A Movement Takes Root: the Growth of Jewish Environmentalism

by Nati Passow

When you register for an event with Hazon, a New York-based Jewish environmental organization, there is a drop-down menu of options regarding religious identity. Orthodox, Conservative, Conservadox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Secular, Cultural, Other, Just Jewish, Not Religious, and Not Jewish are all on the list. Over the past several years, the Jewish environmental movement has become a vibrant force within the larger Jewish community, encouraging individuals and institutions to do everything from recycle, eat less meat, eat more meat (local and organic), plant gardens, create Green Teams, and eliminate disposable dishes. While this movement now models diversity and pluralism, cornerstones of its recent growth and success, this was not always the case. The growth of the modern Jewish environmental movement is a story of an idea moving from the edges of a culture to take root in the mainstream.

In its early years, the American Jewish environmental movement engaged individuals who were first and foremost sympathetic to the environmental cause and used the fledgling movement as an entry point into Judaism. For those who were active environmentalists, they were surprised and delighted to see that Judaism provided a relevant voice.

Ellen Bernstein, who in 1988 founded Shomrei Adamah, the first national Jewish environmental organization, explains, “Shomrei Adamah was very intent upon reaching secular and unaffiliated Jews, and had many strategies to do so, including many speaking gigs at eco-conferences and booths set up whereby we could visit with passersby who were invariably unaffiliated. Shomrei Adamah in fact received grant money for this kind of thing as we were one clear venue by which to connect with the unaffiliated.”

Early on, Jewish environmental efforts connected a few key ideas within Judaism to larger ecological themes. The law of “bal tashchit” (“do not waste”) was utilized as a basis for a Jewish environmental ethic, as was the notion that Adam was created from the earth (adamah) and was put in the Garden of Eden “l’ovdah ul’shomrah” (“to work and to protect”). This made Jewish environmentalism easy to digest – it didn’t require vast knowledge of Jewish law or text, but rather centered on a few broad concepts.

Bernstein strove to engage a diverse audience. “I was careful to involve people from all movements, and people who didn’t belong to any movements,” she says.

The movement has grown from these building blocks to engage individuals in more sophisticated ways, reflecting not only a myriad of interests – such as outdoor adventure, food, and farming – but also a wide spectrum of religious affiliation and observance.

While there were some from more traditional backgrounds active in the early years, there was little effort made to engage the Orthodox community as a whole, according to Evonne Marzouk, founder and executive director of Canfei Nesharim, a leading organization in Torah-based environmentalism. Her organization develops a Jewish environmental ethic steeped in Torah texts and values and has been successful at bringing the message to the Orthodox community. “When we can speak the language, it greatly increases our ability to be effective in that community. When we strengthen the environmental perspective within Orthodoxy, we strengthen the broader movement.”

The Jewish environmental movement has gained traction both because there is a general increase in awareness about climate change and sustainability issues and because it resonates deeply with people. Shamu Sadeh, director of the Adamah Fellowship, explains, “The Jewish sustainability movement speaks to people’s passions. … We gather young Jews around awe and gratitude, around understanding broken social and ecological relationships and the need to fix the system. They get their hands dirty and work together on real constructive projects. They sing together. They express gratitude. They know they are being of service to the world.”

The current-day success would not be possible without the efforts within the movement over the past 20 years. In the ‘90s, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) supported numerous local chapters around the country that sought to address ecological problems from a Jewish perspective, through education and political advocacy. In 1994, the Teva Learning Center was established, and has led the Jewish environmental education effort since. As new projects have emerged, Jewish environmental education has become an important sector of the larger movement, often providing the channels through which people first connect.

Teva has experienced tremendous success as it reaches day schools and synagogues. Casey Baruch Yurow, who served as an educator and program coordinator for the Teva Learning Center from 2005 to 2007, says, “Teva provides a joyful, Jewishly rooted, and curiosity-based exploration of what is essentially one of the most relevant questions that we, as humans, can ask ourselves today, ‘How do we live harmoniously with the only home we really have?’”

Teva’s brand of education often stands in sharp contract to the bland Hebrew School education many young people suffer through, and this is one major reason its participants find the experience so paradigm shifting. Nili Simhai, the director of the Teva Learning Center, is working to create a certificate program in Jewish environmental education as a means to bring the message and efficacy of Teva to a broader audience while also making careers in the field more viable for the talented cadre of passionate educators, like Yurow.

As education has been one successful method of engaging the Jewish community in environmental efforts, building Jewish identity and community has been another. This follows in the footsteps of early efforts made by leaders like Bernstein. Through its outdoor adventure experiences, food conferences, and synagogue-based community Jewish community. supported agriculture (CSA) programs, Hazon has helped bring the Jewish environmental message to the mainstream. Hazon’s work is effective because it creates meaningful new ways for individuals to identify as Jews and build community around important issues, rather than religious affiliation.

Through both education and identity building, the Jewish environmental movement has taken firm root in the mainstream community. This trend is seen through some major accomplishments in the past few years: two of the eight Joshua Venture fellows are leading environmental projects (I’m one of them); Hazon’s food blog, the Jew and the Carrot, recently merged with the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper; the Jewish Greening Fellowship, a program designed to bring environmental change to Jewish institutions, has been renewed for a second cohort; and Jewish environmental initiatives are sprouting up in communities around the country. Many of these projects are being organized on a small and local level, drawing inspiration and resources from the larger, national projects.

Moving forward, Jewish environmental leaders are hoping their message becomes understood as a fundamental Jewish value. Hazon and the Jewish Farm School launched an initiative in 2008 called the Shmita Project, which encourages the Jewish community to look at how the values and laws of the Shmita year can be integrated into Jewish communal life. This November, a small group of leaders of Jewish environmental organizations will be meeting to explore these ideas more deeply, with the hope of creating a larger annual Shmita Convergence for the broader community. Kayam Farm’s winter Beit Midrash will be happening again for the third year, bringing together a diverse group of Jews for a weekend of engaging in traditional texts on Jewish agricultural laws. Jakir Manela, Kayam’s director, is also looking to create a Jewish agricultural moshav around Kayam’s site outside of Baltimore.

As the movement grows, many expect certain challenges ahead, most notably around growing in a sustainable fashion, and also finding ways to collaborate and not compete for funding, participants, and resources. Additionally, as Jewish environmentalism becomes more widely accepted, there is concern that it will become watered down.

Yoni Stadlin, a former Teva educator and founder and director of Eden Village Camp – a new Jewish environmental summer camp which was launched this summer with a $1.1 million grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Foundation for Jewish Camp – sees tremendous value in the current state of Jewish environmentalism. “I see us as the common denominator and great spokespeople about Judaism’s contribution to the world. The world is coalescing around environmental issues, and we are the Jewish voice. As we move from the fringes into the mainstream, I hope we continue to collaborate and share resources, yet remain a decentralized movement. There’s currently a grassroots effort underway, and should we become more centralized, we will lose some of the magic. And right now there’s a lot of magic.”

Nati Passow is the co-founder and director of the Jewish Farm School. He loves spreading himself too thin with projects such as mud building, carpentry, writing, cooking, and running a startup nonprofit. He currently lives in bunk 16 at Eden Village Camp.

image courtesy Jewish Farm School

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Our Environment issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.