Environmentalism: Good for the Jews

Avoiding Global Catastrophe, Building Substantive, Relevant Judaism

By Jay Michaelson

Published February 04, 2009, issue of February 13, 2009.
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Last Tu B’Shvat, I argued in these pages that Jewish environmentalism must move past the touchy-feely stage of vague values and toothless pronouncements into an authentically Jewish set of responsibilities and demands. This, I claimed, was what our tradition demanded of us.

Well, that discussion continues. In response to that article, I’ve been invited to participate in more than a few debates about whether, and how much, Jewish law, text and tradition demand action on the pressing environmental issues of the day, most notably global climate change. But this year, I want to make a different claim: not that Judaism is good for the earth, but that environmentalism is good for the Jews.

Here’s why. We’ve seen in the past few years that when authentic Jewish values are brought to bear on contemporary problems, the result is often a level of engagement, particularly among younger and less affiliated Jews, that is hard to find elsewhere. Think of the crowds of Jewish kids who show up at Darfur rallies (often led by the American Jewish World Service) or the many teenagers and college students working for tikkun olam, a term that has migrated from its obscure Lurianic kabbalistic roots to refer to any social action or social justice initiative. Or consider the hundreds of people who show up every year for Hazon’s Jewish Environmental Bike Ride, building a rich, vibrant community along the way.

These sorts of initiatives work at building Jewish identity and community for several reasons.

First, they make Judaism relevant in a way that is hard to match either with traditional education or watered-down engagement programming. They provide substance, rather than flash or dogma, to Jewish identity. Judaism really does have something to say, and demand, about environmentalism, poverty, human rights and access to justice, and focusing on such issues presents a Judaism that is appealing, serious and relevant.

On the one hand, contrast these substantive messages with what “unaffiliated” Jews hear from much of the Jewish establishment: “Yay, Israel! Boo, Holocaust! Yay, Jews! Boo, antisemitism!” I’m exaggerating somewhat, but not entirely. This lowest-common-denominator approach to Jewish engagement is basically ethnocentric cheerleading, and it falls on deaf ears for those not already invested in the Jewish idea. It will work for some, especially when (as in Birthright Israel) it’s backed up by a concrete lived experience. But serving more falafel at Hillel gatherings hardly conveys to students why Judaism might be worth further investigation.

And on the other hand, contrast Jewish engagement with environmental problems or social justice issues with traditional Jewish religious programming. You don’t have to believe that the Torah was written by God in order to be impressed by its demands to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Fulfilling Judaism’s demand to pursue social justice doesn’t depend on what you think of sex, sin or the Sabbath. Thus these kinds of initiatives have the capacity to unite religious and secular, Jewish youth and young adults of multi-faith families and highly traditional ones. Can we say as much about a typical Sunday school class?

In addition, environmental and social justice Jewish initiatives succeed at building community because they’re about something other than how great Judaism is. In place of a Jewish identity of rooting for our tribe against the other ones, Jewish environmental and social justice activism presents a Jewishness that is engaged with the wider world. Imagine if a college freshman saw, at her school’s activities fair, a Jewish presence that was devoted to issues she actually cared about, rather than yet more Israel advocacy and kosher food. Imagine if our community’s leaders took public stands for reducing carbon emissions, protecting biodiversity, and acting as responsible stewards of God’s creation. Like Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King, they would present an outward-turning Jewish face, one concerned with all of humanity. This is far better “marketing” for Judaism than the circular reasoning that Jews are great, so let’s do Jewish stuff together.

Finally, Jewish environmentalism and social justice activism build community that is durable and meaningful. Consider Hazon again. At their rides and conferences, environmental or food sustainability issues are the focus, but vibrant community is the result. Or, on a more “boutique” level, consider the Adamah program, which brings together a small group of young adults to work on an organic farm. Once again, environmental issues are the focus — some might even say the pretext — but tight-knit, long-term Jewish community is the result.

In short, Jewish environmentalism works because it presents a substantive, relevant Judaism that is not just about how great Jews are, and because it can be used to build intensive, meaningful community. Now, what are some steps that could be taken tachlis, in practical terms? Here are four examples:

First, synagogues, which are still the dominant Jewish institutions in most communities, should make environmental responsibility a top, public priority. Let’s end the nightmare of endless plastic plates and cups, and urge congregants to bring their own mugs and bowls instead. Let’s designate the best parking spaces in the lot for hybrid vehicles only. Let’s make our synagogues, especially in suburban areas, local headquarters for composting, farmer’s markets, community-supported agriculture projects (Hazon’s Tuv Ha’aretz program is a great place to start) and recycling of pesky, hard-to-recycle items like batteries. Imagine the image of Judaism this presents to young people: This is a community that cares about what you care about, and one that motivates people to act beyond their selfish interests.

Isn’t that what Judaism, secular or religious, is supposed to be about?

Second, large Jewish organizations should learn from the successes of programs like Hazon and Adamah, and replicate them a hundredfold. I wish we could have a Hazon program somewhere in America every single weekend of the year, instead of just once or twice. And what if a thousand young Jews could take part in a program like Adamah each year, instead of just a few dozen? Let’s face it: These programs are great, but they’re still only at the beginning stages of effectiveness. As resources begin to be devoted to a Birthright Next program for Birthright Israel alumni, I hope they won’t be used to reinvent the wheel. There are powerful immersion programs already in place; investing in what works will be money well spent.

Third, summer camps, which studies have shown are among the most effective ways to transmit Jewish identity, are natural places to take up Jewish environmentalism as a focus. The kids are already outside; why not use the peak experiences of “the crucible of summer camp” to connect Jewish values to nature? Unfortunately, many of our largest summer camps teach the opposite message, wasting food instead of composting it, burning through tons of plastic plates and utensils, and, when it comes to Jewish education, teaching a dry, text-based and disembodied Judaism that often has nothing to do with anything relevant to a teenager.

What a waste! Summer camps should teach environmental responsibility as a form of Jewish values. And they should use their natural surroundings to provide deep, spiritual experiences in nature. Advice to Jewish educators: I was a Jewish environmental educator for several years, and it’s a whole lot easier to give kids a real, meaningful Jewish experience in nature than in a classroom or synagogue.

Finally, now that there is actually a chance of political movement on the issue, communities of faith should be leading the campaign for meaningful action on climate change. If we care about God, then surely we ought not trash God’s creation. If we care about ethics, then surely we should leave our children a world that is habitable. And if we care about our religious tradition, then surely the injunctions to take care of the earth, to not waste, and to treat life as a precious gift demand that we stop indulging our basest, most selfish instincts at the expense of the earth’s climate.

This should not be a left/right political issue. On the contrary, within the Jewish community, it can unite liberals and conservatives who might otherwise not see eye to eye. Especially conservatives concerned about Israel: Global warming will seriously hurt the Jewish state, causing decreased agricultural productivity, increased drought and “severe weather events,” and destruction of valuable beach areas. The next time there’s an environmental rally, let’s not just send a lone rabbi or two; let’s send the AJC’s, the UJC’s; let’s show our fellow Jews and our fellow human beings that ours is a faith that cares about a planet in peril.

I know that there are still some people who believe environmentalism to be a kind of luxury item, or a boutique concern that liberals care about, perhaps like saving the whales. And there are others who believe that, while such issues may be important, they aren’t Jewishly important — and besides, we have to worry about demographics.

But these people need to wake up. If we’re serious about demographics, then we have to engage Jewishly with issues that matter — and studies show that young people view environmental problems (chiefly climate change) as among the most serious we face. And this is not some minor political-moral concern; we don’t know how bad it’s going to be, but it’s already pretty bad, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Yes, there are many items on our policy agendas. But as catastrophic as climate change could be to our planet, the struggle to combat it will help us build community, present a Jewishness that is relevant and alive, and make our institutions hubs of ethical activity. Going green is good for the Jews.

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