Bright lights, big thinkers: S.F. conference mobilizes Jews to take on the energy challenge

Joel Makower has seen firsthand how businesses make green decisions a part of their day-to-day operations.

Yet, when he was asked to be one of the featured speakers at the inaugural Jewish Response to the Energy Challenge Conference at the JCC of San Francisco, it got him thinking: Why should Jews get involved in the clean energy movement?  

And then it hit him.

“There’s been a Jewish response to Vietnam, civil rights, apartheid, gender rights and a range of topics,” said Makower, the executive editor for Oakland-based GreenBiz.com, a leading source for news on the greening of mainstream business. “[Energy] may be the ultimate issue when it comes to equality, and the survival of all religions and people.”

The issue is so critical that last year one of the nation’s largest Jewish organizations decided to take note of it in a major way.

In October 2008, Jonathan Axelrad, a member of the San Francisco chapter of the American Jewish Committee, was asked by the national organization in New York to plan a clean energy mission.

Axelrad enlisted Lyuba Wolf, an analyst for the Silicon Valley–based Tesla Motors, with whom he had worked on other clean energy initiatives. Together they planned to enlist fellow environmental aficionados to brainstorm a conference that would explore the Bay Area’s green economy through a Jewish lens.

The pair gathered a team of 20 representatives — plucked from a pool of unaffiliated Jewish friends and those interested in clean energy — and their collaboration became the conference, known as J-REC. It will bring together a powerful lineup of Jewish leaders and innovators to talk Sunday, Nov. 8 at the JCCSF about transitioning to a clean and secure energy future.

The conference is organized by the American Jewish Committee’s New Generation program, ACCESS, which aims to inspire and empower young professionals to engage in current domestic and international issues.

The busy one-day agenda will cover an array of topics, including Jewish involvement in promoting environmental sustainability, clean technology and the economy, and the creation of jobs in those fields. Portions of the event will be featured as live Webcasts.

Invited speakers include Richard Sideman, president of the American Jewish Committee; JB Straubel, chief technical officer of Tesla Motors, makers of the high-performance electric sports car; Anne Korin, chair of the Set America Free Coalition, which focuses on reducing oil dependence and increasing energy security for the U.S.; and Jason Wolf, business developer for Better Place, a Palo Alto startup that works to deploy electric vehicles, their charging sites and battery-replacement stations.

Yosef Abramowitz

J-REC is geared toward people from all streams of Judaism who have or are thinking about taking an active role in environmental issues on local, national and international levels, according to Axelrad.

“We really need to be leaders in this area if we are to maintain our national standing in the world,” he said, “both in Israel and the U.S.”

Axelrad and Wolf are good examples. Axelrad, 36, is an attorney with Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich and Rosati in San Francisco, representing clean technology and renewable energy companies, and their investors.

He is also a member of Clean Tech and Green Business for Obama, a constituency group charged with supporting President Barack Obama’s energy policies, elevating issues of climate change and buoying the clean-tech industry.

Wolf, a 2007 graduate of Stanford University, co-founded Energy Crossroads, a coalition of young adult leaders working to advance clean energy as a unifying solution to national security, environmental and economic challenges. 

Joel Makower

Wolf, 24, connected with Axelrad to promote the issue of alternative energy.

“To work on [alternative energy] through the Jewish community gives people a way of engaging, taking up the cause and encouraging the institutional groups to be more coordinated and take a stronger stance,” she said.

Makower, of GreenBiz.com, does that every day — through a business lens. The U.C. Berkeley graduate will moderate the conference’s keynote session, a conversation that will illustrate where Jews fit in the movement for renewable and secure energy.

“There’s no more important issue right now that affects people everywhere than climate and energy,” Makower said. “The Jewish community has a voice in all of this. But more importantly, we have an obligation as a community to do what we’ve been doing for generations: stand up to injustice, help right the wrongs and improve the lot of all people, not just Jews.”   

More than 7,000 miles away, Yosef Abramowitz is working to improve the lives of Israelis with the Holy Land’s first commercial solar field. Often acres wide, solar fields generate a source of renewable energy that is used to offset greenhouse gas emissions.     

“Israel can play a decisive role in a post-Copenhagen world toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Abramowitz, referring to the United Nations Climate Change Conference beginning Dec. 7 in Copenhagen. “[Israel’s] a small, entrepreneurial country with 60 percent desert, which means we have an incredible amount of potential solar power we’re on the verge of harnessing.”

Abramowitz, who also is slated to speak at the conference, started the Arava Power Company in 2006. Located on Kibbutz Ketura (a member of Israel’s Green Kibbutzim movement, which seeks to promote environmentally friendly and sustainable practices), Arava Power, Israel’s leading solar developer, has focused on laying the regulatory and financial groundwork for solar fields.

Eager to jumpstart what he refers to as Israel’s “solar revolution,” Abramowitz has been busy collecting 600,000 signatures from Jews pledging to take on the campaign for climate control. It’s part of Jewish Social Action Month, an ongoing global initiative aimed at rallying thousands of Jews to perform acts of kindness. 

“The Jewish people have always played a positive, catalytic role in history and in many social movements,” Abramowitz said. “We have yet again another opportunity to change the course of human events.”

Packed conference schedule brings energy to J-REC

Clean-tech innovation. Environmental initiatives. Green economy. You might hear these buzzwords on the news, read about them in a science journal or see them on bumper stickers.

But how do they fit into a Jewish context? The Jewish Response to the Energy Challenge Conference will tackle that question, plus a host of others during the one-day event at the JCCSF.

Sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, J-REC has a packed agenda featuring panel discussions with leading Jewish energy innovators, breakout sessions on sustainability, clean economy and policy reform, and a networking reception.

Portions of the day will be broadcast on the Web and will be able to be viewed by clicking the “live Webcast” tab on the conference home page, www.jrec-conference.org.

Nearly 30 speakers will participate, including Ilana Gauss, chair of EcoJews of the Bay; Ari Wallach, whose JewsVote.org led the “Great Shlep,” an effort to urge young adults to get their Jewish grandparents to vote for Obama; and Alan Salzman, CEO of VantagePoint Venture Partners, a venture capital firm that focuses on clean tech, information technology and healthcare investments. 

In conjunction with the conference, AJC-ACCESS will bring approximately 50 young Jewish professionals from across the country to the Bay Area for a first-hand look at the clean-energy economy in action.

On Monday, Nov. 9, participants can make site visits to Tesla Motors in San Carlos, designer and seller of high-performance electric cars; Solazyme, a South San Francisco–based company that uses algae to produce oils and bio-based materials; and Pacific Gas and Electric, which provides natural gas and electricity to Northern and Central California.

Registration for J-REC begins 8 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 8 with closing remarks slated for 4:30 p.m. The conference will break for lunch in the early afternoon.

Cost is $45 for general admission, $35 for students and nonprofit professionals. For more information or to register, visit www.jrec-conference.org.