By Rabbi Jacob Fine
As we too slowly wake up to the human-made climate emergency, it’s critical to consider the role of the Jewish educator. We know that the answer to this crisis is not simply the acquisition of more knowledge. Rather, the question becomes:
How can we teach our students in ways that help them become better equipped to engage with the climate emergency and other environmental crises?
Until now, Jewish environmental education has been primarily approached (at best) as a subfield of Jewish education, as a niche. Even as environmental education has become more widely embraced by Jewish educational institutions, and by the funders who support them, the sentiment persists that Jewish environmental education is a trend, largely driven by long-haired, dreamy-eyed millennials. Environmental education is seen as peripheral to the primary mandate of Jewish educators. And while environmental education has begun to be accepted in some circles as a value unto itself, many Jewish institutions and their funders still approach Jewish environmental education first and foremost as an engagement tool – as something worth experimenting with because it brings people through the door and helps our institutions remain relevant.
But while it is true that environmental education has proven to be an effective way to attract and inspire new Jewish audiences, given the ecological stakes, it is far too limiting to see Jewish outreach as the primary reason to involve ourselves in this work. The logical implication is, of course, that when/if another engagement tool is deemed to be more effective, our environmental agenda might warrant being dropped.
Instead, it’s time that we center environmental education in everything that we teach and model as Jewish educators. Rather than relegating environmental education to a specialist in our camp or school and consider our work done, our very serious task is to fully integrate environmental education into the very fabric of our institutions – to make it the well-spring of our curricula and cultures. Every teacher, regardless of subject, needs to recognize that they are directly influencing how their students experience themselves in relation to the rest of the natural world.
One might wonder how this is possible, or what this looks like. At Abundance Farm, the Jewish food justice farm and outdoor classroom where I work, the Farm is integrated deeply into the three Jewish schools with which it shares a campus. Every class and grade on the campus has at least one Farm-based unit embedded in their curricula and the students feel a deep sense of investment in the Farm. (Abundance Farm received a grant from The Covenant Foundation in 2015, which has helped to support this structure.)
The Farm is a project of Congregation B’nai Israel and, over its first seven years of existence, the Farm has led to profound changes in how the outdoors are used regularly as part of synagogue life, and how centrally issues of food justice are part of the community.
But what about Jewish educators elsewhere, working in different settings? How might my colleagues approach the imperative to bring the natural world into the classroom, when the setting might not allow for a tangible outdoor experience?
There are seven Jewish teachings that might serve as a set of core principles, a foundation upon which Jewish educators, regardless of their specific subject area, could ground their work in an effort to center and deeply integrate environmental education.
1. Cultivation of Wonder is Essential
The cultivation of wonder is at least as important as the acquisition of knowledge.
2. The Paradigm is Justice
Resources must be shared equitably so that all people, and all creatures, can thrive.
3. Ki Li Ha’aretz – The Earth is God’s
We, as humans, do not own the earth or anything in it. Everything fundamentally belongs to the Creator.
4. The Earth is Sacred
Nature is infused with Divinity. Holiness is found in every part of the natural world.
5. All Species Must be Protected
Loss of any species is a desecration to Creation.
6. The World Requires Rest and Restraint
The Earth, and our well-being, depends on regular cycles of human rest and restraint as embodied through the practices of Shabbat and shmitah (the sabbatical year).
7. We Need to Create Space for Ecological Grief
“Ecological Grief,” is a phrase beginning to be used to describe “grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses.” As the emotional, psychological, and spiritual consequences of our living with ecological loss become better recognized and more acute, we can draw upon Jewish wisdom around grief and mourning for support.
Our students’ experience of connectedness with Creation will not come by way of learning facts, and many of us are not yet fully equipped to engage in this pedagogical work. For those of us charged with hiring educators for our institutions, we must assess and evaluate prospective candidates not only by their academic credentials, but also by their spiritual and emotional capacities.
And for those of us who are serious about the work of centering environmental education, we must commit ourselves personally, so that we can be authentic and effective models for our students.
Rabbi Jacob Fine is the Founder and Director of Abundance Farm and the Director of Jewish Life at Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, MA. For the past 20 years Jacob has worked and taught in the field of Jewish environmental and agricultural education. He has served as a rabbi and educator for a number of leading Jewish environmental organizations including Teva, Adamah, Hazon and the Jewish Farm School. A Wexner Graduate Fellow and former Rabbi at Hillel at the University of Washington, Jacob was ordained as a rabbi from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. Jacob is a graduate of Vassar College where he received a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Religion. Jacob has authored widely used curriculum, including “Jewish Food Rules: Principles of a Contemporary Jewish Food Ethic,” and teaches widely on issues related to Judaism, ecology, and food justice. Jacob can be reached at [email protected] and 413-584-3593 x203.
“Seeds of Opportunity: A National Study of Immersive Outdoor, Food and Environmental Education,” https://issuu.com/hazon/docs/jofee_report
 Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)
 You shouldn’t think that you are giving to the needy person from your own property, or that I have despised him by not giving bread to him as I have given to you. For he is also my child, just as you are, but his portion is in your produce… (Moshe Alshich, Leviticus 19:9)
 The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. (Leviticus 25:23)
 The essence of Divinity is found in every single thing -nothing but it exists. Since it causes every thing to be, no thing can live by anything else…Realize, rather, that the Infinite exists in every part of creation. Do not say, “This is a stone and not God.” God forbid! Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity. (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Shiur Komah 206b)
 Even things which appear to you to be superfluous in this world, like flies, fleas and mosquitoes, even they are included in the Covenant between the Creator and the world. And the Holy One created everything to carry forth God’s will. Even the snake, the mosquito and the frogs! (Bereishit Rabbah 10:7)
 On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord. (Exodus 35:2)
 R. Shimon ben Elazar says: Do not try to appease your friend in the time of his pain…and do not console him while his dead one is lying before him. (Pirkei Avot 4:18)
 “Hope and Mourning in the Anthropocene: Understanding Ecological Grief,” https://theconversation.com/hope-and-mourning-in-the-anthropocene-understanding-ecological-grief-88630