It was a rainy day in Fort Collins, Colorado in March when six students gathered around a neon green GMC truck. The truck wasn’t broken down. The issue: How to securely fasten a 300 pound chicken coop for the drive to Colorado State University Hillel.
They made it, coop intact, helping CSU Hillel become the first Hillel in the country with a working chicken coop.
“This is really a mansion for chickens,” said Alex Amchislavskiy, Hillel campus director at CSU. “Hillel is a home away from home for students. Now it’ll be a home for chickens as well.”
Amchislavskiy and Nevan Mandel, CSU Hillel's sustainability intern, create a fence for the chicken coop.
Hillels are increasingly going green. Three have already installed solar panels on top of their buildings. Illini Hillel has installed three environmentally-friendly LED lights for the eternal flames on their ark. Green activist and former Congressional candidate Erin Schrode has also recently spoken at several Hillels across the country about how individual students can reduce their carbon footprint.
“The Torah's teachings around sustainability are especially enlightening: ‘One is forbidden to eat before giving food to one's animals’ (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 40a),” said Amchislavskiy. “This teaches incredible sensitivity to others that is needed in this world. That is what I hope my students learn from caring for our chickens.”
Made possible by a grant from Hazon, the chicken coop is the latest in CSU Hillel’s ongoing sustainability initiatives – and represents the growing trend of sustainable Hillels. CSU Hillel is also one of the first Hillel in the country to be granted the Hazon Seal of Sustainability, a program that provides a roadmap to advance sustainability-related education, action and advocacy in Jewish communities.
And as of fall 2018, the University of Chicago Hillel earned the Hazon Seal of Sustainability. Northwestern Hillel has recently committed to achieving that seal.
Oregon Hillel is also working to join that club, which involves forming a green team and completing sustainability audits. Having started with small steps such as installing bike racks and investing in reusable tablecloths for Shabbat, Oregon Hillel looks forward to continuing its journey to going green.
“Joining the Hazon Seal has given us the opportunity to think more critically about our actions and work toward making Oregon Hillel more environmentally conscious,” said Rachel Eshtiaghpour, last year’s social action vice president. “I also see this opportunity as a great way to bring outside student interest to Hillel.”
Once CSU Hillel’s chickens arrive in June, the chickens will complete a self-contained food cycle: Hillel will feed food scraps to the chickens, whose waste can be used as compost for the garden, which will grow vegetables for Shabbat meals, whose scraps will again be fed to the chickens.
Though the University of Vermont (UVM) doesn’t have its own chicken coop, the 30 chickens in Executive Director Matt Vogel’s own backyard have served as part of UVM Hillel’s virtuous food cycle. UVM’s chickens are fed leftovers from Shabbat meals and then lay eggs that are used to bake the Challah sold each week as part of Challah for Hunger. Compost bins are present at UVM Hillel Shabbat meals.
“Every UVM student knows the drill. We compost at every single meal.”
Next year, Vogel plans to transition to plates and silverware that are fully compostable.
“It’s a larger cost, but I know it’s something we have to do.”
Brown RISD Hillel similarly provides compost bins at Shabbat and holiday meals. Its “Sacred Foods” Shabbat each fall features food that is all vegetarian and sourced from local farms. Farm Fresh RI holds its Market Shares distributions in the Hillel building weekly, connecting students to fresh and affordable produce.
Thanks to the suggestion of a Birthright Israel alumnus, UVM Hillel has also started working with the university to get carbon offset credit for study abroad travel.
Hillel students are being inspired to join university sustainability initiatives. At Bucknell University, Hillel student Nir Aish has been named to the President’s Sustainability Council, the group responsible for developing and implementing the University's Sustainability Plan.
Aish told Bucknell News, "As the council continues its work, I hope students, faculty and staff from different fields and departments will have more opportunities to collaborate and eventually make our sustainable goals a reality."
According to Colorado’s Amchislavskiy, sustainability provides an entry into Jewish life for students who may not have felt comfortable getting involved in Hillel.
“Maybe they’re uncomfortable coming for Shabbat dinner and services, but if they’re coming with their friends to make pickles, the barrier is much lower,” he said. “A lot of students who I’ve never seen before have walked through the door, and I expect that to continue.”