back every five years, compared to about 50 years for trees to mature.

The Chabad House of New Paltz doesn’t have solar panels, but windows are positioned to enable maximum natural light so that no electric lights are necessary during the day. The rooms were also designed to maximize heat retention.

“The Rebbe once said we have this technology today to be oil-free if we want to,” says Plotkin. “We just haven’t put it into practice.