Israeli ecologist speaks at temples; rain garden created at Temple Sinai

Israeli ecologist speaks at temples; rain garden created at Temple Sinai

Temple Sinai students were hard at work creating a rain garden, Sunday, Oct. 21, on the grounds of the synagogue. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Ronald B.B. Symons)
Temple Sinai students were hard at work creating a rain garden, Sunday, Oct. 21, on the grounds of the synagogue. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Ronald B.B. Symons)

Alex Cicelsky wants to create more than just sustainable communities; he wants to create cradle-to-cradle sustainable communities.

And he wants to make Israel a center of the sustainability movement.

That means leading a completely renewable life, from living in homes fashioned from renewable materials, to generating renewable energy, to harvesting water, to flushing no water, composting toilets (so to speak).

“Cradle-to-cradle is where we have to go,” Cicelsky said. “Resources cost too much and can be used just once.”

Cicelsky, a founder and director of the Center for Creative Ecology, a project of Kibbutz Lotan in Israel, was in Pittsburgh this weekend to speak at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill and Temple David in Monroeville, and to recruit students for its college and post-graduate programs at the center. ARZA, the Reform Zionist organization, brought him to Pittsburgh.

He also joined with students from Temple Sinai Sunday to establish a rain garden on the grounds of the synagogue. More on that later.

The programs attract dozens of students each year from around the world — Jew and non-Jew — who use what they learn at Lotan to establish their own ecocentric projects in their home countries.

A woman from Namibia used what she learned to establish an orphanage in the southern African nation, and a musically inclined American Jew named Isaac studied sustainable construction at Lotan so he could build a performing arts center in Ghana, where he teaches African drumming. He’s also working on a project to construct semipermanent housing in the west African state for refugees.

In Israel, four graduates of the center have started a new construction business called Bottz (mud), which builds using renewable materials.

Two of the center’s instructors — Eliza Mayo and Leah Zigmund — come from the Pittsburgh area.

“We teach how to build sustainable communities,” Cicelsky said. “And this is a model for larger government systems.”

The global nature of Kibbutz Lotan is reflected in its location. Situated in the Arava  — one of the hottest spots on earth — it is literally right on the border with Jordan.  

In fact, “The end of the kibbutz is the border with Jordan,” Cicelsky said. Yet there’s no shooting. Instead, members of the kibbutz have worked with Jordanian date growers to improve their yields using sustainable techniques.

“We see them as part of our community,” he said.

Founded in 1983 by alumni of Reform Youth movements of America and Israel, Lotan is a community that fosters Jewish renewal, equality, economic cooperation and ecology.

Not everyone gets the relationship between Judaism and ecology, he lamented, recalling one woman who visited the kibbutz and asked what was Jewish about it?    

“What’s Jewish abut this place,” he recalled telling her, “is I’m a Jew, living in a Jewish state, doing Jewish things for the Jewish people and the world,” Cicelsky said. “That’s what Zionism is.”

• • •

As part of its ongoing efforts to be environmentally conscious, Temple Sinai began work Sunday on a rain garden that will be fed by gutter runoff and will keep excess water from emptying into the sewer system.

Temple member Zelda Curtiss, a retired environmental law attorney, is leading the project with assistance from Sarah Madden, a design manager with the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, and the Audubon Society.

“The rain gardens are designed to make sure that soil is drained in a way to put less water in a storm sewer,” Curtiss said. “It will connect several rain barrels to several downspouts. One of them will nourish the rain garden, and the others will be used for other gardens around the building.”

The project saw Temple Sinai’s sixth grade religious school students helping remove grass from the area, and rototilling the soil in preparation for planting a variety of foliage that can grow in both wet and dry conditions.

While the rain garden project will be duplicated at a few other sites around the region, Temple Sinai is so far the only religious institution to participate in the project.

“I hope we’re only the first of many,” Curtiss said. “We’re trying to set an example.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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