With each of the past three years recording record-setting high temperatures, many across the world will mark International Earth Day on April 22 with a renewed sense of purpose.
American Jews are well-represented among environmental advocates. They include leaders of the People’s Climate March in Washington, DC, and campaigners for cleaner energy, kinder treatment of animals, and a more sustainable lifestyle.
While those taking action to protect the environment are too numerous to count, here (in alphabetical order) are 12 Jewish activists and community leaders at the forefront of the battle to keep the Earth green.
Name: Rabbi Katy Allen
Organization: Jewish Climate Action Network
Focus: Education and community participation in carbon reduction
Every fall, at the end of October, Rabbi Katy Allen leads a Cranberry Shabbat at the Wachusett Reservoir in central Massachusetts. Participants complement prayers with picking wild cranberries and donating them to homeless veterans.
Allen leads outdoor services throughout the year, including the High Holidays. The Cranberry Shabbat is “everybody’s favorite service,” she said. “It’s kind of magical… Most people haven’t picked wild [cranberries], they get them packaged in a store.”
Outdoor services are “a way to bring Judaism into the outdoors and the outdoors into Judaism,” she said. “It enriches both.”
Allen co-founded the Jewish Climate Action Network in Boston in 2013. She has led outdoor services for about a decade.
“It starts with the very first verse in the Torah,” she said. “‘God created the heavens and the earth’… If you read the Torah with that sort of lens of thinking, of some kind of connection to the Earth, you can find it everywhere.”
Name: Rachel Caplan
Organization: San Francisco Green Film Festival
Focus: Environmentally-related films
This month, the San Francisco Green Film Festival will take place for the seventh straight year.
Founder and CEO Rachel Caplan said, “We’re just fortunate to have grown and grown and grown every year.
“The first two years, we had one venue, and it was very small. It was just a couple of days. Now we have six venues, it’s one week, and we’re flying in filmmakers from all over the world,” she said.
This year’s festival includes “You’ve Been Trumped II,” about the environmental impact of a golf course in Scotland that is the project of a certain businessman-turned-president. The original “You’ve Been Trumped” won Best Feature at the festival in 2012.
The sequel brings people “right up to date, five years later,” Caplan said. “People still have no water, it was cut off from their homes when the golf course was built.” And “there were many other environmental impacts the development has had on the region,” she said.
There’s a deeper connection for Caplan: She’s an Edinburgh native whose father, Lord Caplan, was a High Court judge and one of the first Jews to be elected to the Supreme Court in Scotland.
Name: Mirele Goldsmith
Organization: People’s Climate March/ People’s Climate Shabbat
Focus: Environmental activism
A veteran of two decades battling for environmental causes, Mirele Goldsmith is chairing the Jewish organizing hub of the People’s Climate March, scheduled for April 29 — a week after Earth Day — in Washington, DC.
“There were 150 local grassroots Jewish activists spreading the word in the Jewish community,” Goldsmith said, listing the American Jewish World Service, Avodah, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and “quite a few synagogues.”
The previous, first-ever People’s Climate March drew 400,000 to New York City in 2014. Goldsmith was one of its main organizers.
“It was right before the High Holidays,” she recalled. “People would bring shofarot and blow.”
Goldsmith is aware that this year’s People’s Climate March will occur on Shabbat. As a result, she is also organizing a People’s Climate Shabbat.
“I’m doing outreach,” she said, “and we’ll also try to make it easy, no matter what your observance is. In New York, we’ll have a charter bus that will go down on Friday and come back on Sunday, not on Shabbat.”
She added that she wants to provide “access to all Jews” and create a situation where “Jewish communities who don’t feel comfortable marching on Shabbat can do something else.”
“There’s no greater tikkun olam issue than climate change. It’s tikkun olam in the most literal sense,” said Goldsmith.
Name: Madi Hirschland
Organization: Seventh Day Initiative
Focus: Faith-based community of environmental activists
Through the Seventh Day Initiative in Indiana, Madi Hirschland works with “congregations and their members to help them steeply reduce their reliance on fossil fuels by installing solar panels and conserving energy in their houses of worship and homes.”
She said, “Faithwise, these congregations represent 18 different strains of Jewish, mainline and evangelical Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Unitarian religions” — including her own synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom in Bloomington. Beth Shalom was one of the first congregations to participate in the Seventh Day Initiative.
All have “reduced their energy use by over 33 percent, and over a third of their households steeply reduced their energy use at home,” Hirschland said.
She calls Indiana “a ground zero for carbon emissions. Per person, we have one of the highest rates of carbon emissions of any state in the US, which, per person, has the highest rate of carbon emissions of any large country in the world.”
Name: Seth Katz
Organization: Bradley University Hillel in Peoria, Illinois
Focus: Environmentally friendly Hillel House
In February, the Hillel building at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois became just the third Hillel building nationwide to install solar panels.
The other two Hillels are at the University of Florida and the University of Arizona. They’re “in the US ‘sun belt’ where you would expect such developments,” said Seth Katz, the executive director and faculty adviser of Bradley Hillel. “But even in central Illinois, we should see 90-95% of our Hillel’s electricity demand met by our own solar production.”
The Bradley Hillel building is a 100-year-old brick structure. When Hillel acquired it, modernization work followed.
“[We] gutted it to the bricks, insulated it to the current highest standards, put in five independent heating and cooling zones,” Katz said. “We have on demand hot water.”
A site of many catered gatherings, the Hillel House has also cut down the use of paper plates or plastic utensils — “to a bare minimum, and recycle what we do use,” said Katz. “The city’s contract with a waste removal company includes single-stream recycling of paper, plastics and metals.”
This year, just in time for Tu B’Shevat — arguably the Jewish Earth Day — Bradley Hillel debuted 47 solar panels on the south and east pitches of its roof.
Name: Shira Kline
Organization: Lab/Shul and Eco-music for kids
Focus: Education through music
Through Shira Kline’s eco-music for kids, she is creating budding environmentalists.
“I introduce children to nature through imaginative, creative play,” she said. “Imagine what it’s really like to be a tree, a mountain, the bright shining sun, to have peace like a river and love like a rainbow.
“Eco-music can be a spiritual practice for young children, a way of understanding that they are part of something much larger,” said Kline.
Kline is a founding ritual leader of Lab/Shul in New York City and is currently its Director of Worship and Director of Family Education.
In 2010, she released her Parents Choice Award-winning album “Earth Worm Disco,” with topics such as “the need for a balanced atmosphere, the earth’s super powers (hydro power and biomass power, for example), the oneness of our great big earth family,” she said. “We meet characters like Dr. BreathEasy, Mother Earth, the comic book superheroes of the G-Generation, and of course the loveable disco dancing wiggling Earthworm.”
As she said: “Love the earthworm now, protect the rainforests later.”
Name: Nina Natelson
Organization: Concern for Helping Animals in Israel (CHAI)
Focus: Animal welfare in the Holy Land
As head of Concern for Helping Animals in Israel (CHAI), the Virginia-based Nina Natelson works to help animals suffering from unholy conditions in the Holy Land.
“For the thousands of homeless dogs and cats on the streets, staying alive is a constant struggle,” she said.
Natelson founded CHAI in 1984. She has received support from fellow Americans — including the late Congressman Tom Lantos (D-CA) and his wife, Annette, both Holocaust survivors who served on CHAI’s Advisory Board.
“Through their connections with Israeli officials and Knesset members, they opened many doors for CHAI, making possible many important opportunities to promote humane values,” Natelson said. “Donations from Americans have funded everything CHAI has done on behalf of animals.”
Last year marked the 10th anniversary of one of CHAI’s most dramatic achievements.
“[When] we flew 39 puppies rescued from the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon to the US and found them homes here in a hands-across-the-water gesture of compassion, there was much cause for celebration,” Natelson said.
Name: Joelle Novey
Organization: People’s Climate March and Interfaith Power and Light
Focus: Faith-based environmental activism
Joelle Novey credits preteen memories of Camp Ramah with encouraging her environmentalism.
“I remember sitting outdoors with my siddur, real powerful prayer experiences,” she said. “Jewish prayer outdoors instead of inside. I think, in retrospect, it influenced my work today.”
Today she is director of Interfaith Power and Light for the DC metro area and Maryland.
“We work with congregations of all faith traditions to go green,” she said.
Novey is also co-chairing the Jewish hub of the People’s Climate March, and co-coordinating the march’s faith contingent.
“We’ll encourage people to wear kippot and other religious head coverings, T-shirts from congregations, clerical collars, being faith witnesses in the larger rally and march,” Novey said.
She is sensitive to the fact that the march takes place on Shabbat.
“We are inviting Jewish communities to either raise up climate justice [issues] at home or send folks to the rally or a sister march,” she said.
Name: Nigel Savage
Focus: Sustainable living
As director of New York-based Hazon, Nigel Savage helps Jews envision how to live more sustainably.
He defines sustainability as “leaving the world in better shape for those who come after us.” Hazon has numerous programs toward that end, from a Seal of Sustainability for Jewish institutions to the Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming & Environmental Education (JOFEE) Fellows program for the next generation of leaders.
There are even programs that “enable Diaspora Jews to get a sense of environmental issues in Israel, and how they can help,” Savage said.
It was at the Pardes Institute in Israel where Savage — a self-described “accidental environmentalist” — developed a sense of the Earth’s natural beauty.
There, he said, “I first started hiking and spending more time thinking about what it means that the Jewish people entered human history in relation to this land, the land of Israel.”
Name: Ora Sheinson
Organization: Canfei Nesharim
Focus: Environmental education in the Orthodox community
Through Canfei Nesharim (The Wings of Eagles), the organization she helped found over a decade ago, Ora Sheinson promotes environmental awareness among her fellow Orthodox Jews.
“We are primarily an educational organization,” said Sheinson, the president of Canfei Nesharim: Sustainable Living Inspired by Torah. “Our educational material is [for Jews] to educate themselves on why [the environment] is so crucial to a Torah-observant Jewish lifestyle.”
Canfei Nesharim finds environmental connections in the Torah and other halachic sources such as the Mishnah and the Gemara, including the Ramban’s calls to spare a mother bird’s life when taking her baby and to not kill a calf on the same day as its mother.
“Hashem says we cannot destroy a species, two generations of a species at the same time,” said Sheinson, a Columbia Law graduate and mother who also works full-time as a lawyer. “It’s symbolic of destroying their ability to propagate and continue.”
“It’s like a modern environmentalist talking about species conservation,” she added.
‘Hashem says we cannot destroy a species, two generations of a species at the same time’
Canfei Nesharim is “on the cusp” of a new environmental education program integrating science and Torah aimed primarily at ninth-graders at Jewish day schools, Sheinson said.
Asked about Orthodox environmental attitudes in general, Sheinson said the mindsets have changed from 10 to 15 years ago, citing a study by University of Wisconsin professor and Canfei Nesharim board member Daniel Weber.
“Most just don’t know,” Sheinson said. “Almost nobody I speak to actively disagrees, some don’t know or are not aware, or don’t know what to do. Or it hasn’t occurred to them, the dangers the environment might face.”
Name: Rabbi Marc Soloway
Organization: Hazon and Congregation Bonai Shalom
Focus: Sustainable living
One of Hazon’s board members is Marc Soloway, rabbi of Congregation Bonai Shalom in Boulder, Colorado. When he spoke with The Times of Israel, he was awaiting the arrival of 50 one-year-old chickens from Kansas.
“We’re committed to becoming self-sufficient in the eggs we consume,” he said. “We have a chicken coop. We’ve created all kinds of chicken co-ops where various members of the congregation can sign up for one shift a day… We make our own challah in-house from eggs from our own chickens, the egg salad for the kiddush lunch.”
There’s in-house milk, too, from the four adult goats — two just had babies — of Milk and Honey Farms. While Soloway said it is not a Bonai Shalom-run project, its residents live at the back of the shul.
The rabbi helps milk them.
‘I don’t know how good gefilte fish are from tilapia raised in a tank. But we’re going to try it’
“My particular shift is Sunday, every morning at 7,” he said. “I come back and make a cup of coffee with goat’s milk, just-milked. I love the taste. It’s sweet and delicious. It feels very nutritious.”
A London native, Soloway was recognized at the Obama White House in 2015 as one of 12 faith leaders helping to address climate change. The synagogue has a solar-powered ner tamid (eternal flame) and was “one of the first, if not the first” synagogues to have a zero-waste facility, Soloway said.
Across the street, the Boulder JCC is the only one in the world to have a full-time director of farming and sustainability. It has a geodesic greenhouse dome and an interest in raising fish through aquaponics.
“I’m hoping the synagogue can become a partner in the project,” Soloway said. “I don’t know how good gefilte fish are from tilapia raised in a tank. But we’re going to try it.”
Name: Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Organization: Shalom Center
Focus: Education community leaders and activists
Jewish Renewal Rabbi Arthur Waskow, is a leading voice in the theology of the Eco-Judaism movement. Throughout his long career, he has served as faculty at several rabbinical seminaries, including the Hebrew Union College. There he taught Eco-Judaism in 2005 — the first time such a course was offered at a seminary.
Today, the 84-year-old prolific author is still the director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, which he founded in 1983. Then the main environmental concern was not climate change but “the nuclear arms race between [President] Reagan and [Premier Alexei] Kosygin, the US and the USSR,” he said.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Shalom Center turned its attention to what the rabbi calls “global scorching” — not global warming.
“‘Warming’ is [a] comforting, nice [word],” he explained.
Discomforting news about the environment may be presaged in the Torah, he said.
“Leviticus 26 asks the question, ‘What if you do not let the land rest?’” Waskow said. “Then it will rest on your head — famine, drought, flood, exile, disease. It’s as if it were written by a climate scientist.”
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