With solar installation, Salem’s Jewish temple wants to be a community hub during natural disasters

Temple Beth Sholom on Saturday, June 26, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

As Millie Estrin lay on her deathbed in her Salem home, she extracted a promise from her rabbi: Salem’s Temple Beth Sholom would complete the solar project she had long pushed for.

Two years later, the temple is months away from a 50-kilowatt installation that will bear Estrin’s name: the MillieWatt.

“It was such an amazing thing to watch her literally on the doorstep of death getting all excited about the solar project,” said Rabbi Eli Herb.

Scheduled for completion by the end of the year, the solar panels will provide enough power to meet about 95% of the building’s power needs, said Elliot Maltz, a temple member who’s serving as de facto project manager.

“We’d been looking to find ways to make our carbon footprint lower, be more sensitive to climate change and also always looking for ways to be a good player in the community,” Maltz said.

The congregation’s goals go beyond renewable energy. Herb said they were motivated by a desire to be a community center that could shelter others and provide power to neighbors and first responders in case of an emergency that caused widespread outages.

“What people really sunk their teeth into was how it could also be a way of protecting our community,” Herb said.

That vision, developed in 2019, is feeling more relevant than ever after the past year, when wildfires, ice storms and a heat wave caused widespread disruption in Salem and sent many people fleeing from their homes seeking shelter.

Herb said the panels would allow the temple to better create a sense of community during the “state of emergency we’re in globally.”

“Putting solar panels on individual houses or individual buildings – it may be a small part of the overall solution, but it’s not the solution. But as a visible tangible expression of our values as a community, it’s a big deal. The Jewish tradition has the value that says do not destroy, which also means do not waste resources, and fossil fuels are a huge waste of resources,” Herb said.

The project will cost about $191,000, Maltz said. That includes batteries to store power and ensure the building can serve as a resource during an outage, and two 32-amp electric vehicle chargers that will be available to the public.

The temple received a $38,000 grant from Portland General Electric in 2019 to help cover the cost, as well as $15,000 in energy incentives from the Energy Trust of Oregon, Maltz said. The remainder is being covered by member contributions and the temple’s endowment.

Millie Estrin (Courtesy/Eli Herb)

Herb said Estrin, who died in 2019, functioned as the temple’s “green grandma” and pushed for years to make the solar project a reality, including applying for the grant.

She helped start a recycling program and got a grant for the temple to do a bioswale project, redirecting rainwater and storm runoff to grow a garden.

Her enthusiasm about the solar panels even when facing death was characteristic, Herb said.

“It was typical Millie, she was laughing the whole time and really lit up at the possibility,” he said.

Maltz said Estrin was known around the temple for being a “great person” and was beloved by the congregation.

“It was a real loss, but it was an inspiration to be able to put the Milliewatt on this project – it made me happy and I think it made a lot of people happy,” Maltz said.

Correction: This article originally misspelled Elliot Maltz’s last name. Salem Reporter regrets the error.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.