The Greening Of Jewish America

In Boston, Jewish groups worried about the plight of the herring recently lobbied the state legislature to repair fish ladders along the Charles River.

12/21/99
Washington Correspondent
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In Boston, Jewish groups worried about the plight of the herring recently lobbied the state legislature to repair fish ladders along the Charles River. In California, kosher vintners are trying to convince consumers that reciting kiddush over wine made from organic grapes is more consistent with the spirit of Judaism than using wine made from grapes produced under modern agribusiness conditions. And a Chicago-based group, Endangered Spirit, is running environmental outdoor programs for day schools, synagogues and Jewish centers. The four-day sessions explore the myriad connections between Judaism and ecology; prayer and text study go hand-in-hand with wilderness hikes. The Jewish world, according to many observers, is going green. Many Jewish leaders see eco-Judaism — a unique subset of the environmental movement, tinged with a Torah-based view of the centrality of nature — as an attractive antidote to the apathy and disconnectedness of a younger generation. By jumping on the environmental bandwagon, they hope to breathe new life into gasping communal organizations. Others see it as a natural bridge between the liberal social activism that has dominated Jewish political life for decades and the spiritual and religious connection a growing number of Jews crave. “Young Jews, both those who have been involved in the Jewish community but especially those who haven’t, find a natural fit between Judaism and environmentalism,” said Evan Eisenberg, author of “The Ecology of Eden,” one of the landmarks of the nascent movement. “It has less to do with halacha than with the rich symbols and poetic images you find in Jewish texts, in the liturgy, in the rituals. It can really get people energized.” In a Jewish community divided along denominational and political lines, he said, eco-Judaism “brings Jews together on different levels: an intellectual, Torah level, on the activist level of getting together to protest a highway or support the endangered species act, and on the communal-celebratory level. It cuts across lines.” The central figures in this emerging movement are anything but naive tree huggers. In fact, the real growth of Jewish environmentalism is taking place inside established communal structures — federations, synagogue groups and denominational organizations. From his offices at the Jewish Council of Public Affairs in New York, Mark Jacobs has a bird’s-eye view of the eco-Judaism movement. Jacobs is the director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), an umbrella group that is working to bring Jewish environmentalism into the communal mainstream. Some 27 national organizations belong to COEJL, from the American Jewish Committee to the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. Jacobs’ experience confirms what many Jewish leaders have been saying: the environment could be the next big consensus issue for the Jewish community, bringing together a fractious community in the way Israel and Soviet Jewry once did. Evidence of the movement’s growth abounds, he said. “In the past two years we’ve seen the development of regional affiliates of our organization in a dozen communities around North America. We’re looking at the emerging development of 12 more. People are organizing community events such as eco-Shabbat celebrations, Tu b’Shevat seders, hikes where they do Jewish learning, wilderness retreats, environmental Shabbaton. There’s been a tremendous increase in activity.” Local Jewish groups with an environmental component “are joining local environmental coalitions and joining together with other faith communities; they’re adopting rivers and parks and getting involved in environmental advocacy where they live.” In the San Francisco area, a local COEJL affiliate has created a “green team” project. An early project involves making the facilities of the Marin Jewish Community Center more environment-friendly. In San Francisco, Detroit, Seattle and Boston, monthly eco-Shabbat dinners are bringing together Jews from different religious and political backgrounds to explore the religious roots of environmentalism. And a recent COEJL conference in California brought together representatives of several religious groups, farmers and government officials to explore ethical questions raised by modern agricultural practices, including the use of pesticides. Ten years ago, Jacobs said, talk about Jewish environmentalism produced smirks from community leaders. Today those same leaders want to know how they can tap into this expanding pool of activist energy. “The environment is the common ground we all inhabit together,” he said. “It cuts across lines. At our leadership training sessions, we have people from all the denominations coming together: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Jewish Renewal, secular, Zionist, non-Zionist.” And he points to the thing that has provided hope to mainstream Jewish leaders who worry about declining donations and a shrinking number of activists. “One of the reasons the environment is going to be a major issue in the Jewish community is that young people — from toddlers through kids in college — are learning about environmental problems and challenges, and see them as a central focus for public engagement.” A new generation, inculcated in the ethic of recycling, energy conservation and responsible use of natural resources, is eager to find Jewish connections to an issue that is already an intrinsic part of their lives, he said. Ellen Bernstein agrees. Bernstein, author of “Ecology and the Jewish Spirit” and a pioneer in the eco-Judaism movement, sees the same blend of spiritual questing and social consciousness at work in the Jewish community — and not just in the organization she founded, Shomrei Adamah, or Guardians of the Earth in Hebrew. Once the exclusive province of single-interest groups on the edges of Jewish life, the environmental movement is moving slowly into synagogues and federation boardrooms, she said. “The way I see my work is to integrate the environmental consciousness into normative Jewish life, so you don’t even know about it,” she said. “I’d be happy if people never heard of Shomrei, but if they had a lot of environmental activities that were part of synagogue and federation life.” Bernstein is living out that goal. She now works as director of community building for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Thanks in part to her efforts, many Philadelphia kids now do environmental service projects with their parents as part of the bar and bat mitzvah experience. Federation leaders are now looking at recycling and energy conservation in their own facilities. “If we can retrofit our Jewish institutions with an environmental awareness, and show how it’s to our advantage to make this a part of our institutions, then we will be successful,” she said. “What I see is quiet revolution taking place through established organizational structures. The federation system is an enormous boat. If we can turn it around in terms of environmental awareness, that’s more important than another snail darter campaign.” She agrees that environmentalism can be an effective opening into communal life for a younger, less attached population. “The people who are on the cutting edge of outreach love this stuff,” she said. It happened in her own life. After a relatively secular upbringing, environmental activism gradually drew her into a Jewish world that she saw as representing the same values, but with some deeper connections. “For me the return to Judaism was always integrated in the environmental awareness,” she said. But even supporters point out that eco-Judaism is no panacea for frayed communal threads. “There’s a tendency to see environmentalism as the cure for all our communal ills,” said an official with a major Jewish group that has started to incorporate more environmental programming into its activities around the country. “It isn’t, and there’s a danger we can oversell it. But it’s definitely true it is an issue with the potential to bring us together and bring in a younger generation that doesn’t care as much about the old issues.” Evan Eisenberg, the environmental activist and author, agrees, but he adds a warning: the growing eco-focus must complement traditional Jewish social justice concerns, not replace them. “I hope we don’t become classical, liberal environmentalists who are concerned about protecting Yellowstone, but not about what’s happening in the cities,” said Eisenberg. “I hope we’ll build on traditional Jewish concerns about social justice and equality.”

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03/06/2012 - 20:47

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