Why Is This Night Different?: Thoughts on Tu B’Shvat

By Richard H. Schwartz

By מרכז להב"ה מגאר Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25110674

Olive Tree. Photo: Pikiwiki Israel.

One of the highlights of the Passover seder is the recitation of the four questions which consider how the night of Passover differs from all the other nights of the year. Many questions are also appropriate for Tu B’Shvat, which starts on Friday evening, February 10, in 2017, because of the many ways that this holiday differs from Passover and all other nights of the year. [Read more…]

Grilling the Sustainable Way

— by Hannah Lee

At Sunday’s Greenfest sustainability fair, next to the Headhouse Square farmers’ market, I learned about a nifty new environmental product, the EcoGrill, made from old trees. It burns down completely to an environmentally safe ash, ready for fertilizing your garden. This product uses an ancient method of recycling dead trees that reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released in to the atmosphere.  

More after the jump.

Each EcoGrill looks slightly different, as they’re four-inch-high  rings cut from fallen black alder wood trees grown in the Baltics. (The center diameter is uniform, even if the outer perimeter varies.) The center is filled with alder charcoal–  not coal, oil, limestone, starch, sawdust, or petroleum products. Their use avoids two potentially carcinogenic compounds: PHAs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and HCAs (heterocyclic amines). The alder wood charcoal and casing have been certified by the Rainforest Alliance Smartwood Program as sustainably harvested.  

No lighter fluid is needed– you ignite the 100% green resin wick with a match instead– so it’s great for hikers too. Then place a fire-safe grate directly on top of the EcoGrill. The air circulation holes ensure the EcoGrill ignites evenly and burns completely. The 10″ center diameter is large enough for use with a kettle or frying pan. In about 20 minutes, the grill is ready for cooking. It’s capable of sustained cooking for up to 2.5-to-4 hours of grilling, or about four chickens.

The owners, Egils K. Stemme and Yana Budkevics, are both first-generation Americans of Latvian decent. Yana’s husband, Janis Petersons, discovered the EcoGrill while visiting Latvia, where they’re manufactured. The sole U.S. distributor of the EcoGrill, their office is located in Southampton, PA. 215-364-5532.

The company’s reforestation program has planted 75,600 new saplings so far. Enough said, I was convinced and bought two EcoGrills that day, and I look forward to testing them for myself when I have a chance. In the meantime, do tell me how you like this product!

Food Chat: Vgë Café

— by Hannah Lee

Vegetarians, vegans, and diners on a budget can cheer for the opening of Vgë (pronounced vee-gee) Café in Bryn Mawr in late April.  People like me who like stories of second-chances can hope for the best for owner Fernando Peralta, a Brazilian who’d spent 17 years in finance when he decided to switch directions.  He went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh and, although he has been a vegetarian for seven years, he studied, prepared, and tasted the meat according to the curriculum.  Later, he did an externship in Akron, OH, at a Mediterranean-Italian vegetarian restaurant owned by Chrissie Hynde from the band The Pretenders.

More after the jump.
Why did he choose this location?  Peralta said the college-aged population and health-conscious residents in the area seemed like a great fit for his concept.  He said he’d traveled through most of the Northeast to do research and find a suitable spot for his restaurant.  “This area seemed like a phenomenal location,” Peralta said. “In the beginning, I was envisioning more sophisticated fine dining, but in this economy people can’t afford it.”

Peralta said that he and his friends have been frustrated by the shortage of affordable, fresh, and healthy choices for a casual meal.  Being vegetarians didn’t make it any easier.  “While some chains are making a true effort to bring healthier choices to their menus, the vast majority of quick-service options are based on empty carbohydrates (refined grains), bad fats, canned vegetables, and frozen or fried, highly processed foods,” said Peralta.  “Not to mention the excess sodium and high-fructose corn syrup, found in virtually every processed food in this industry.”

So, the new café offers whole grains instead of refined ones; baked foods instead of deep fried; natural sweeteners like applesauce or agave instead of refined sugars; dark leafy greens (richer in anti-oxidants than pale lettuces such as iceberg), and no canned vegetables.  The menu is animal-free and dairy-free, so the food has zero cholesterol.  They also eschew the use of saturated and hydrogenated fats.  Every item on the menu has less than 500 calories.
Peralta is developing a relationship with the local farmers to reduce his carbon footprint.  Items which are not available locally year-round, sometimes he buys frozen.  He said, “there are many studies indicating that quick-freezing vegetables will retain more nutrients and vitamins than transporting them at room temperature, when vitamins are more susceptible to oxidizing.”  Peralta cooks the food on location, from the scratch, from fresh ingredients, so he can control what goes into every item he sells.

Peralta has chosen for his café energy-efficient lighting and appliances, recyclable and compostable cups, packaging, bags and utensils. He is in the process getting the “green” certification from the Green Restaurant Association.

Vgë Café, located at 845 Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, is open Mondays- Thursdays from 11:30 am to 8:30 pm and Fridays-Saturdays from 11:30 am to 9:30 pm.  Catering available.  

How Green is Your Campus?

— by Hannah Lee

I returned home from a sojourn in California, engaged with sustainability issues, to receive the new issue of Sierra, the bimonthly publication of the Sierra Club.  The article that caught my eye was Dig In, its annual ranking of the environmental standing of  U.S. universities.  This year, they reached beyond the classrooms to assess “what lessons are learned when the classroom walls fall away.”  

The top of the class this year is

  1. The University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. Its score on the Sierra survey was 81.2.

Every building [at the University of Washington] completed since 2006 has earned a Gold accreditation from the  Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification system.  All of its appliances are Energy-Star rated and the hydro-powered campus runs three farms, an extensive recycling program, and the “conservation-research hotbed Pack Forest.”

UW’s Paccar Hall (see picture) achieved LEED certification for energy use, lighting, water and material use as well as incorporating a variety of other sustainable strategies. By using less energy and water, LEED certified building save money for families, businesses and taxpayers; reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and contribute to a healthier environment for residents, workers and the larger community.

More after the jump.
The other top schools are, in order:

  1. Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont (score, 81.1);
  2. University of California, San Diego (score, 80.6);
  3. Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina (score, 76.8);
  4. Stanford University in Palo Alto, California (score, 76.6);
  5. University of California, Irvine (score, 74.8);
  6. University of California, Santa Cruz (score, 74.3);
  7. University of California, Davis (score, 73.2);
  8. Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington (score, 72);
  9. Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont (score, 71.8).

    My alma mater, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, came in at number 33 (score, 64.1).

Accompanying articles focused on:

Also described are the non-conformist programs that are “miles from the mainstream” at:

  • Maharishi University of Management (built by the “giggling guru” in Fairfield, Iowa in which the curriculum balances “modern clean technology and 5.000-year-old Vedic philosophy based on Sanskrit texts”);
  • Deep Springs College, close by Yosemite, California (where students have mandatory farm labor requirements and the hydroelectric generator provides 80% of the school’s energy);
  • Gaia University with no real campus (“students earn degrees by documenting a project that involves any envy-inducing combination of world travel and social activism”); and
  • Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado (a curriculum grounded in Buddhism and which promotes compassion, including with the environmental movement).

Parents with younger children may be interested in the article on The Green School in Bali, Indonesia, a K-12 school that incorporates green philosophy from its open-air classrooms (like an inverted sukkah, with roofs but no walls) to its electives that include Global Perspectives, Environmental Management, and 21st Century Science.  I first heard of The Green School when my friend told me her daughter’s family was taking off to Bali for several months this past spring and I avidly followed their adventures on their blog (now taken down, since they’ve returned home).  This is a school where the children (and parents!) enthusiastically welcome the assignments, from a themed unit on water for the fifth-graders (as it relates to math, literature, and science), an aquaculture farm to raise tilapia; and the sixth-grade project to calculate the school’s annual carbon footprint, “then plant enough bamboo to offset it.”  The Green School has yet to graduate its first class (due in 2013), but if one can afford the $10,000 tuition, it’s an adventure worth blogging about.


Finally, the issue included profiles of the staffers deemed most committed to sustainability as a social movement:

  • Howard Davis of the University of the District of Columbia;
  • Megan Zanella-Litke of the University of Richmond (Virginia);
  • Sid England of the University of California, Davis; and
  • Jeremy Friedman of New York University.  As Manager of Sustainability Initiatives for a student body of 40,000 (more than four times the number of people who live in my hometown),

Friedman views his mandate thus:

“The values that underlie my work are the same values that underlie my whole life.  It’s a holistic worldview, and for me the challenge of transforming our world is a very personal and political project.  I see my job as creating the capacity for real change and then allowing countless individuals who care to lend their sweat and knowledge to the enormous task of transforming the world around us.  We need to imbed sustainability across all levels of society more quickly than any social movement in history has ever done before.  It’s a time when some of the most important efforts aren’t the most glamorous ones.”

Among the reasons I went to California was to attend the Hazon Food Conference, held for the first time at the University of California, Davis campus.  What a thrill it was for me to celebrate Shabbat with 300 other people who were passionate about a sustainable future.  The marvel was how many young folks were in attendance and how many had stories of their own works-in-progress.  I feel so positive that my daughters’ generation would — no, will — undertake the task of managing our resources to ensure a renewable future.

A Lesson in Sustainability from the Makers of Notre Dame

— Dr. Daniel E. Loeb

My writing has been scarce recently because of a family vacation to France for my niece’s Bat Mitzvah. However, an important lesson occurred to me yesterday while cruising down the Seine on a charming bateau mouche.

First, I was reminded that the Cathedral Notre Dame took nearly 200 years to construct (1163-1345 CE). Building such an enormous edifice without modern technology is a monument to the dedication and vision of the people and the church at that time.  Bishop de Sully devoted most of his life and his wealth to a project whose fruition he would never witness. However, the logic of time inspired people to attain immortality by devoting themselves to works of timeless grandeur.

Today, consumers demand immediate satisfaction for their desires. CEOs look no further than the balance sheet on their next quarterly report. And politicians are concerned only with the upcoming election (as well as the quarter-to-quarter fundraising battle and the daily poll tracking numbers associated with it).

More after the jump.
Conservationists warn that the world may already have hit peak oil production, but business interests counter that this problem may still be 30 or 40 years out.  They conclude that we do not have to worry about it. How short-sighted is that? Even if we had enough oil to cope with exponentially growing consumption over the next 200 years, then what? How egotistical would it be for us to conclude that we do not have to prepare for a post-fossil fuel economy.

Those who have faith in the invisible hand as conceived by Adam Smith are doomed to waste our resources and our environment with little concern for future generations. In my article, Every Economic Cloud Has A Silver Lining, I explained how narrow-minded profit maximization leads us to destroy resources unless their sustainable yield is superior to the interest rate. How foolish is it for us to tie fate of our planet’s bounty to the interest rates set by Central Banks!

It is taken as axiomatic that the economy is suffering if our consumption does not increase 5% year upon year. Yet who truly believes that our current level of consumer demand is sustainable? Where will our planet be in 200 years?

Upon returning to the port, we saw the iconic Eiffel Tower and learned that Gustav Eiffel only had a permit for the tower to stand for 20 years. The tower had been built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle (the World’s Fair celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution), and it was intended to be demolished around the turn of the century.  However, those plans were set aside and the building stood as the tallest man-made structure in the world until 1930 when the Chrysler Building was built in New York City. Today, the Eiffel Tower still dominates the Paris skyline. Such a feat in our era of planned negligence is unheard of. Who today would bother designing a structure capable of weathering the elements for over 120 years when he only had a 20-year permit!

According to Annie Leonard:

What percentage of total material flow through our system is still in product or in use six months after being sold in North America? 50 percent? 20 percent? NO. One percent.
One! In other words, 99 percent of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport-99 percent of the stuff we run through this
system is trashed within 6 months. Now how can we run a planet with that rate of waste.


Tinkerers and pot-menders are long gone as simple devices make way for more complicated appliances which are no longer designed to be repaired and replaced, but rather to be thrown out and replaced. Replacement is an accomplishment for those who venerate the GDP, but an eye-sore and a health hazard for those concerned by our environment.