By Sam Seifman
In 1971, Rabbi Arthur Waskow was scheduled to speak at the Germantown Jewish Center, in Philadelphia. At the time, he was best known for writing “The Freedom Seder,” a modern-day Haggadah, which compares the experience of the Jews in Egypt to the similar struggle of African Americans in the United States.
He was there to speak about radical Judaism but hadn’t narrowed his topic. Before his speech, he attended a dinner at the center. One of the guests, an environmental lawyer, arrived much later than everyone else. He explained that a factory had discharged lead into the Schuylkill River and the lawyer, among others, had to make sure the lead did not poison Philadelphia’s drinking water. Luckily, all of the pollutants were successfully flushed past the city.
Later that night, at the center, the congregation read the Shema, not just the familiar first line but in its entirety. Waskow noticed it included a promise from God he’d never considered before: “I will give rain to your land, the early and the late rains, that you may gather in your grain, your wine and your oil.” In his mind, this is the moment when Judaism and the environment came together. It changed the focus of his speech and the rest of his life.
“The Shema is ancient, radical Judaism,” Waskow says. “Three-thousand-year-old texts and modern ecologists both agree on the same thing. Much of biblical Judaism revolves around the stories of shepherds and farmers working and caring for the land. We’re asking for the same thing today.”
Today, Waskow is the director of the Shalom Center, a Jewish organization that, in its current incarnation, focuses largely on the environment.
From the Biblical command that humans care for God’s natural creations on up to today, the environment has been a central concern. In recent years, that spirit given voice in the Torah has assumed a larger role in institutional Judaism as well, transcending denominational divisions, from Reform to Reconstructionist to Conservative and Orthodox.
In 2005, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, of Reform Judaism, asserted that “Together, the people of the world can, and must, use our God-given gifts to develop innovative strategies to meet the needs of all who currently dwell on this planet, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The Women’s League for Conservative Judaism adopted a plank for the responsible use of energy, in which it “advocates and supports legislation at local, state and federal levels to promote the advancing of the goal of a cleaner, toxin-free environment within 10 years through the required utilization of clean energy sources both in the home and in local industrial sites.”
The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation acknowledged in its “Resolution on the Environment” that “the devastating despoliation of our environment, directly or indirectly contributed to by the vast majority of the human inhabitants of the Earth, increasingly threatens the health and, indeed, the very existence of animal and plant life on the Earth, including human life.” It includes promises to support efforts to fight air pollution, smog, acid rain and much more.
Even the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the governing body of Orthodox Judaism, has taken a strong stand, endorsing the Torah-based environmental movement in a 2007 resolution. In doing so, the RCA cited a passage in Midrash Rabbah that says: “Pay attention not to ruin and destroy My world, for if you do, there won’t be anyone to fix it after you.”
Rooted in Scripture
Jewish environmentalism has roots in scripture, starting with Genesis.
“The creation story teaches us that Earth is good,” says Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. “Earth is sacred.”
The book of Deuteronomy contains the commandment of bal tashchit (do not unnecessarily destroy). It was initially intended to prevent the cutting down of fruit-bearing trees during wartime. But the Talmud has interpreted it as a way to warn against needless destruction. Based on this, Maimonides, a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher from Cordova, Spain, explained that a Jew is forbidden to “smash household goods, tear clothes, demolish a building, stop up a spring, or destroy articles of food.”
Many Jewish holidays focus on the human relation to nature. Every year, on the 15th of Shevat, Jews celebrate Tu B’shevat. Also known as “New Year of the Trees,” it celebrates the earliest time trees bloom in Israel. For the first three years of a tree’s life, no one may eat its fruit. The fourth year is reserved only for God and, after that, the fruit may be eaten. Sukkot, the harvest holiday, is celebrated four months later.
Every seven years, we are supposed to give the land a rest in order to not overwork the soil. In Leviticus 25:2, God commands, “When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath unto the Lord.”
Waskow was one of the first major Jewish religious figures to become actively involved in environmental causes. In 1983, he founded the Shalom Center. Its primary focus was to warn against the dangers of a nuclear arms race and a nuclear Holocaust. But, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it shifted its emphasis toward global warming and the environment. “50 years ago, religious groups banded together to fight for civil rights,” he says. Now, he notes, religious groups are uniting to fight for the environment, and Jewish organizations are in the forefront.
Begun in 1988, Shomrei Adamah described itself as the first national Jewish environmental organization. The founder, Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, was in her early 20’s, pursuing environmental studies at the University of California-Berkeley. She wasn’t particularly religious at the time. It wasn’t until she studied weekly Torah readings that she made the connection between Judaism and the environment. And she became extremely interested and involved.
“The word ‘Earth’ is mentioned about 1,000 times [in the Torah],” Bernstein says. “But most people think of land as something to conquer rather than as something spiritual.”
That’s why, she says, she created Shomrei Adamah (“Keepers of the Earth”) in Philadelphia. The organization launched with a 200-person Tu B’shevat service, in a boat house on the Schuylkill River. It ran week-long trips into the wilderness, held marches, conducted services and had 3,000 members and 10 local chapters until it closed in 1996.
Growing the Movement
Among other Jewish environmental groups that have formed is the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). Run by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, it was founded in 1993 to push for environmental legislation. In the past, it has used Chanukah as a means to promote conservation—just as the ancient Jews had to make their limited supply of oil last for eight days.
“We came up with the idea of Hanukkah as both a holiday of liberation, but also a holiday of resource scarcity,” Jared Feldman, Coalition’s vice president and Washington, D.C. director told the Jewish News Service.
Ora Sheinson first got involved with the group in college. But, after attending its conferences, she noticed the meetings weren’t too “Orthodox friendly.” When she talked to the leadership, they encouraged her to start her own Orthodox environmental organization and even provided some funding.
She went on to co-found Canfei Nesharim (“Sustainable Living Inspired by the Torah”), in 2003, while she was also attending Columbia Law School. Today, she is the organization’s board chair and president and was most recently an assistant general counsel for environmental health and safety with Verizon.
“There are so many laws in scripture about dealings with people and the land,” says Sheinson. “The problem is we live in a very urban society, and not a lot of us encounter the [natural] environment as much.”
In the past, it has held Sabbath hikes and other events to help members connect with nature and reinvigorate their commitment to protecting the environment. But much of its work is in education. In 2014, Canfei Nesharim teamed up with the Coalition to reduce the Jewish community’s carbon footprint by 14 percent. The Coalition provided a Jewish Energy Guide and Canfei Nesharim held a “Year of Action,” encouraging people to replace their incandescent bulbs with fluorescent lighting and unplug devices that are not being used.
On the Ramparts
Outside the religious arena, Jews are prominent leaders in the fight for environmental justice and against forces that would despoil our natural surroundings. Jacob Scherr was formerly the director of strategy and advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). He says he didn’t consciously consider Judaism when he chose his professional path, but he thinks it may have influenced his choices.
“Judaism, with a God you can’t see, helps you deal with other huge invisible forces,” Scherr says. “It left me with a desire to do more for the world and make it a better place.”
Judaism didn’t have much to do with the passion David Goodman would feel later in life for the environment. A native New Yorker, Goodman spent much of his childhood at his grandfather’s property in the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York. After reading Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring,” which warned against the unhealthy effects of pesticides, his grandfather stopped spraying DDT on his property—and bought a copy of the book for each member of the family.
But Goodman really had to put his values of social justice to the test later in life. As CEO of North Arrows, a firm that mostly invested in energy companies, he was responsible for making a profit from building coal plants—not exactly considered the cleanest energy. But his social conscience eventually got the better of him.
“The more I studied [coal], the more I realized that it may be cheap but it is a major health hazard and was destroying our environment,” Goodman says.
In the early ‘90s, he began advocating for renewable energy. In 1998, he built an all-electric pickup truck. Today, he is a volunteer member of the NRDC.
“The fact that I’m Jewish and an environmentalist may be a coincidence,” Goodman says. “But there was a tremendous respect for literacy and science in our Jewish family.”
His beliefs stem from a dedication to his brother. In 1965, Andrew Goodman was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan, while registering African Americans to vote in Mississippi. Today, David serves as the president of the Andy Goodman Foundation, founded by his parents in 1966, that, among other activites, recognizes “Hidden Heroes” who advocate for social change.
At 17, Phil Warburg worked on an Israeli kibbutz. “It was very interesting to see the communities tied to the land,” Warburg says.
He would return to live in Israel later in life, in 1994, on a World Bank-sponsored project to protect the Gulf of Aqaba’s endangered coral in Jordan and helping the Palestinian Authority create its first ever environmental legislation.
“I thought it was very important to develop real collaboration across the borders and not just with the politicians who grandstand,” Warburg says.
He then served as deputy director and then director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, where he worked to address the pollution of the Kishon River near Haifa.
He returned to the United States in 2003 to serve as the president of the Conservation Law Foundation. He has since written two books, “Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability” and “Harness the Sun: America’s Quest for a Solar-Powered Future.”
Battling Climate Change
In 2015, Waskow and six other rabbis released “A Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis,” calling for further action against climate change. More than 400 rabbis signed. Waskow’s Shalom Center participates in other interfaith environmental marches on Passover and Palm Sunday. On Passover, the community uses matzah as a symbol. It represents the importance of getting something done in hurry. On Palm Sunday, the palms represent a connection to nature and as a symbol of non-violence, as it pertains to the story of Jesus.
Reconstructionist Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, along with Green Justice Philly, also met with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney in June to try to convince him not to approve a proposal that would bring an oil export facility to Philadelphia’s Navy Yard.
Waskow sees the fight against climate change as against “carbon pharaohs” like BP and Exxon. And the hurricanes, forest fires, rising sea levels, are the plagues. In response, the Shalom Center helps to create solar co-ops to fight against it.
“You can’t just say ‘Shut down everything,’” Waskow says. “You have to provide an alternative.”
Rabbi Shoshana Friedman, an assistant rabbi at Temple Sinai in Brookline, Mass., doesn’t like the term “environmentalism” because of its political connotation but is dedicated to the cause. She is part of the leadership of the Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action (MAICCA) and started ClergyClimateAction.org, a Climate Disobedience Center project organizing religious leaders.
In May, she was among 16 clergy arrested in front of the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline construction site for protesting fracking.
“The environmental movement has failed majorly because we haven’t had the movement where you place your body in the way,” says Friedman. “I think that Jews are hungry for their leaders to take action in the public sphere.”
Friedman later added, “I consider myself a rabbi with a climate concern. And climate change is a serious breach of the covenant.”